September 13, 2019 | Arts and Culture
how one children’s book cast a lifelong spell of imagination
How strange. Of all the books I have read, the one that leaps to the forefront of my mind today is one I last read 10 years ago—a book whose ending I can no longer quite recall, whose characters I can no longer name confidently. The details have grown hazy over the years, but I can remember quite clearly how much I loved Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family.
The Witch Family! What images does a title like that conjure? A group of witches gathered around a cauldron in some muggy swamp, their hut standing on its chicken legs nearby? Or maybe a Halloween revel, the silhouettes of a coven black against the full moon? The sound of high-pitched cackling?
No; instead, the things that my memory calls forth are a lonely glass mountain, a young witch named Hannah, two ordinary little girls whose names I cannot remember, a baby witch whose claps produce sparks, a magical birthday party, a game played on broomsticks, an old grumpy witch who softens just a little as the much younger witches join her in a family of sorts, and a spelling bee(a bee who talks by spelling out all his words).
The Witch Family. What am I forgetting? What have I already forgotten? And why, despite all the intervening years, do I still carry memories of this book with me, tucked away in my heart?
The Witch Family is actually grounded in a make-believe game, so the 1960 novel is very much an ode to children’s imagination. In The Witch Family, six-year-old best friends Amy and Clarissa (whose names I have only very recently relearned) bring Old Witch to life in their minds and in their drawings. But Old Witch is no Glinda, so Amy and Clarissa “banquish” her—“banquish” being an inventive, six-year-old version of “banish”—to a glass mountain where, bitter and grumpy, she lives all alone with her black cat. The two friends’ make-believe games are able to create certain changes in Old Witch’s world, and it is they who send along Little Witch and Teeny Witch, forming a family for the cantankerous Old Witch—and maybe, just maybe, starting to change her for the better. Reality and imagination blur and blend, for there really is an Old Witch, who really has been “banquished” because of Amy and Clarissa.
To the eight-year-old me, a voracious reader of fairy tales and fantasies, The Witch Family was one of the best finds in the library. It was the kind of book I sought out as a child for the pure joy of reading an unfettered flight of fancy. Something that would feed my own imagination and the “let’s pretend” games I played so often with my little brother. Our living room became a witch’s dungeon, or a pirate ship, or a dark forest teeming with magic. A thousand imaginary worlds rolled out like red carpets in all directions, and a thousand imaginary creatures and people—some cowardly, some brave, some heroes, some villains—walked with us through our adventures.
I see now that part of the appeal of The Witch Family, outside of its charming storyline and winsome characters, was its presentation of the incredible power of imagination. The novel affirmed and validated the make-believe games that were such a central part of my life then and remain so today. Three years ago, as I began applying to college, I was surprised to find myself writing my personal essay about the “let’s pretend” games I played with my brother. The Witch Family and all my make-believe worlds, though I thought I had left them behind, were actually an integral, though invisible, part of me.
Imagination, especially when it comes to storytelling, is a daring practice, drawing on creativity and courage, calling us to look at the world with eyes wide open. We create worlds, both better and worse, to call attention to things that are not yet as they should be. We take the ordinary and extraordinary from our real lives and spin it into the fabric of our imagined landscapes to remind ourselves of the beauty we already experience. And I want to participate fully and deeply in this bold practice, as a reader and as a writer.
And so, because it reminds me that imagination has power, The Witch Family is a book I need and love now, too. I need it and love it because it reminds me that even the cranky crave genuine companionship. I need it and love it because it reminds me that children’s books do matter—and that they go on mattering even after children have grown up. There is no such thing as “just” a children’s book.