Friday, October 22, 2010

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Great Reads for Girls book selection for October was Roald Dahl's classic The Witches. It tells the scary, funny and imaginative tale of a seven-year-old boy who has a run-in with some real-life witches! In fairy tales witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They wear wigs to cover their bald heads and pointy shoes to hide their square feet. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. That is why they are so hard to catch. Witches, as our hero learns, hate children and turn them into mice. With the help of a friend and his somewhat-magical grandmother, our hero tries to expose the witches before they dispose of him.

Roald Dahl was born on September 13, 1916 in Landaff, Wales to Norwegian parents.  His father, Harald, and his older sister, Astri, died when Roald was only three years old.  His mother, Sofie, was left to raise two stepchildren and her own four children.  Roald was her only son.  He remembered his mom as "a rock, a real rock, always on your side no matter what you had done. It gave me the most tremendous sense of security."  Roald based the character of the grandmother in The Witches on his own mother - it was his tribute to her.

 The young Roald loved stories and books.  His mother told him stories about trolls and other mythical Norwegian creatures.  As he grew older he loved adventure stories and eventually came to enjoy Dickens, Thackery and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce.

Roald kept a secret diary from the age of eight.  He went to great lengths to keep it hidden from his sisters.

Roald attended the Landaff Cathedral School as a young boy.  His chief memories of the time were trips to the sweet shop.  The seeds of his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were being sown as he and his friends would linger outside the shop window gazing at the big glass jars of sweets.  Sherbet suckers were one of his favorites.

He later went to St Peter's boarding prep school where he suffered from acute homesickness.  Consequently he became in the habit of writing his mother at least one letter per week.  He continued to do so until her death 32 years later.  Later when his own children attended boarding school he wrote to them twice a week to help brighten their day.

When Roald was thirteen he attended Repton, a famous day school in Derbyshire.  He excelled at sports, especially boxing and squash.  His English master deemed him "quite incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper." Roald's childhood and school days are the subject of his autobiography Boy.

In 1943 Roald's first published book was The Gremlins which was a picture book and later bought by Disney to be turned into a movie.  For the next 15 years he wrote for adults.  After that he became a beloved and favorite author of children's books.  He said he was more pleased with his children's books than with the stories he wrote for adults.  "Children's books are harder to write. It's tougher to keep a child interested because a child doesn't have the concentration of an adult. The child knows the television is in the next room. It's tough to hold a child, but it's a lovely thing to try to do."  In 1961 he published James and the Giant Peach and that was followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Those were followed by more bestsellers such as The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World, The Twits, The Witches, Boy and Going SoloSales of his book Matilda broke all previous records for a work of children's fiction with UK sales of over half a million paperbacks in six months. His work has been translated into 34 languages.

Roald was the father of five children.  He admits that he could have not written children's books without them.

Roald Dahl died on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74.  His birthday of September 13 is celebrated every year as "Roald Dahl Day" in several different countries. 

Roald Dahl was a great believer in the importance of reading.  "I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers," he once said, "to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage."

Trivia Questions for The Witches Book Discussion

What is the name of the hero of the story?
We never find out.

What happened to the hero’s parents?
They died in a car accident.

What are the six characteristics of a witch?
Blue spit
No hair
No toes
Hate children
Large nostril holes

What is the official title of the Head of All Witches?
Grand High Witch

What is the Grand High Witch’s secret plan called?
Formula 86

Where is the Grand High Witch’s secret castle?

What’s the name of the greedy boy that the main character befriends in the story?

What does the first witch try to offer our hero?
A Snake

Why does the summer trip to Norway get cancelled?
Grandmother gets pneumonia.

What were the names of the main character’s pet mice?

William and Mary

How does the main character get the Mouse Maker formula to the witches?
He puts it into their soup.

Discussion Questions for The Witches

Did you like the book?  Did you think it was funny?  Scary?  Weird?

Could you relate to anything in the story, or do you like to read things that are totally different from your life?

What is a stereotype?

What is our stereotype for a witch?

How were the witches in this book different?  What are their most notable features?

Were the witches in this book scarier than or not as scary as traditional witches?    Why do you think the author decided to make them different?

What did you think when he wrote that for all you know you might have witches around you right now in your neighborhood, your teacher, etc.  Did you think twice about someone you know?

What other witch stories have you heard? 

Do you think there really are witches?

Why are all the witches rich?

What is our stereotype for grandmothers?

How is the grandmother in this book different?

Did you like the grandmother?

What did you think about the grandmother telling the boy all these scary stories about witches?  Was this mean or was she doing it so that he would be prepared? 

What if she hadn’t told him anything?  What would have happened?

Would you have believed the stories like he did if your grandma would have told them to you?

How do you think the grandmother lost her thumb?

Does the boy have a name?  Why do you think Roald Dahl did not give the boy name?

What is a motto? 

What was the witches’ motto?  (Page 8)

One child a week is fifty two a year.
Squish them and squiggle them and make them disappear.

What were some of the spells put on children at the beginning of the book?

Ranghild-vanished              Solveg-appeared in a picture             Birgit- became a chicken
Harald-turned into stone     Leif-became a porpoise

What do you think would be an interesting fate for a child caught in a witch’s spell?

In chapter four the boy has his first encounter with a witch.  He said, “That was my first witch.  But it wasn’t my last.”  What do you think your thought and feelings or reaction would be if you met a witch?   If you wrote about it in your diary what would you write?

What did the grandmother and boy plan to do for the summer?

What happened that changed their plans?

Why was pneumonia so dangerous for the grandmother? 

Who was Mrs Spring?

What did the doctor suggest they do for their holiday?  Did they do what he suggested?

Did the grandmother follow all of the doctor’s advice?

Have you ever been on a vacation with your grandmother before?

What did the grandmother give to the boy as a gift?

How did the grandmother convince Mr Stringer to let the mice stay at the hotel?

Why did the boy go to the ballroom?

What happened when he was in there?

What would have done in his situation?

What did you think of the Grand High Witch?

Do you think the Grand High Witch looks like a traditional witch when she is not disguised?

Did you think it was hard to read what she was saying?

What horrible things do you think the Grand High Witch did in her life to become the Grand High Witch?

If you could make a magic potion what would you want it to do?  What would you put in it?

When the Boy is turned into a mouse, he tells us that while he should feel sad about it, he sees the advantages.  “Boys have to go to school.  Mice don’t.”  What are some of the advantages of being a mouse?  What would be the disadvantages of being a mouse?

If you had the choice to be a mouse for just one day to see what it is like, would you do it?  What would you want to do as a mouse?

Did you think it was weird that the boy didn’t mind being a mouse?

Do you think he was thinking clearly when he said he didn’t mind having a shorter lifespan?

Do you think there should have been an anecdote?  Were you surprised the he didn’t turn back into a boy?

He seemed to have the attitude that “it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.”  Do you agree with that?  Does it also apply to the witches?

Did you like Bruno?  What do you think happened to him?  Why weren’t the grandmother and the boy worried about him?  Why did they leave him?

How would your life be different if there really were witches going around turning children in to mice?

If that were the case, what would you say to warn other children who do not know about the witches?

Can you imagine what the headlines in the newspaper would be like if children everywhere were being turned into mice? 

What did you think about their plan to get rid the world of witches?

What did you think of the ending?  Do you think there needed to be another chapter or were you happy with the way it was?

If you wrote another chapter –
     How did the mouse and the grandmother get into the castle?
     Did they succeed at getting rid of the witches?
     Did anything disastrous happen to them?
     What was the final showdown like?

To read more about Roald Dahl and see a list of all of his books you can visit his website here.


  1. I am doing a book project on "George's Marvelous Medicine" :D

  2. It is amazing to know people read books and it is lovely to know that you are doing a project on "George's Marvelous Medicine". The book (George's Marvelous Medicine) is beautiful and it is a little emotional.
    I hope you publish the project.

  3. I'm reading the witches its wonderful.