Study Guide

The Witches

By Roald Dahl

The Witches Introduction

The Witches is about, well, witches. It's the story of a little boy who learns about witches from his grandmother, only to have a few unfortunate real-life run-ins with the creatures. Bottom line: witches hate children. And yes, we know that "hate" is a strong word.

Roald Dahl's witty children's book was published in 1983, nearly thirty years ago. Man, the World Wide Web (a.k.a. the Internet) didn't even exist back then. If it had, we guess the little boy in the story would have been able to read up on witches instead of taking his grandma's word for it. The year the book was published, it won three awards: The Whitbread Award, the Federation of Children's Book Groups Award in the UK, and the New York Times Outstanding Books Award in the US. It even won the title of Good-Enough-To-Be-Made-Into-A-Movie in 1990. On the other end of the spectrum, The Witches also drew a whole lot of a criticism. Scroll down to the "Why Should I Care?" section to read more about that.

The Witches isn't Roald Dahl's only winning book. While it certainly stands on its own, Shmoop definitely suggests reading his other children's books, too – if you do, you'll notice some similarities. There's a lot of child-hating (think The Twits and BFG), a lot of chocolate-eating (need we mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?), and a lot of magic (James and the Giant Peach, for one). Oh, and there's also a lot of violence – yeah, violence. Even though he wrote for and about kids, Roald Dahl didn't have a very PG-rated life, and it shows in his books.

Roald Dahl wrote very autobiographically, meaning he wrote a lot about his own experiences. For instance, he was born in Britain (Wales) to Norwegian parents, and spent his summers in Norway – sound familiar? Starting in 1939 (pop quiz: what big deal event was happening in the world then?), Roald Dahl was in the Royal Air Force, shooting down planes and once even surviving a crash himself. He was exposed to and involved in endless violence.

So why did he write for kids? Well, he didn't at the start. When he began writing in 1942, he wrote for adults, about his experiences in war. It was only after he had children of his own – five, to be precise – that he stepped into their world. Even in his children's books, though, he kept a taste of his adult life, violence and all.

Back to our book: If you liked The Witches, you almost certainly won't like The Witches. No, that's not a typo. What we mean is, if you liked the book, you probably won't like the movie. It has none of the charm of Roald Dahl's story, it's incredibly creepy, and the ending is really different. Just stick with the book. You won't regret it.

What is The Witches About and Why Should I Care?

Everyone seems to have an opinion about The Witches, so we think you should, too. You know when someone starts talking about the current economic crisis and you have to kind of look away and twiddle your thumbs because you have nothing worthwhile to add to the conversation? Well, Shmoop doesn't want you to find yourself in that same position when people start talking about The Witches, and talk they will.

In the 1990s, The Witches was number 22 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books (a list of a bunch of books that have been banned or almost banned). To give you some context, a book called Boys and Sex was number 61. We're just saying. The number 22 spot on the same list in the 2000s went to Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl series (source). If you haven't seen Blake Lively do her thing on the CW's TV adaption, let's just say Gossip Girl is filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and that's just the PC stuff. Unless we count an 86-year-old smoking a cigar, there doesn't seem to be any of that in The Witches.

Although some of the concerns that landed Roald Dahl's tale on that most-challenged list are justified (might this book make children think poorly of Wicca, a real religion?), here are some of the more... interesting reasons why parents and teachers tried to have this book banned:

  • In the book, "the children misbehave and take retribution on the adults and there's never, ever a consequence for their actions";
  • The Witches is "satanic" (that is, having to do with Satan);
  • And Shmoop's favorite, the book might "entice impressionable children into becoming involved in the occult."

Yikes. Shmoop was certainly not enticed into the occult by this book. Maybe we're just not impressionable enough? (You can read more complaints here, on pages 15-16.)

Despite all the criticism and challenges (what other issues might adult readers have had?), The Witches is still a popular children's book. Clearly, this is a love-it or hate-it kind of a situation, and, well, we love it. How about you?

The Witches Resources

Websites

The Witches on Facebook
34,108 people like The Witches on Facebook. Shmoop thinks that way more people like it in real life.

Roald Dahl: The Bomb Dot Com
Everything you could ever want to know about Roald Dahl, plus some fun games and tons of pictures.

You're a Good Man, Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl's children didn't all have wonderful lives and so he started a foundation to help seriously ill children. Nice guy.

A Museum for the Man
Field trip to England, anyone?

Quentin Blake
Everything you could ever want to know about our genius illustrator.

Roald Dahl on the BBC
Check out the British Broadcasting Corporations page on Dahl. Here you can read a bio and watch interviews with his family members on topics like Dahl's school years.

Movie or TV Productions

Spoiler Alert: This Movie is Terrible
At least it stars Anjelica Houston, who kind of looks like Quentin Blake's illustrations of The Grand High Witch (the pretty version, that is).

Historical Documents

Roald Dahl's Obituary
"I know what children like," he once said. Yes you do, Mr. Dahl.

Video

Trailer for The Witches
It's filled with early '90s effects, which may or may not give you nightmares.

The Meeting (a clip from the movie)
In case you have a high tolerance for bad costumes and really creepy cinematic endeavors.

How to Recognize a Witch
Roald Dahl tells some children how to tell a witch from a normal woman.

Audio

Audio Book Version of The Witches
Listen to the tale being read aloud in a lovely British accent. That way, you don't have to worry about the spelling. Click "Play Sample" below the image of the book cover to listen to a little bit.

An Interview with Roald Dahl
Click on "The Man" and then "Interview with Roald Dahl" to hear the author answer some fascinating questions.

Images

The Man Himself
He kind of has a childlike wonder in his eyes, don't you think?

A Still Shot from the Movie
Anjelica Houston as The Grand High Witch. Scary, much?

The Original Cover Art
Like she's conducting an orchestra...of child killers.