Reading Diary: The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
(Reviewed for "Peril the First" of the RIP V Challenge and linked up at the RIP V Challenge Review Site)
. . . [Jessica] turned back to her book. It was a new one that she had just checked out of the library. It was called The Witches of Salem Town and it was not really a story at all. Instead it was a true account of events that happened a long time ago. As a rule Jessica preferred fiction, but there had recently been an article abotu witches in one of the women's magazines that [her mother] subscribed to, and Jessica had been fascinated. Afterward she had gone looking for more information at the library. In the children's section she had found only cutesy stories about Halloween-type witches with cats and broomsticks; but when she discovered where the adult books on magic were kept, she found what she was looking for. The book she had taken was a brand-new one that told the story of the witches of Salem.
When I was several pages into this "old school" YA classic, it occurred to me that it was lucky to have been published back in the early 70s, because the chances of its being picked up today seem pretty slim. It's the sort of novel exposes today's Paranormal fare as literature on the level of "cutesy stories about Halloween-type witches with cats and broomsticks"--but the latter are what are taking up the most shelf space in bookstores (and getting the most attention on YA-orientated book blogs). We might be living in a kind of golden age of YA and MG publishing, but whether we've made the same bounds in quality as we have in quantity is still to be determined.
And when I visit, say, Scholastic book fairs at schools these days, I feel like shoving my collection of yellowing, crumbling Newbery Award and Newbery Honour novels in the faces of the children there and launching into an Old Fogey speech about "today's kids" not knowing what "real YA/MG" is like.
(Never mind that this title was originally published by Yearling, not Scholastic.)
The Witches of Worm is not a Paranormal, although it's eerie enough for dark-and-stormy-night reading (which, let's admit, most Paranormals aren't). So it's not actually about witches: what it does is take witchcraft--and its traditional association with demonic possession--and turn them into symbols for what goes on in the psyche of a lonely, neglected girl.
Obligatory plot summary: Jessica Ann Porter has no close friends, a single mother who skips out nearly every night on a date, and only some unpleasant neighbours in her building to look out for her. Just when she is at her lowest point, she stumbles upon an abandoned newborn kitten. It becomes her only companion; she talks to it and fancies it replies. And that is when the bad things start happening.
In a sense, Paranormals about teenage witches do something similar: the supernatural powers their characters wield embody teenage fantasies of being special, making others sorry for having undervalued them, and changing the world to their own liking. But those stories tend to stop there, with the fantasy. This novel deals with reality and with the consequences of trying to escape from it by assuming that an unfortunate event must have a supernatural cause.
Our young protagonist does not grow more witch-like as the story unfolds, but she does grow more witch hunter-like--arguably the only worse thing, and possibly the only thing more mentally unhealthy. When I consider how psychologically intense this novel is, I am floored that its target readers, like its central character, are only twelve years old.
And this is where that contrast between "Halloween-type witches" and "witches of Salem Town" comes into play again. I can imagine a sophisticated adult reader being very satisfied with the depths Snyder is willing to plumb in this story. And I suspect that a parent who believes that the more disturbing details of the Salem witch trials are not yet appropriate for his children would make a similar judgment about The Witches of Worm.
Image Source: The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder