The Brixen Witch, by Stacy DeKeyser (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 26, 2012, middle grade) is a fresh and fun re-telling of the story of the Pied Piper, told from the point of view of the one boy who was not ensnared by the spell of the music that lured the other village children into a mysterious cave.
Rudi, and all the other villagers of Brixen, have known all their lives that the mountain looming above them is home to a fearful witch of great power. But Rudi is one of the few who has a chance to learn of her power directly. When he brings home a golden coin he found in the high meadow, his grandmother warns him to return it to the witch immediately--or else he will feel her wrath. So the next day he tries to take it back, but it is lost in a rockslide.
All that winter Rudi is haunted by nightmares...and then spring bring brings trouble to the whole village. A plague of rats destroys the peace and prosperity of the village, and the price the mysterious stranger charges to solve the problem is one golden coin (undreamed of wealth to the villagers).
It's clear to Rudi and his grandmother that this stranger is in league with the witch, and that Rudi must find the lost coin. But the deadline passes before he, and the music of the stranger's violin lures all the village children up and away, into the mountain.
To save them, Rudi must confront the Brixen Witch...and he finds that witches are not always what they seem to be....
This is a satisfying re-telling, adding new twists to an old story to make a seemless whole. The magic of the witch is clearly present from the beginning, though the quotidian details of village life, and mundane attempts to kill rats (which I confess was one of my favorite parts of the book--I now know lots more about historic rat hunting, and found it interesting! plus bonus ferrets!), give a solid grounding to the story. The thought-provoking twist at the end, when Rudi meets the witch, lifts the story to the truly magical.
The straight-forward storytelling, and focus on Rudi, an ordinary boy forced to step outside the safe world of childhood, makes this an excellent choice for younger "middle grade" kids, of nine or ten. It's not one for the reader who wants wild and whacky magic with Slayings and Spells and a kid who has great powers (that kid might find this one slow), but more for the kid who likes fantasy stories that one could imagine really happening.
If I were a fourth or fifth grade teacher, doing a unit on fairy tale retellings, this is one I'd most definitely be offering those kids (boys or girls) who aren't drawn to pretty dresses (and who like ferrets, though they don't actually get that much page time)! And I'd be pretty stuck to think of any others--perhaps The Book of Wonders, by Jasmine Richards, and the Sisters Grimm series. (Can you think of any other boy-friendly fairy tale retellings?)
So all in all, a nice read for me as a grown up, and one that I think fills in fine style a pretty empty niche for the target audience.
disclaimer: review copy gratefully received from the author.