I suspect that parents have been complaining about the books schools have assigned or made available just about as long as there have been books and schools. For some, Harry Potter’s wizardry is unacceptable while for others, it is the existence of gay penguins that is problematic. Some object to racism or bigotry and some to political views. And sometimes, a kid just isn’t ready for a book.
Roald Dahl, perhaps best known for books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, is a great author. But this week, my son brought home one of his books that I’d never heard of: The Witches. His class has been reading Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and this is simply the next on the list. And yet, this one is different. The story concerns a boy who encounters witches — which are completely real, the book asserts — and his adventures thereafter.
In the book, witches are portrayed as “demons in human form” who abhor children. Much of Dahl’s writing is dark and this sounds even more so than usual. Well, my son — who has never been exposed to anything scarier than Pixar’s WALL-E — came to me after reading the first part to say he’d had a nightmare and to ask if witches were real. Well, we had a long chat about witches as interesting characters in stories and whether or not magic is real and even aliens got in there somehow. Eventually, I sent him off to bed and he slept with his reading light on all night.
I know that many of his classmates will think nothing of this book — many are fans of Star Wars and Harry Potter and I know one teacher who complains about her first grade students wanting to talk about having seen the latest Friday the Thirteenth movie — but for my son, a sensitive kid to say the least, this is serious, scary stuff. And yet, it is assigned reading. I don’t want him to miss out on the lessons nor do I want him to be stigmatized for being different. So what’s the best way to deal with something like this? I’ve talked with my son and mentioned the issue to the teacher. Is that enough? What would you do?