Tag Archives: the witches

However small, the chance was there

"Twice a day, on his way to and from school, little Charlie Bucket had to walk right past the gates of the factory. And every time he went by, he would begin to walk very, very slowly, and he would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him. Oh, how he loved that smell!"

After my last post, in which I talked about “practice in disappointment,” I had a note from a friend, whose daughters are young women now. She wrote that she, too, used to want to fix every little thing that went wrong in her girls’ lives. “To act on every emotional vent that they had about life, people, you name it. What they have taught me though, was that when I rushed in too quickly to help them up or to try and fix it for them (and I went to insane lengths to fix things looking back), it made them feel that I didn’t believe they could cope, that I didn’t have the confidence in their ability to get through it…. So I think I have finally learned to listen with a wrenching twist in my gut to their heartaches, encourage them, and rejoice with them when they get through a difficult time.”

I told her I would like to fold up that piece of wisdom and keep it in my pocket always.

And then late last night, after N had gone to bed, I found myself hovering over her piano homework, a picture that she was supposed to colour according to the musical notes placed on different parts of the image. C was orange, D was pink. But the pink she’d chosen looked almost exactly like the orange, and I was actually standing there considering going over it with a pinker pink! Because I knew she’d got it right — the cap was pinker than the lousy marker, but her teacher couldn’t know that. And so on, and so on. Of course, I stopped myself, and even laughed at myself for the impulse. But it’s a sign of this very issue — practice in disappointment — and I’m sure it will keep cropping up in different ways in the years to come.

This past week we’ve been reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which brims with disappointment for the first ten chapters. Charlie Bucket lives “in a small wooden house on the edge of a great town.” Stuffed into the place with him are his dad, who works in a toothpaste factory but soon loses his job; his mom; and his two sets of shriveled, skeletal grandparents, George and Georgina and Joe and Josephine, all in their nineties, and so given the only bed in the house. The J’s sleep at one end, and the G’s at the other, while Mr and Mrs Bucket and little Charlie sleep on the floor. They live on boiled potatoes and cabbage, and on Sundays they each get a second helping. “The Buckets, of course, didn’t starve, but every one of them … went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.”

The eyebrows, the hair brush, and the raised pinkie: signs of wealth?

Even before we started Charlie, N was mulling rich and poor. She often asks if Selena Gomez, JK Rowling, or her own school principal are rich. Was Judy Garland? Was Charles Dickens? Sometimes at night she announces that, the next day, she’s not going to eat a speck of food, “Just to feel what it feels like to have nothing in my tummy.” But by morning, when the toast or the cereal or the yoghurt-with-a-swirl-of-honey appears before her, she seems to have forgotten, or at least pushed the curiosity aside for another day.

I can tell she’s impressed by Charlie, who refuses a share of his mother’s portion of food when she offers, and who tries to share his birthday chocolate bar (the only one he gets for the whole year) with the other members of his family. The largest and most fantastic chocolate factory in the world stands within sight of Charlie’s rickety little house, but for a long while its owner, genius Willy Wonka, ceased operations because other chocolate makers were stealing his wonderful ideas. Now, he’s offering a tour of his factory to a select few: the five lucky children who happen upon chocolate bars that contain a golden ticket.

Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka terrified me as a child. I was very confused about whether or not I was supposed to like him. I haven't seen Johnny Depp's performance, but it would fun to compare the two movies.

N has known this story for some time. She saw the 1971 movie when she was little (Dahl despised the film, apparently, and refused to give over rights to the book’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator), and we’ve been listening to the abridged audio version over Christmas, featuring Dahl himself with his delicious accent. But I often wonder, remembering the way she cursed JK  (“I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head!”), how she would have responded to the book without knowing what’s to come.  I suspect it would have infuriated her to see gluttonous Augustus Gloop, spoiled rotten Veruca Salt, gum-smacking Violet Beauregarde, and TV-addicted Mike Teavee winning golden tickets while poor Charlie shrinks to skin and bone without an ounce of self-pity. In the first 45 pages, a few chocolate bars miraculously come his way, and he can’t help but think that “however small the chance might be of striking lucky, the chance was there.” I admire Dahl’s restraint here, making us peel open the bars time and again, only to find nothing but chocolate inside.

But, of course, Charlie does find a golden ticket, and he and Grandpa Joe go off to tour the factory with the four rotten children and their parents. There was a sixth rotten child in Dahl’s early drafts — Miranda Piker, who Dahl described as “a horrid little girl who was disgustingly rude to her parents and also thoroughly disobedient,” but apparently her death in the Spotty Powder room was considered too grim for young readers. Dahl loved to go almost too far. The loathsome giants of The BFG actually eat children; and the witches of The Witches actually do snatch children and cause them to disappear forever. And in The Magic Finger, a girl puts a curse on her cruel teacher, which causes her to grow whiskers and a bushy tail. “If any of you are wondering whether Mrs. Winter is quite all right again now,” Dahl writes, “the answer is No. And she never will be.”

More of Dahl’s children’s books to come in the next while, by the way. We have a new goal in mind: we’re going to try to read all of them.


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What the witch left for me

Margaret Hamilton, witchiest witch of all, was a kindergarten teacher, a Sunday school teacher, and a tireless advocate for children's education

We were talking about witches one day — the wonderful Margaret Hamilton from the Wizard of Oz movie; the creepy toeless witches of Roald Dahl’s The Witches — when I suddenly remembered a book I had loved as a child. It was called What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew, and I was probably eight or so when I read it, just a little older than N. In my mind I could see the flare of a mysterious orange robe on the deep blue cover, and the two girls holding the robe and wondering at its magic. I zipped up to the computer and looked for the book online — out of print, sadly (words that twist in my novelist gut). I ordered a second-hand copy for N and waited for the surprise to arrive.

What the Witch Left, written in 1973, tells the story of Katy and her friend Louise, who discover a dresser drawer full of seemingly ordinary objects kept in storage for a grandmother’s family friend. There’s a robe, a little mirror, a pair of boots, and a pair of gloves. But soon Katy and Louise realize the objects are not ordinary at all — they are infused with magic. The gloves (they each put one on) disappear when pulled over each girl’s hand. Wearing  them, Katy and Louise excel at their school writing exercises; they play piano and draw masterfully. And the vibrant robe, once donned, makes them and itself invisible. When they each put on a boot, they realize they’re able to travel vast distances with every step. The little mirror fogs and then clears, showing them anything they wish to see.

Just one of many witch books by Ruth Chew

Ruth Chew, it turns out, wrote a number of witch books. She died just last year, at the ripe age of 90. According to the bio on her site, “As a child she was determined to be an artist and drew constantly. She believed that the only reason she passed high school biology was because of the drawings she made of the specimens.” Years later, as a mom of five children, Chew tried  her hand at illustrating books. But when work was slow to come, she decided to write her own book, mainly so that she could illustrate it. This first witch, The Wednesday Witch, traveled not on a broomstick, but on a canister vacuum cleaner like the one Chew used at home. I suspect that little detail delighted her children.

N enjoyed What the Witch Left. But I can’t say it affected her the way it did me. It’s funny how much we invest in our own childhood experiences, and how completely we want to convey them to our children. I wanted not just to give the book to N, but to give her my take on it too, so that she could feel what I felt when she read it. But of course it doesn’t work that way, nor should it.

Chatting about this blog with my editor the other day, she began reminiscing about books she’d read as a girl, and I saw how her whole expression changed with the memory. Which just underscored for me how books can sometimes be worlds we enter, and if we’re lucky we retain the memory of traveling there. What will N’s favourites be when she looks back on her years of childhood reading? Impossible to say just now. And entirely for her to decide.









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