The Witches of Worm is a Newbery Honor Book by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, a three-time Newberry Honor Winner. I bought it for my fourth-grade niece as a gift despite having never heard of it before. I read the blurb, and thought my niece would like the subject of cats and witches, and the Newberry Honor sticker sealed the deal for me. Then I read it.
All my reviews have spoilers.
It’s about a young girl who’s struggling with feelings of abandonment. She finds an abandoned kitten, and then she starts acting out, doing mean things to her friends and family, and blames it on the cat who she comes to believe is a witch’s cat.
To start this children’s book review, I’d like to say that the characters are varied and interesting. They all come off the page satisfactorily, and the author pretty much has cat behavior down to a science. I bet Zilpha Keatley Snyder is an author who owns cats. From tail spasms, to whisker twitches, to slight ear shifts, she’s got all the cat movements down pat which adds to the realism of the story. Any reader who has ever owned a cat can clearly visualize Worm’s movements, and this actually has the effect of making Worm, the so-called demon cat, seem less sinister since when he does anything shifty or “evil,” a real cat person will know that cats just do that.
I almost feel like to get a similar realistic effect for animals in my own stories, I’d have to pay very close attention and jot down every little detail I saw my pet make. Perhaps that’s what Snyder did and with wonderful results.
There’s a lot of great description here. Although I think the author spent a little too much time describing the weather. She uses it to good effect though, having the weather match the character’s mood and so forth, but I imagine if I’m slightly bored with it, the young readers this book was meant for are even more bored with it.
The author uses an awful lot of similes. I’m not a huge fan of similes myself, but I suppose those were popular back in 1972 when this book was first published. To each their own. Here’s an example:
When Jessica arrived, all five of the fat old cats were crowded into a corner of the fence with their long fluffy tails bushed out and their eyes as big and round as nickels. A few feet away Worm sat, a slick and silent statue. His ears were turned sideways and his eyes were as cold and golden as the eyes of a crocodile.
The story started out slow and never really picked up any pace. The first chapter set the scene and characters, and did it well, but not much happened other than Jessica going to a cave to read a book. Everything is a little predictable. Jessica, the little girl, is feeling alone and abandoned by her friends and mother so she can commiserate with the abandoned kitten she finds even though she won’t admit to herself that she likes him.
He’s like her; he doesn’t complain, and in the beginning she seems to feel an affinity toward him. It’s all kind of obvious, really, but it’s pleasant to read and think about. And I don’t think being obvious is such a bad thing for a children’s book. While it’s easy for me to draw parallels between her situation and the cat’s, and while it’s easy for me to figure out what Jessica’s really feeling throughout the book even when she can’t articulate it herself, it might not be so easy for the children reading it. I imagine a young reader would either miss the deeper emotions altogether or figure them out slowly, having ah-ha moments, and it’s those epiphany moments that make books memorable.
Making the connection between Jessica’s feelings and her actions would probably be more difficult for a younger reader than an adult, so the reading material is actually very appropriate and challenging for its intended age group. Snyder leaves things open throughout the book, making the reader wonder if it is all witchcraft or if it is all inside Jessica’s imagination. Of course, a grown up can see early on that it is all in Jessica’s head, but children might read things more literally. So, I imagine, children will either take it at its word or see through it and be proud of their ability to see through it. OR see through it and feel like the writer has talked down to them and manipulated them. Hopefully it’s not the latter.
A final plot mentioning: Sometimes it’s slightly disturbing how our young protagonist treats the cat, although the author never goes overboard. Still, don’t throw your cat around like that, Jessica!
Sentence variation is impressive. I wish I could make my sentences twist and turn the way Snyder can. I’m currently very hyper aware of sentence variation because I have problems in this area. I’ll often read back what I’ve written and hear the thud of subject-verb, subject-verb. But Snyder changes her sentence structure up a lot and makes it look easy and natural, and she even manages to use proper punctuation most of the time.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS FOR THIS CHILDREN’S BOOK REVIEW
I’d say climactic scenes aren’t the author’s strong point. They were weak. Setting the scene and having it reflect the main characters emotions is where her strength lies. That and having a layer of deeper meaning beneath what’s happening. Those were all the best parts of this story.
The ending was ho-hum. What happens to her relationship with her mother? That wasn’t even touched upon. The author set up this whole scene where Jessica talks to a psychologist. He tells her to make up a story about a picture. She understands the motive behind that, knows he’s trying to get a glimpse of what’s going on in her life and in her head, so she intentionally tries to throw him off with a crazy story. Only the reader realizes that her crazy story about a baby being left alone on a blanket really does speak of Jessica’s fear of abandonment. So … What happens with that? Did the counselor correctly understand the meaning behind the story and tell Joy, the mother, about his concerns? Does Joy change her parenting style? And what about Joy’s new love interest, Alan? All those loose ends are left loose. There’s not even a hint of what’s to come concerning that part of the story, which leads me, the reader, to assume everything stays the same. I mean, I guess at the end, the mother was hysterical to see her child in hysterics and the doctor prescribes them both sleeping pills, but that doesn’t tell me anything about the state of their relationship or if it will change.
So it’s only Brandon, a friend, who reconciles his relationship with Jessica? And they’re slowly going to try to get the cat to trust her again. Whoop-de-doo. The ending was disappointing. It wrapped up most things but not all.
I give the book, The Witches of Worm, four out of five stars but only because I suspect it would be more interesting and challenging for a child, and it is a children’s book. The plot is layered and the topics, witches and cats, are interesting ones for that age group. I plan to gift my copy of this book to my niece, and I’ll get her feedback on it after she’s finished. If she’s not impressed with it, then I’ve clearly made a mistake about my assumptions about children, and I’ll downgrade it a star.
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