Sunday, April 10, 2011
Note: I've been away from my blog for several months now, working on other things. I'm back.
"The Witches of Worm" was selected as an Honor book as part of the 1973 Newbery Awards. As with any awards or honors bestowed at set intervals, I sometimes question choices. This time, not! "The Witches of Worm" deserves its honor.
In fact, "The Witches of Worm" is shockingly good. It's a thriller for children ages 9-12, the target audience of the Newbery books. The only reason this book is in the children's section is that the main character is 12 years old. In fact, this book is transitional to the young adult category which can visit more controversial subject matter, which is the case here.
Witches. Hmmm, an unusual topic for children 9-12. Jessica checks out from the public library a book about the witches of Salem. She's reading it in her favorite place--a nook, a cave in the face of a hill near the apartment she shares with her mother. Twilight comes. Then a rustle, then a mew. There's a tiny kitten wriggling along the dirt. Where did it come from? Where is its mother? And those eyes, or lack of eyes. What's wrong with it? But the landlady is a cat lover, so Jessica scoops it up to show Mrs. Fortune, a woman who knows, let's say, many things.
Thus begins "The Witches of Worm." Mrs. Fortune almost forces the kitten on Jessica, to her care, although Jessica has never liked cats. The kitten is not eyeless--it's just a kitten whose eyes have not yet opened. Jessica must feed it every two hours and wipe its bottom. Jessica calls it Worm because it wiggles like a worm and is also hairless. It's an Abyssinian, according to Mrs. Fortune, the hairless Egyptian cat. You see? Mrs. Fortune knows many things.
Are you beginning to feel the hairs along the back of your neck shiver just the tiniest bit?
Jessica spends much of her free time alone. Her former best friend, Brandon, who also lives in the small apartment building, has moved on to male buddies and trumpet lessons. Her two best girl friends are also gone. And Joy, her beautiful mother? She spends her evenings elsewhere with Alan, her newest boyfriend who is talking commitment (but not as a father).
That leaves Jessica and Worm. Worm, Worm, Worm, that troublesome cat. Why, he has begun to talk to Jessica, invade her thoughts, make her do things. Joy finally has Jessica talk to the school counselor who gives her a photo as basis for a psychological story, a story that becomes profoundly disturbing. The photo, a black and white, shows a baby on a blanket near an older woman. As Jessica describes the story, several people come along. The baby's not theirs. Then the old woman leaves. It's not her baby either. No one knows who the baby is, where it belongs, or why it's there. Finally, someone covers it up. End of story.
This is not a book for the tender-hearted. In fact, as librarian, I would put this book only into the hands of that upper age group, as a provocative book meant for a mature reader. I don't want to reveal anything more, except to declare there is a "happy" ending to this story about serious things. There's redemption but without the hammer of didacticism.
For such a powerful book, why didn't "The Witches of Worm" win the gold medal in 1973? Julie of the Wolves did. Gold and Honor--yep, a mighty combination. Both are must-reads!
Books on my very ambitious TBR list (*denotes read)
- *Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox
- The Odd Women by George Gissing
- The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson
- How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esme Raji Codell
- The Cod Tale by Mark Kurlansky
- In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
- *Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
- Dag Hammarskjold by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery
- The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk
- Children of Strangers by Lyle Saxon
- Spiritual Writings by Flannery O'Connor
- Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque by Gilbert H. Muller
- The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
- Flannery O'Connor's South by Robert Coles
- Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
- Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey
- *Vincent de Paul by Margaret Ann Hubbard
- Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
- A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
- The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
- Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
- *Ruined by Paula Morris
- Say You're Not One of Them by Uwem Akpan
- Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio
- Silence by Shusaku Endo
- *The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- Kari's Saga by Robert Jansson
- *The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
- Western Skies by Joseph Conrad
- *The Giver by Lois Lowery
- *Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski