Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's All About the Hair

The Witch's Child
by Arthur Yorinks; illustrated by Jos A. Smith

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007

The Witch's Child is one of the most seriously creepy children's books I've come across in a good, long while. The illustrations are terrifying; the Witch Rosina's posture drips with menace. The story draws from the fairy tale tradition, a cross between Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio, and doesn't shy from the dark nature of the form; the result being a tale full of the kind of magic and terror of the true classics.

Rosina is a violent and cruel witch who, on a whim, decides to try creating a child for herself out of spare rags and straw, and bits of her own hair. However, she can't bring the little doll to life no matter how hard she tries, and in a fit of pique turns all the other children to bramble bushes. Finally, Rosina casts the doll aside, to be found later by a young girl named Lina, who rearranges her limbs and treats her with kindness. Rosina finds Lina with her forgotten child, and attacks her with knife in hand. The ending is happy, but it's paid for with a terrible price.

The Witch's Child is by turns stark and hopeful, with the occasional moment of truly off-putting humor thrown in - Rosina's smile is actually worse than her scowl, if you'd believe it. The "life" of the doll is also full of childhood fears, abandonment chief among them. However, the really wonderful part of this story is in the nature of her awakening - unlike Pinocchio, who requires an external conscience and is brought to life by someone else's love, the doll child wills herself into life to protect someone else from her own creator. The message of self-determination is subtle, but empowering.

Don't let the seemingly snuggly cover illustration fool you: this book is one of those really great scary stories that reminds me of why I love horror. Smith's illustrations are downright beautiful; from the first page, even Rosina's posture drips with malicious intent. The curse she lays on the children is captured mid-transformation, as is their eventual return. More sensitive children might be disturbed by the imagery and the content of the story, but, like The Spider and the Fly, and most fairy tales, for that matter, the object is to teach them to have a healthy respect for their own fears and (hopefully) to inspire them to rise above it.

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