When Sol and Connie Blink move to Grand Creek, one of the first people to welcome them is an odd older woman, Fay Holaderry, and her friendly dog, Swift, who carries a very strange bone in his mouth. Sol knows a lot more than the average eleven-year-old, so when he identifies the bone as human, he and Connie begin to wonder if their new neighbor is up to no good.
In a spine-tingling adventure that makes them think twice about who they can trust, Sol and Connie discover that solving mysteries can be a dangerous game—even for skilled junior sleuths. ~publisher’s comments.
The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan, Illustrations by Yoko Tanaka
Henry Holt & Co., 2009. 192 pages (hardback)
The cover is fantastic isn’t it?! The creativity and humor continue into the story, I promise. Using one of the lesser re-imagined Grimm Fairytales, Keith McGowan proves a deft hand with a present day placement of Hansel und Gretel. McGowan even maintains the dark and sinister feel of Grimm. He would also add the absurdities that take an edge off and make the read ridiculously funny at times.
Between the title, the cover, and the premise, The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children is an easy sell to readers of Tales or no. The opening section, the witch’s journal entry, is a delicious ingredient in which to lure the reader and discourage them from leaving.
I love children. Eating them, that is. I’ve eaten quite a few children over the centuries. You may wonder where I get them all. The answer is: I get them the traditional way. From parents, of course. You’d be amazed how many parents have shown up at my hideaway with their children in tow. Or written to me on their best stationery, requesting that I take their children, “pretty please!” One group even rented a helicopter to find me and hand their children over. Daughters and sons they couldn’t stand one second longer. If only children knew . . .
Mr. Blink and the new Mrs. Blink are interested in getting rid of the children Solomon (Sol) and Constance (Connie) Blink and they have found just the way. As traditional characters in a story such as The Witch’s Guide they naturally use a “traditional way.” Fortunately, Sol is highly intelligent, inventive boy—if only he could feel less a failure, regain some of his confidence.
Much of the story is about being self-possessed. Being empowered to be intelligent and capable is important when encountering little old ladies who want to eat you. There is also a fair bit about the consequences of trickery (its utter foulness) and forgiveness.
The sibling dynamic is nice, and not so sweet as to be sappy. Connie (8) as the younger is appropriately obnoxious and brash; the older Solomon (11) is appropriately older and responsible. The adult figures are a well-mined source of humor. Macy Halford sums it up well in her review* for The New Yorker, “In general, the adults in this book are the perfect foils for the children (the wielders of a superior wisdom), as benignly absurd as adults are in real life.”
The author attempt some mystery within the Sol and Connie’s backstory; fairly easily guessed, but I appreciate that the story is hardly linear. The use of the flashback is perfect in building depth to the character and reminding the reader that there is a lot of history behind current events and the person/character one’s just met. This holds hands with the idea that appearances are hardly ever what they seem—a key ingredient to a Hansel/Gretel story.
A pleasant surprise in The Witch’s Guide shouldn’t be a surprise at all really. That the witch Fay Holaderry is perhaps the protagonist and Sol is the deuteragonist and Connie the tritagonist. Even as Fay is very very old, she is a changing and adapting character and warrants a personality that is wonderfully realized—or should I say terribly. The Witch’s Guide isn’t heavily cast, but those that feature are amusing; even the secondary characters, like the Librarian:
“All these days,” she said, “having to put up with you kids. You run around the library like it’s a playground. And you lose your library cards every other week!” […] “And with a whole library full of books, row after row after row, aisle after aisle, thousands of books, what do you want to read? Books based on TV programs! Unbelievable. What about the deeply moving book we bought last year that shows what life was like for a Berber girl during the Middle Ages? Did you look at that one? What about the terrific book we have for you kids about Gandhi and ahimsa? Do you care?”
“But I’m the one who asked you about ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Wuthering Heights,’ remember?” Connie shouted.
“Mmm, if you’d said ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Remembrance of Things Past,’…”
Oh, and the dog is adorable. J Swift might easily be N’s favorite character.
I think that I have become overly accustomed to lengthy sentences. And then there is my love of the comma and semicolon. It was an adjustment in reading the close clipped sentences in the writing. The fond use of the period and of fragments and fewer clauses had my eyes readjusting. Still, the sentences flew by, easily understood and menacing at turns.
The Witch’s Guide is a fun, creepy read with an ominous ending that necessitates a smile. This re-telling of Hansel und Gretel (replete with German words to learn) is delectable. 192-pages with illustrations it is a quick amusing find. Deliciously dark, it should be good for the heart, right? A nice treat that is easily consumed; the daughter read it this morning in an hour and she was smacking her lips after, utterly satisfied.**
McGowan has a gift for the Tale. This was a good debut for his entry into Juvenile Fiction. Any more to follow in the vein of fairytale and I look forward to the easy comparison to the likes of DiCamillo, Funke, or Gaiman. I’m for a touch more lyricism, a dash more ambience, but the wit couldn’t have been better, nor the imagination.
The illustrations: Yoko Tanaka illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s brilliant The Magician’s Elephant (Candlewick Press, 2009) and illustrates the fabulous Theodosia series by R.L. LaFevers (Houghton Mifflin) among other notable works. She continues in her radiance with The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children. She may be an illustrator with whom I allow myself to be lured into any book to which she puts a drawing.
Tanaka has a recognizable style. I really enjoy the soft lighting and shadow, deceptive composition that is quietly expressive. For all the muted, I love the lines in the drawings. Check out her website, she does lovely lovely work. Check out her illustrations for DiCamillo and LaFevers as well…
*The New Yorker’s review, “Put This in their Pumpkins” by Macy Halford.
** N reads a lot of fairytales, fables, myth…she is quite critical, I assure you.