The Witches of Worm – Zilpha Keatley Snyder, illustrated by Alton Raible

I found this book at my dad’s house the other day and thought, “Great!  I haven’t written a review in awhile (not for the want of reading – several drafts await), so this is perfect!”  I should have known better.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder is a children’s author that I really respect.  She can write in any style.  And she is prolific.  She’s been writing since 1964, and her books don’t stop coming.

So why am I down on The Witches of Worm (a Newbery Book, no less)?  Well…because it creeped me out when I was a kid, and it creeped me out last night, and I crawled into bed feeling the nightmares at the edge of my sleep waiting for my vigilance to waver so that they could jump me.  It’s just that kind of book.

The Witches of Worm is most concisely described at Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s website:

Jessica reluctantly adopts a kitten that may, or may not, be an evil demon.

What a great sentence!  I wonder if Zilpha wrote that herself?  The “may or may not” is where the meat of the book lies.

Jessica is the only child of an attractive single mother who works hard, comes home tired, and goes out on dates, leaving Jessica home alone to fume over TV dinners.  She has just been written off her former best friend, Brandon, who scorned her company and their old play-acting games in favour of the neighbourhood boys.  To top it all off, Jessica is 12.  She’s a volotile mix of hormones, anger, loneliness, and imagination.  So what does Snyder do?  She gives Jessica an unhealthy interest in the Salem witch trials and an extremely ugly kitten. The rest of the book reads like two different nightmares.

Nightmare 1, the supernatural evil:  The cat, Worm,  starts telling Jessica to do things.  First they are just mischievous and Jessica doesn’t get caught.  But as the book goes on, Jessica starts getting meaner and more destructive, and corresponsingly increasingly afraid of Worm.  By the end of the book [spoiler], Jessica is contemplating murdering her neighbour to cover her tracks.  She is interrupted, and breaks free of the spell for long enough to exorcise the cat and return to normal life.

Nightmare 2, the human evil: Jessica starts to do things, and believes that the cat, Worm, is instructing her because he is possessed.  First the things Jessica does are just mischievous and she doesn’t get caught.  But as the book goes on, Jessica starts getting meaner and more destructive, and correspondingly increasingly afraid of Worm.  By the end of the book [spoiler], Jessica is contemplating murdering her neighbour to cover her tracks.  She is interrupted and decides to “exorcise the cat”.  Thankfully, this seems to bring Jessica back to her senses and she can try to return to normal life, although readers may wonder if someone so psychologically disturbed can truly return to normal life.

The book is well written.  It raises themes of imagination versus reality, of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, of abandonment and anger and loneliness and fear.  It leaves readers to decide if the book is about the supernatural, or if it is a psychological thriller – well crafted indeed!  And it doesn’t “talk down” to readers.  Why shouldn’t kids’ books have all of these things in them?  After all, life has all of these things in it (except for maybe the supernatural, depending on where your beliefs lie, but you know what I mean).  But I think I’m going to have to get rid of it, because every time I see it, I flip through it, and every time I flip through it, I get freaked out.

The book is originally illustrated by Alton Raible (at a rate of about one illustration per two chapters), who has illustrated a number of Snyder’s books.  I like his illustrating style, but I also think that his pictures are really and truly frightening.  They include: nightmare faces, evil cat, frightened child backing away, and a few others that I didn’t look at too carefully because I wanted to be able to sleep.  The illustration on this yellow cover is, believe it or not, quite tame.  Almost kindly looking.  And the cat does not look as ugly and as evil as the inside illustration of Worm.

Reading Ages: Websites say 9-12, but I would say 10-13.

Favourite Part: The end.  Boy, was I glad when it arrived.

Rating:  C for creepy.  This is well written, and has good interplay between the supernatural and the psychological.  If your kid loves to be thrilled and chilled, then yes, this book would do the trick.  But even though I was an imaginative, lonely, angry child, I do not like scary books, and I did not enjoy this one.  It actually made me not want to touch the book.

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