The Witch's Guide to Cooking With Children, by Keith McGowan (Henry Holt, 2009), is a Hansel and Gretel reimaging--in this case, the children, and the witch who wants to eat them, are nextdoor neighbors in a modern urban setting. The reader knows from the get go what's up, as the book opens with passages from the witch's journal, describing her nasty dietary habits and the means of procurement she uses. And it does not take long for eleven-year-old Sol and his little sister Connie to realize that something is very wrong with their neighbor--scientifically minded Sol can't help but notice that her dog is playing with a human femur. Their father and stepmother (with nasty secrets of their own) have a good reason for wanting the kids gone...but will Connie's cussedness and Sol's scientific smarts be sufficient to keep them out of the pot?
Clearly, if you are disturbed by truly mordant humor of the sort in which children are eaten you will not enjoy this book. However, I didn't actually find this to be the stuff of nightmares. Nightmares are lurking threats, looming ever closer, insidiously building in terror....and those sorts of books make me sad and sorry for the kids involved, and anxious to hug my own. But here, since we see the witch from the beginning, reminiscing about different recipes she's used, the threat is right there up front, in an almost over-the-top, verging on absurd, way. It's handy that readers are given this perspective immediately, so that they can decide whether to continue or not with little investment!
I myself was happy to keep going, and found it, as it were, very tasty--a fun, fast read that did not inspire any anxiety viz children being eaten. There are many little bits that amused me lots, like a nice modern twist on the breadcrumbs that Hansel used to mark the path home. The sibling conflicts between Sol and Connie added depth, and Sol's character--he's a science geek type, unblessed with sympathetic friends, craving support and understanding-- was appealing (and this is what made me anxious to hug my own older one). And I found the "let's tell it like it is" perspective of the witch amusing.
Many kids do have a dark sense of humor (I myself, sweet and nice though I was, enjoyed Edward Gory very much at a young age), and I can imagine mine enjoying this one. That being said, I can also imagine my younger one (10) asking me how I could give him a book that's so mean. Hard to know.
The ending is an ending--as in the original story, the witch gets what she deserves--but obviously Sol and Connie can go home again. I'm half-way through the sequel right now--The Witch's Curse--and am actually more anxious reading this one. Even though the danger of being eaten is past, the kids aren't out of the woods yet...
I don't often notice illustrations, because of being so busy reading, but couldn't help but notice that the black and white drawings here added beautiful to the balance between humor and fear--here's an example from the author's website:
Recommended enthusiastically, but cautiously--it won't be for everyone, but those who enjoy it will enjoy it lots! Here's another blog review from Liz at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher