“BEEHOOVES YE TO BEEHAVE”
A review of The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, written by Witch Awareness Month, contributor, Ruth Merriam
Sometimes, a childhood book is so precious to us that we can recall with joy the numbers of times we read it and pieces of it stick forever in our memories. Such was the case for me with The Witch Family, a book I first read some 45 years ago. Oh Malachi, bumblebee so magical that from that time foreward all bumblebees assumed that name, you are forever imprinted in my memories.
There were, once upon a time, two not-quite-six-years-old girls by the names of Amy and Clarissa. They lived next door to each other on Garden Lane in Washington, DC and they loved to draw pictures and tell stories.
Amy was particularly fond of stories about old grandmother Old Witch because Amy’s mother made up scary tales. So one day, while Amy and Clarissa were drawing, Amy decided that because Old Witch was so very, very wicked, she must be “banquished.”
“Go, go, go! To the glass hill go!”
And so it was that Old Witch, the wickedest great-great-great grandmother Witch and her cat, Old Tom, were sent to live on the great glass hill with only herbs to eat and the strictest of instructions to never cause any wickedness at all until Halloween (because you can’t have a proper Halloween without witches). To ensure that Old Witch behaved, Amy sent her emissary Malachi the bumblebee who, due to the powerful effects of a magical Rune, was able to spell . . . and to sting and sting and sting to get his point across.
Old Witch was most perturbed by this turn of events, and most resentful. How could she do without her hurly-burlies and backanallies? Besides, it was lonesome and bleak on the great glass hill.
But Amy was not a cruel girl, and she sends letters to Old Witch via a bright red cardinal bird. With a carefully composed abracadabra, Old Witch gets herself the beginning of a family when a little witch named Hannah and her black kitten, Little Tom, come swooping in to stay.
Hannah, being a proper little witch girl, must go to Witch School. After all, Amy and Clarissa must go to school so it’s only natural. It’s never easy being the new kid, though.
With Malachi there to protect her, things get sorted out pretty quickly!
And so the story goes between the lives of Amy and Clarissa, and the lives of the Witch Family, where the imaginations of two little girls become reality and the two worlds intersect.
Hannah is lonely on the glass hill and sometimes frightened of Old Witch. One day, while Old Witch is off causing trouble despite dire warnings from Malachi, Hannah finds a way into the glass hill and makes friends with a young mermaid who lives in crystal pools of water. She has a Mer-cow and a baby mermaid sister. Hannah realizes how lonely she is and wishes for a baby sister of her own. Amy and Clarissa feel this is an appropriate thing to wish for . . . so an abracadra or two later, a Weenie Witchie strapped to a tiny broom along with a scrawny black kitten come sailing into the house on the glass hill.
Now, you know that Old Witch just cannot help being wicked for that is her nature, and mischief ensues as the days go by. There are adventures – but not too awful because the banquisher (Amy) doesn’t really want to have a Halloween without witches sailing through the air! Oh, but there are visits back and forth between the worlds, and a few hurly-burlies, and a scare or two besides.
The story seamlessly blends the mundane world with the magical world and the ways of children with a cleverness of phrasing usually reserved for more mature readers. It’s a tale full of heart and mystery, nervous adventure and the comfort of one’s favorite swing, of being alive, and of learning to love. And, in the words of Malachi,
“WICKEDNESS BE AFOOT!”