Halloween Book Review: Friendly Witches and Scary Dragons

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Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler

Room on the Broom has become something of a Halloween staple. It’s even been turned into a rather good cartoon.

It’s a wonderful story about a witch who keeps dropping things and finding woodland creatures who help her find them again. Each creature asks to join the witch on her broom and she happily agrees. Unfortunately, the broom can’t handle that much weight. A large dragon who like to eat witches attacks the overloaded broom, causing it to snap and allowing the dragon to catch the witch! But, fear not! The woodland creatures come to the rescue by scaring away the horrid dragon!

I love this story…BUT….it’s important to note that the which is very nearly eaten by a dragon, the illustrations show her being lifted into the dragon’s jaws, and the whole event is drawn out far longer than similar events in other children’s books.

The way the story is told proved to be extremely scary for some of the children in my life, and that made them dislike the book long-term.

I recommend previewing this book before reading it to your child. If it looks like something that they will find exceptionally scary, then wait a year or two before adding it to your Halloween-reading collection.

A quote can be found HERE.

All of the Halloween themed books, quotes and commentary posted to this blog can be found HERE.

Suggestions for Building Excitement Over The Holidays

Ordering Books: Whether you are building a family library or simply looking for a fun way to build-up to the Halloween celebration, having brand new books shipped to your home, in your child’s name, is a great way to do it. To a child, it is super exciting to receive a package in the mail, addressed to them! They may even want to read their brand-new book immediately AND before bed.

Library Holds: If you’d prefer to review the books before buying them, or need to maintain a tight budget, then use the local library. Go to the library website, locate the book and place it on hold. When the notification arrives, bring the child along and let them help find the books in the on-hold shelves.

The Bright Side

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Later, after they had cleared as much brown goo out of the cottage as they could, Aunt Zelda surveyed the damage, determined to look on the bright side. “It’s really not so bad,” she said. “The books are fine—well, at least they will be when they’ve all dried out and I can redo the potions. Most of them were coming up to their drink-by date anyway. And the really important ones are in the Safe. The Brownies didn’t eat all the chairs like last time, and they didn’t even poo on the table. So, all in all, it could have been worse. Much worse.

Septimus Heap, Book One: Magyk by Angie Sage

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Definition of a Witch

The word witch has many meanings in the United States, some good and some bad. The historic usage as a slur for people who practice earth-based religions or anyone practicing herbal medicine or midwifery, has resulted in unfortunate misunderstandings and excuses for senseless violence. For more information about the Pagan community and it’s use of the term ‘Witch’ see: Witches’ Vox, Starhawk, and History of Witch Burnings.

The following quote describes a very specific cultural perspective based on a definition that falls under the ‘bad witch’ category. It is not a reference to modern Paganism or the US history of witch burnings. It’s also a quote from a novel – only members of the Navajo nation could say, definitely, how accurate this information really is.

I went back and forth on these quotes and ultimately decided to post them because they are a wonderful example of the style used by this author and an excellent segment of descriptive color in a work of fiction. Also, I do not see anything racially or culturally offensive in the quote.

If there are problems in the presentation of the Navajo culture or additional issues surrounding the use of the word witch, then they are valid concerns and worthy of further discussion. If I am blind to a problem, I invite you to open my eyes. Feel free to add comments accordingly.

Quotes:

“And finally Chee had accumulated a general impression of Windy Tsossie. It was a negative impression. His kinsmen and his clansmen, when they admitted remembering him at all, remembered him without fondness or respect. They talked of him reluctantly, vaguely, uneasily. No one put it in words. Since Chee was Navajo, no one needed to. Windy Tsossie did not “go in beauty.” Windy Tsossie was not a good man. He did not follow those rules which Changing Woman had given the People. In a word, Windy Tsossie was believed by his kinsmen to be a witch.”

“To become a witch, to cross over from Navajo to Navajo Wolf, you have to break at least one of the most serious taboos. You have to commit incest, or you have to kill a close relative. But there’s another story, very old, pretty much lost, which explains how First Man became a witch. Because he was first, he didn’t have relatives to destroy. So he figured out a magic way to violate the strongest taboo of all. He destroyed himself and recreated himself, and that’s the way he got the powers of evil.”

People of Darkness (Navajo Mysteries Book 4) by Tony Hillerman

Wild Boys, Witches and Roast Squirrel

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Sarah visited the boys every day, and although at first she was worried about them being out on their own in the Forest, she was impressed by the network of igloos they built and noticed that some of the younger Wendron Witches had taken to dropping by with small offerings of food and drink. Soon it became rare for Sarah to find her boys without at least two or three young witches helping them cook a meal or just sitting around the campfire laughing and telling jokes. It surprised Sarah just how much fending for themselves had changed the boys—they all suddenly seemed so grown up, even the youngest, Jo-Jo, who was still only thirteen. After a while Sarah began to feel a bit of an interloper in their camp, but she persisted in visiting them every day, partly to keep an eye on them and partly because she had developed quite a taste for roast squirrel.

Septimus Heap, Book One: Magyk by Angie Sage

The After-Dragon Princess

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I’ll be perfectly honest, there were several points when I seriously considered putting this book down and walking away.

Inconsistencies and Plot Fails

There were a few moderate inconsistencies. For example, the main character breaks her ankle and tells her father to leave her by the window of her room because she can’t walk to the docks to see him off – and then (in the next sentence) she’s hugging him goodby on the dock. There were a few others involving objects that did not belong, for example: how did the nursemaid/nannies cloak get in the dragon’s cave?

The most glaring error was the knowledge held by Rosie’s best friend. Kit (the best friend) witnesses a rather horrific ‘cure’ for the ‘devil’s mark’ on Rosie’s hand. With a dragon’s claw for a finger, Rosie is unable to marry a prince and become queen (we’ll come back to this primary plot twist), so her mother arranges a visit with a local witch who performs medieval surgery on Rosie’s hand. Kit assists with the ‘cure,’ which doesn’t work. Later, Rosie rescues Kit from the evil witch and takes the girl on as a servant, thereby making her one and only same-aged friend – who knows nothing about the claw. How does a teenager assist with surgery and not know about the item being ‘cured?’

Women

The thing that made me seriously consider giving up on this book was the romance-novel find-a-man plot. I found myself of two battling minds. On the one hand, the culture of find-a-man-or-else is historically accurate. the characters are direct descendants of the Pendragon family whose lives were prophesied by Merlin himself. Removing the pressure placed on a princess to marry into another kingdom for political reasons would not be true to the historic setting. On the other hand, dragons exist and this kingdom has been banished to a tiny island not covered in any actual historic (or literary) text. So, this is neither a historic romance nor an alternate-history novel. It’s just a fantasy novel building off of the legends of Merlin.

More aggravating than the outside pressures were the internal ones. Rosie is fully wrapped up in finding love, landing a man, removing her curse so that she can marry well and struggling with her love-at-first-sight feelings (for a lower-born prince). There are dragons attacking the kingdom and eating people she knows well and holds dear (right in front of her) and the primary internal dialog highlighted is the whole one-day-my-prince-will-come Hollywood-esque drivel.

The witch is a particularly wicked person who is burned to death by a mob of villagers for a crime she did not commit (a respected member of the castle/royal court gets away with murder, literally, multiple times – and is never brought to justice). She is the local practitioner of ancient healing arts that everyone goes to when their Christian-approved methods do not work. Again, this is historically accurate – except for the woman’s personality. Her character is so nasty that the burning is something of a party. There are many (MANY) aspects to this particular plot twist that deserve commentary…but I will leave that to another person.

Dragons

The book convinced me to continue to the end when the dragons swooped down, plucked the princess (literally) out of her medieval court and dropped her into a dragon’s cave. The father dragon turns her into a servant, helping him raise his newly hatched dragons after the death of his mate (killed by the lower-born love-interest prince).

The novel transforms into something completely different the moment the princess leaves the castle. The before-dragons princess is the soft waiting-for-my-prince beauty and the after-dragons princess is a tough, survivor and negotiator capable of making hard decisions in the interest of her kingdom.

Rosie’s time in the dragon cave also brings in some very interesting dragon-perspectives on history and humans that is never fully explored. Sigh. In my opinion, the dragons, their perspectives and the transforming affect on the princess are the most important and interesting aspects of this novel. I reached the end wishing the author had cut the before-dragons section down to 1/3 (or less) of it’s current length and spent significantly more time delving into the dragons and their world.

Tweens

The target audience for this book are middle-graders or tweens.  The text presents multiple opportunities for discussions of history, women, perspectives on alternative medicines/religions, relationships, witch burnings (lynchings), etc.

I do not feel comfortable giving a blanket recommendation on this text. Some tweens are more capable of reading this sort of novel than others. My fear is that some girls will be drawn in by the whole my-prince-will-come thing, without seeing all of the complications surrounding that culture and mindset.

Ultimately, this is one of those moments when parents and guardians have to stop and think – is this book good for my kid?

Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey

Not Good, Not Nice, Just Right

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Last Midnight

“You’re so nice.
You’re not good, you’re not bad,
You’re just nice.
I’m not good, I’m not nice,
I’m just right.
I’m the witch.
You’re the world.
I’m the hitch, I’m what no one believes.
I’m the witch.”

Into The Woods, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine

A Truly Magnifient Broom

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Then she filled up her cauldron and said with a grin, “Find something, everyone. Throw something in!” …They threw them all in and the witch stirred them well, and while she was stirring, she muttered a spell. “Iggety, ziggety, zagety, ZOOM!” Then out rose…A truly Magnificent Broom!

Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler

Different Is Fun

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My granny’s kind of different. That’s how it’s meant to be. I love my granny as she is and know that she loves me!

Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble, written by Tracey Corderoy and illustrated by Joe Berger.

Catwoman was a Russian Night Witch

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“The Nazis called them “Night Witches” because the whooshing noise their plywood and canvas airplanes made reminded the Germans of the sound of a witch’s broomstick. The Russian women who piloted those planes, one-time crop dusters, took it as a compliment.”

“Any German pilot who downed a “witch” was awarded an Iron Cross.”

The pilots’ skill prompted the Germans to spread rumors that the Russian women were given special injections and pills to “give us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” Ms. Popova told Mr. Axell. “This, of course, was nonsense.”” [Emphasis mine]

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“I sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes,” Ms. Popova said in 2010. “I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’ ”

Interviews with Ms. Popova appear in Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941 and Flying for Her Country: The American and Soviet Women Military Pilots of World War II.

Nadezhda Popova, WWII ‘Night Witch,’ Dies at 91, The New York Times, By DOUGLAS MARTIN