by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Once in a while, during my children’s teenage years when I would set some kind of parental limit (you know, something like “It’s time for all the uninvited kids to go home from the ‘rager’ that started in our backyard while we grown-ups were out at the school fundraiser”), the epithet “You’re such a witch!” would get hurled at me.
Having teenagers tell you “you’re such a witch!” is definitely meant as a put-down, but is being a witch necessarily bad?
If I were a witch, I could channel the beatific goodness of Glinda the Good Witch of the South in The Wizard of Oz. I’d wear a beautiful gown and crown and, speaking in a high mellifluous voice, wave my wand and make everything in the world all right.
I’d clean up the mess made by those teenage partygoers, conjure a fleet of safe designated drivers, and instantly transport every kid back to wreak havoc in their own homes!
Or, if I were a bad witch, if necessary during a contentious meeting or difficult negotiation, I could use my witchy powers to strike terror in the hearts and minds of my audience like the Wicked Witch of the West did to me every year when The Wizard of Oz was rebroadcast on TV.
(I think another good deed of Glinda the Good Witch was helping young viewers of The Wizard of Oz on TV recover from the terrifying bat and flying monkey scene, which in those pre-streaming days gave millions of kids like me terrible nightmares every holiday season. Thinking about Glinda as an antidote to the Wicked Witch of the West was usually the only way I could fall asleep.)
If I were a good cool witch, I could rub my nose and make fun stuff happen like Samantha in Bewitched. There were a few seasons when my determination to actually become Samantha, along with my fascination with the entire Stephens family, took up a lot of my free time.
I tried to imitate how Elizabeth Montgomery wiggled her nose in front of a mirror. I added “Tabitha” as a second middle name and practiced writing “Judith Ann Tabitha Newman” over and over again in painstaking cursive. And I spent some time grappling with a dislocating feeling when Darrin, Samantha’s mortal (Muggle!) husband, was played first by one Dick (Dick York) and then by another Dick (Dick Sargent) when the original actor suffered a back injury and couldn’t perform anymore.
There are both good and bad witches in literature and popular culture—but being a witch is very different from getting accused of being one. And in real life, it’s almost always bad to be called a witch.
The Salem Witch Trials were firmly rooted in our Newton, Massachusetts, public middle school curriculum, and we took a class field trip to Salem, which included a visit to the Salem Witch Museum, followed by a reading of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
I remember this field trip and our classwork on the Salem Witch Trials as both traumatizing and a galvanizing source of indignation in my preteen academic and early political life. Definitely part of my new awareness was understanding that as much as I craved magical powers, I did not want to be accused of being a witch.
It turns out all kinds of witches—good, bad, televised, and falsely accused—played meaningful roles in my formative years. And so it is with that refreshed awareness that I am happy to announce that we are offering two iconic children’s books as our Scholastic Book Clubs Books of the Week: Room on the Broom, a picture book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler (of The Gruffalo fame), and The Witches, a beloved chapter book written by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake.
Room on the Broom and The Witches are usually for readers of different ages and reading levels—and we couldn’t decide which one to choose, so we’re offering both!
The witches in our Books of the Week are very different. Roald Dahl’s whimsical story about a mousy boy and his grandmother working together to get rid of witches was written in 1983 and has been read, taught, and shared with millions of readers around the world.
“The Witches is…the story of a little boy who loves his grandmother so utterly (and she him) that they are looking forward to spending their last few years exterminating the witches of the world together.” —The New York Times
Roald Dahl is a beloved—and sometimes controversial—storyteller. Back in the day, I had the opportunity to work directly with Roald Dahl. Here’s an audio recording of an interview we did with him in 1989.
I’ve also had the great fortune of working directly with Julia Donaldson. Every year, Julia and her husband, Malcolm, come to the US, and we have a wonderful dinner celebrating Julia’s new books, and Julia and Malcolm would invariably act out one of their books. (Last time, pre-pandemic, we watched an incredible performance of The Ugly Five). As we were working on Room on the Broom, memories of those dinners and Julia’s passion and unparalleled creative energy came flooding back.
“The use of full-page or even page-and-a-half spreads for many of the illustrations will ensure its successful use in story times as well as individual readings. The wart-nosed witch and her passengers make magic that is sure to please.” —Kirkus Reviews
Like The Witches, Room on the Broom is iconic. At the end, in a scene reminiscent to me of The Gruffalo, the creatures band together to scare off the horrible dragon. Julia Donaldson’s empathy for children is at the heart of her enormous global popularity, and Room on the Broom is a clear example of why.
My friend and colleague David Vozar approached this week’s witchy theme by imagining what he would do if he were turned into a mouse. (I think this is a great activity for kids to try! What would they do if they were turned into a mouse?)
I hope you’ll enjoy and use the resources we’ve developed to help you introduce The Witches and Room on the Broom to young readers.
• The Book Boys have vanished this week, but never fear: The Book Girls are here!
• Read the story behind the Books of the Week in Behind the Scenes in a student-shareable article by Alexie Basil and Alana Pedalino.
• Listen to two teachers in Book Talks discuss how to use The Witches and Room on the Broom in virtual learning environments.
• In Cooked Up from a Book, download two activity prompts you can incorporate into your curriculum.
No matter which witch book you choose this week, I hope you and your students are living in a place where people are making room on their brooms, helping each other out, and using their powers to do good in the world.
These Books Are Available from Scholastic Book Clubs