Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In the children’s home where Earwig and her friend Custard grew up, most of the children are excited and nervous when foster parents come through to pick which children they’ll take home. Not Earwig; she makes faces and tries hard not to be chosen. Why would she want to leave when everyone at the home does exactly what she wants them to? But one day, and ugly, wrinkly old woman and a tall, skinny man (whom Earwig could swear has horns) come through and, against all odds, decide to take Earwig home. Not home to a loving family, of course, but to be the witch’s assistant–the ugly woman being the witch, naturally, and a mean one as well. Earwig, not so easily discouraged, takes up the challenge to make this ornery, strange household do what she wants just like the people at the home did . . . and quite a challenge it’s going to be!
If you’ve been around my blog much at all, you’re well aware that Diana Wynne Jones is one of my absolute favorite authors. Earwig and the Witch was actually a new read for me, and quite the fun story it was as well. It’s a shorter story than most of hers, only 6 chapters, if I recall correctly (I’m not bothering to look right now), but told with all her usual aplomb. The plot is also a bit simpler, making this accessible to a younger (say upper elementary, perhaps?) audience. I think what struck me most about this story is that the main character is, in a sense, rather as awful and ornery as the witch herself–which is possibly why they fit so well together. But the way in which this clever, determined child finds ways to beat the stronger, better-positioned adults is oddly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s writing at times. I really loved it! Earwig and the Witch is a highly recommended read all around.
Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
My rating: 4 of 5
Retired Mr. Hoppy has held secret affections for his neighbor, widowed Mrs. Silver for years, but he’s too shy to tell her that. And Mrs. Silver is too caught up in her pet tortoise Alfie to take any notice of Mr. Hoppy. . . . That is, until one day when she mentions to Mr. Hoppy how very much she wished Alfie would grow bigger. Which gives Mr. Hoppy an idea. He sets out on a clever scheme to win the attention of Mrs. Silver using dozens of tortoises, a hint of deception, and a touch of magic.
Roald Dahl is such a classic children’s author, his books hardly need any introduction. Having said that, I didn’t discover Esio Trot until I was in college. It’s a cute illustrated short story about an elderly couple falling in love in a most unusual way. As a story, I did enjoy it very much: it was clever and sweet and cute. And of course, Dahl’s writing style is excellent as always, and Blake’s illustrations are the perfect complement. However, as I often find with Dahl’s books, there are morally ambiguous or questionable sections, things that would make me hesitate to read this to younger children. Mr. Hoppy wins Mrs. Silver’s love and gets his “happily ever after,” but he gets there by tricking Mrs. Silver. Personally, I would have trouble being in a relationship that began that way, trust being a huge thing in my book. Also, as a pet owner myself, I find it odd that Mrs. Silver could be so fond of Alfie and yet not notice when the pet she was fawning over was no longer actually Alfie at all . . . maybe it’s different with tortoises, but if my cats were traded in (even for other cats that looked absolutely identical), I would still know. And heaven help the person who took off with the real ones! Still, taken at face value, Esio Trot is a fun, funny children’s story–and hey, it might be a good discussion starter for your kids.
Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake
My rating: 5 of 5
Matilda is a bright, precocious child who early on finds herself at odds with the rest of her self-absorbed, crooked, money-grubbing family. As she grows, she finds herself in a quiet battle to keep from being crushed by these people who fail to recognize either her brilliance or her character. When she begins school, Matilda finally discovers someone who truly sees her in the person of her teacher, Miss Honey. But will Matilda and Miss Honey ever have a peaceful, happy life, or will their nemeses–Matilda’s parents and the school headmistress, Miss Trunchbull–continue to dominate their lives forever?
Matilda displays a darker side of Roald Dahl’s writing–one which I think is present in all of his books, but which is much more evident here. It shows the tragic contrast between what should be and what is. The Wormwoods (Matilda’s parents) and Miss Trunchbull are such exceedingly dark and repulsive people that you can’t help cheering Matilda on as she pits brains against power–and wins, repeatedly, with amusing results. I appreciate that Dahl doesn’t sugar-coat the story, down to the fact that Matilda herself is out for revenge at several points. (I rather think that too much of the blather children are fed is too sugar-coated and leaves them unprepared for life. Personal opinion.) I love that Miss Honey and Matilda are really a ray of hope for each other–each is exactly what the other needs, and in the end, they are able to choose each other. Matilda is a classic children’s story that everyone should read at least once (and probably more times than that) because, in spite of the darkness, it is a beautiful story.