I loved studying the Salem witch trials when I was in high school. I was so fascinated by the sheer lack of critical thinking that surrounded the trials and hangings. I don’t mean to suggest that people weren’t as intelligent in 1693; they most certainly were. Individuals in the community had to have recognized the horror for what it was and known that their neighbors were being killed for no reason. So why didn’t anyone say anything? Studying the trials always forces me to ask myself whether I would have spoken up — or stayed silent. In terms of scholarly research, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, by Carol Karlson, is extremely informative and approaches the topic from a really interesting perspective. But this is a children’s book blog. So here are two recommendations for books about witches that don’t resort to stereotypes and manage to treat the historical actuality of neighborly fear and the ramifications of that fear with a certain amount of respect.
Chris Van Allsburg’s The Widow’s Broom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18.95) contains Van Allsburg’s signature illustrations. They are sparse drawings that capture unexpected moments of the narrative. The story is about a broom that loses its magic mid-flight. A widow tends to the fallen witch, who has fallen into her garden. When the witch departs, she leaves the broom behind. The broom hasn’t completely lost its magic and it learns from the widow how to perform household chores, with an obvious preference for sweeping. Afraid of the broom’s powers, the widow’s neighbors want to destroy something that they think is so obviously evil. In this story, the unjustified fears are used against the neighbors and they, not the widow or the broom, are ultimately undone by their own intolerance.
For teen readers, Celia Reese’s Witch Child (Candlewick, $8.99) also explores themes of religious tension and power dynamics. In 1659, Mary Newbery’s grandmother is accused of witchcraft. Because of their association, Mary’s own life is now in danger and she flees to the New World — only to discover that intolerance and fear exist there as well. Crossing between historical fiction and the supernatural, this novel is a testament to the hundreds of women who lost their lives across colonial New England. Women who were different, unique, defiant; women who for whatever reason did not fulfill the roles their neighbors prescribed for them, and who were persecuted because of it.