Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes; illustrated by Edward Adizzone (1960)

An ad hoc squint at  The Witch Family may leave you with a just impression that this novel lacked some of her subtle wit and narrative expertise; its definitely an episodic plot, and the characters never quite come to life like the Pye family. But I definitely appreciate what she is attempting to do here.  There is a strange meta-story going on here, in which two little girls (Amy and Clarissa) are telling each other (including crayon drawings) the story of two witches (Old Witch and the Little Witch), who then may (or may not) come to life.  By the end, you aren't so sure.  I may be grasping at literary straws here (I will never claim to be any sort of expert at deep reading and literary criticism) but that sounds like metafiction to me - one of the spells of postmodernism.  So maybe The Witch Family may be more of exercise in children's fiction, and taken from that vantage point, it's quite interesting.  I don't think a whole lot of children's literature from that time period or before was doing anything like that.

The shades of postmodern writing isn't the only interesting (or strange) thing about The Witch Family.  There are these occasional macabre hints of a world that's cracked a bit.  The scene when the old witch is compelled to brush the little witch's hair is creepy - and not in a delicious way.  It's odd and goose-bumpy.  Another scene, this one brushing into the horror genre, is when the little witch meets the (little) mermaid; the little witch is ready to leave, and the little mermaid does what sirens throughout history have done:  starts to sing a song of enticement, to keep the little witch with her - the subtext being forever.  She doesn't succeed (the spelling bee, another odd character, warns her) and the little mermaid goes back to being friendly - but I was stuck with the idea from then on that the mermaid wasn't quite so benign.  Perhaps she was only doing what mermaids do, but still...

An odd book, not quite likable, but admirable.  I'm remaining ambivalent about the works of Eleanor Estes ; I love her Pye books, thought The Hundred Dresses was moving, hated the Moffats (I've tried them three times).  The Witch Family, chronologically, falls somewhere in the middle of the life of her writing and works.  What I'm not ambivalent about is her talent though; she was an adventurous and daring writer, who never pandered to a children.

I can't leave The Witch Family behind without at least some comment on Edward Ardizzone's superb pen and ink drawings.  To me, his illustrations are the epitome of sixties and seventies illustrations for children's novels.  They, like Estes, never pander to children; they aren't cutesy.  They remind me of Alton Raible's illustrations for Zilpha Keatley Snyder, or the non-wacky original Joseph Schindelman illustrations for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or E.L. Konigsburg's own illustrations for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I appreciated the unique narrative of The Witch Family rather than liking it; I loved the illustrations.  As I write this, Halloween is only a few days away, and these illustrations are perfect for the holiday.

The Witch FamilyThe Witch Family by Eleanor Estes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admired this book much more than I liked it. An ad hoc squint is going to reveal a sort of treacly, episodic book that quite frankly lacks the narrative strength and subtle wit of a book like Pinky Pye. But on deeper reflection, I think Eleanor Estes is experimenting with plot here; there is a story within a story, one of the thumbprints of postmodern writing; I'm not sure that was happening in very many children's novels in 1960. She's playing around with characters too; the "friendly" mermaid who croons a siren's song before becoming friendly again flirts with the horror genre; so does the Old Witch's compulsion to brush her new little charge's hair (that was creepy in a goose-bumpy sort of way). I admire Estes for trying on a different writer's hat here, even if she wasn't completely successful. Success, however, belongs to the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone. They are quintessential 60s illustrations for children's novels, and set the every scene perfectly. What's truly admirable about both Estes and Ardizzone is the lack of pandering: at no point does Estes "write down" or Ardizzone "draw down" to their child readers. It is exactly the opposite; the writing and art found within this book is quite sophisticated.

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