Category Archives: Middle Grade Novels

Review of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”

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As a child, I loved Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I loved how those witches thought children smelled like dogs’ droppings. That was my favorite part of the story when I was a kid, and as an adult, it is the main reason I still like this book. After rereading it as an adult, though, I have found many problems with The Witches. I’d like to share both these problems and some of the ways I think the story could have been better.

All of the characters in The Witches should have been better developed. The boy definitely should have been. His inadequacies as a character were at their peek when he turned into a mouse. After this happened, he mentioned several reasons why being a mouse is better than being a human boy. Two of those reasons were not having to go to school anymore and not having to grow up and fight in a war, but as a boy, he never mentioned disliking either of those. The reasons he gave for liking being a mouse should have had to do with reasons he disliked being a human, reasons which were know to the reader.

Even though the boy’s parents died early on in the story, they should have been better developed characters, too. If they had had more time in the story before their untimely death in a car accident, Roald Dahl would have been able to develop them as good parents, something very rare in his books. If Roald Dahl really couldn’t have done this, they at least should have died when the boy was a baby, just like Sophie’s parents in The BFG.

The boy’s grandmother is probably the most interesting character in the story, but she, too, should have been better developed. This could have been accomplished by going into more detail on witch-o-philes, and maybe even having additional witch-o-phile characters in the story. This could have allowed some of the witches to be better developed characters, too, and more witch-o-phile characters would have solved other problems.

Additional witch-o-phile characters could have solved problems like the grandmother being the only good grown-up character in the book, magic existing, but hardly being explained, and the end of the book being way too dark. It’s kind of scary how at the end, the boy remains a mouse, meaning he’ll only live for about nine more years. He’s seven, so that would be like a sixteen-year-old dying! Not only that, but he’s glad he won’t outlive his grandma! The reason he gives is that he wouldn’t want anyone else looking after him as a mouse, and frankly, I don’t blame him. Why should he want anyone else taking care of him, especially in his mouse form, when he doesn’t know any other good grown-ups who understand what he’s been through? This wouldn’t have been the case if there were additional witch-o-philes, and they could have helped the boy and his grandma do away with the rest of those witches.

As understandable as the boy’s feelings are, however, having a child know he’s basically going to die when he’s a teenager, as well as him not wanting to outlive his grandmother, is way too dark for a seemingly light-hearted children’s book. There are other aspects of this book that I think are too dark, such as children being destroyed by witches, but this ending is by far the darkest and most problematic. If there were additional witch-o-phile characters in this book, and if they could do magic, they could have worked hard to turn the mouse back into a boy, and one of them could have agreed to adopt him after his grandma dies. That would have made this ending much less dark, and it would have given Roald Dahl an opportunity to better explain the magic in this story.

In conclusion, I see many problems with the witches, but the things I like about the book keep me coming back and thinking about how it could have been better.  I am hoping to further analyze both this book and other personal classics of mine in the future.

Review of Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making”

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The first time I read Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, I loved it. I loved it when September first met A-L, the Wyverary, when she was bathed by the soap golem, when September, Saturday, and A-L met Calpurnia and Penny Farthing and rode the Velocipedes, when September met the Tsukumogami (100-year-old objects), and the end, when the Marquess revealed her story and September returned home.

The second time I read it, I still liked those parts. I also felt, though, that the book dragged in places, especially when it was describing a place in great detail. Sometimes I even felt I would need a break from fantasy after rereading it, but now, after reading it a second time, I want to read its sequel!

I think I know why I felt it dragged in places, though. When I first read the book, it was new and exciting. I loved every minute of it. It wasn’t until I reread it that I found it dragged in places and I sometimes got tired of reading the chapters that weren’t my favorites. For this reason, I think this book is wonderful for anybody reading it the first time. The second time it can be a little tedious, since everything in it is complicated. Almost every chapter presents the reader with new information, which can make the story very confusing, even for someone who has read it before. It is hard to remember all that information! The first time, this confusion was wonderful and entertaining; the second time, it got tedious at times. This is why I think if the children reading this book are anything like me, they will love it the first time, but it might not become their favorite that they read again and again. Not every book can be that way for everybody.

At first I thought this book was similar to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, since both are about an ordinary child exploring a fantasy world. Now that I’ve read it a second time, though, I can see that it’s more like Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, since for both of those books, the fantasy world has its own abnormal events going on that the protagonist gets involved with. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is mostly just exploring the everyday events of Wonderland. I haven’t read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz; I have only seen the movie (and what American hasn’t?). Please don’t give anything away about the book; I will read it. My guess is that it is similar to The Phantom Tollbooth and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, in that the protagonist is pulled into the unusual events going on in the fantasy world. I will read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and find out.

 

Review of Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Night Fairy

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I love fantasy, and my favorite fantasy creatures by far are fairies. That’s why when I saw The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz at the library, I immediately checked it out and read it. There were parts of it I really enjoyed, but after reading the first few pages, I found that, like several other children’s fantasy novels I’ve read, this book does not take the time to develop its characters or concepts.

Flory (the title character), Skuggle the squirrel, the hummingbird, the spider, and Peregrine the bat all should have been better developed characters. When I read the part at the beginning about Flory loosing her wings, I did not feel adequately sad about that. Schlitz should have done more to introduce Flory to the reader before having her loose her wings. Flory wasn’t unlikeable or anything; she just didn’t feel like someone I had grown to like.   I felt as though I had only just met her. I love fairies, and so of course I was somewhat sad about a fairy loosing her wings, but I wanted to be sadder. In a good fantasy story, sadness over a fairy loosing her wings should be similar to sadness over a person one cares about loosing a limb. That may sound like a lot to ask, but this is not an exaggeration in how important well-developed characters are to both writers and readers.

Also, if Skuggle the squirrel had been a better-developed character, Schlitz could have given this story a much better ending, one that didn’t seem out of nowhere.  With the way the book is written, Skuggle’s reminding Flory at the end that she had promised him cherries for letting her ride him out of her house seems like a random note to end on. I think this is because it was never clear in the book what Flory’s relationship with Skuggle was, something that could have been made clearer if he and Flory had been stronger characters.  Skuggle did Flory favors for food in the story, but it was never clear whether they would become closer friends or if one of them would finally get sick of the other demanding things, and they would have an argument, go their separate ways, or even become enemies. Any of those possibilities could have made for a better ending, not to mention a more interesting story, than the book has.

Another thing I love having in fantasy stories is explanations of whole new fantasy worlds and their inhabitants. This book, I’m sorry to say, was lacking in that as well. It could have told us more about night fairies and day fairies. It probably would have needed to if Flory had met other fairies in the story, but she didn’t, which I was disappointed by.

I have heard from other readers of this book that the story is too simple, but I think it’s the characters, not the story, that should have been more complex. A simple story is fine as long as it has well-developed characters, but this story has none. Despite the book’s lacking well-developed characters, I liked the simplicity of this story. The main other thing I liked about the book was how it went into great detail on a fairy’s relationship with the natural world. In doing so, it made some very good points about both Nature and humanity, such as how all animals need to eat, so eating other animals is not an evil deed, and that humans shouldn’t expect birds to trust them even if they put feeders up for them, since humans eat chickens.

That being said, this story still would have been much better with stronger characters. I read in Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin that the main reason many publishers do not accept stories with talking animals is that many authors seem to think cuteness is enough of a personality to give a talking animal.  These authors don’t develop the talking animal’s personality beyond that. From the middle grade fantasy novels I’ve read, including this one, I’d say a similar thing is true about fantasy. Many authors seem to think a fantasy world and fanciful creatures (or talking animals, which are also prevalent in fantasy) is enough to make a story interesting. Thus, they don’t think a fantasy story needs strong characters. This is not accurate. A fantasy story needs strong characters just as much as a realistic story does. Some fantasy stories do have strongly developed characters, like Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard series, which I would like to eventually review on this blog. I really hope, though, that more authors discover the importance of developing strong characters for fantasy stories. I am currently trying to do so as an author, and someday I may even create a strong fairy character!