Books GB Challenges Picture Book Challenge 2011 Picture Books Whodunit Reading Challenge

A Wicked Wicked Thing (or not)? The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

An extract from the book’s jacketflap says:

Chris Van Allsburg, master of the mysterious, brings this supernatural tale to life with moody and memorable pictures that will haunt readers long after the book’s covers are closed.

That was enough to convince me that this book may just fit within our Mystery/Suspense

Whodunit Theme for May/June

theme. No whodunit queries since it’s quite clear who has done what to who – but the question of who the good one or the bad one is (hero versus villain) – that’s another matter altogether. And as is the wont of Van Allsburg’s works, moral issues can be elaborated on and explored with your young (or not so young) ones.

Witches’ Brooms and Widows. Aside from what I have read in the Harry Potter series and what I know about the game Quidditch, I know very little about witches’ brooms. Van Allsburg addresses that gap in knowledge as found in the first page of his book:

Witches’ brooms don’t last forever. They grow old, and even the best of them, one day, lose the power of flight.

Fortunately, this does not happen in an instant. A witch can feel the strength slowly leaving her broom. The sudden bursts of energy that once carried her quickly into the sky become weak. Longer and longer running starts are needed for takeoff. Speedy brooms that, in their youth, outraced hawks are passed by slow flying geese. When these things happen, a witch knows it’s time to put her old broom aside and have a new one made.

Falling into the abyss

I didn’t realize brooms can actually need ‘longer running starts’ for take-off and may even lose power altogether mid-flight. The latter is what happened to the unnamed witch and her broom who fell right smack on the ground beside the home of the widow named Minna Shaw.

Instead of being frightened out of her wits seeing such a ghastly sight near her small white farmhouse, Minna has taken it upon herself to help the witch inside her house, put her to bed, and give her rest and respite.

The kind-hearted Minna Shaw finding the fallen witch and her broom

After a few days, the witch’s wounds have healed and with the help of a strand of her hair burned into a crackling flame of leaves and twigs, she flew off with another witch, leaving her broom behind.

While we might expect a witch’s broom (that has lost its power of flight) to be either useless or wicked – this broom is neither. It loves sweeping the floor all by itself. Problem is, it swept all day long. With a bit of prodding and demonstrating by example, it also learned how to chop wood, fetch water, feed the chickens and even play simple tunes on the piano. What more can you ask for? 

Naturally, the widow is beside herself with pleasure. She has found such a wonderful companion, after all, having lived all by herself in her farm all these years.

Reminiscences of The Crucible and Wicked. The neighbors on the other hand, are another issue altogether. Mr. Spivey, a neighbor, after seeing what the broom can do could only exclaim in horror: “This is a wicked, wicked thing.” “This is the devil.”

As I read that passage I felt an enormous stab of sadness. For the misunderstood broom, for the ignorance of the Mr. Spiveys of this world, for our poor old widow, for the wickedness of Mr. Spivey’s boys who taunted, tortured, and bullied the well-meaning broom. We realize now (but not without regret and pain) that what the world does not understand, it fears. And so on and so forth.

Playing a simple tune in the piano.

The subdued black and white illustrations (which reminded me of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick which we reviewed here) and the storyline served to remind me of films such as The Crucible.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

And the play Wicked which I watched with my family at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco.

The notion that evil takes on many forms – and may not necessarily be encased in pointy hats, hooked noses, and black capes huddled over a cauldron – is rich in the narrative. It could be as insidious as a nosy neighbor who is quick to judge, a patronizing colleague with an almighty complex, or simply the malicious well-dressed executive concealing the blackest heart imaginable.

Teacher Resources. I was only able to find one teacher resource for this book as created by Houghton Mifflin Books. This downloadable pdf link contains a plot summary, potential discussion questions, writing ideas, and teaching through pictures/images. Chris Van Allsburg is Love.

Picture Book Challenge Update: 76 of 120

The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1992. Book borrowed from the community library.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

7 comments on “A Wicked Wicked Thing (or not)? The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

  1. Reminds me of the brooms fetching buckets of water in the movie Fantasia with the wizard Mickey. I love the old black and white photograph-like quality of his work.

    It’s great that books as whimsical as this one has such powerful messages of how ignorance breeds contempt, and the bullying which is a very relevant topic in the real world. 🙂


    • Very true, Tin. I love how seemingly-simple Van Allsburg’s stories are, yet there are layers that you can carefully unpack revealing deeper truths tinged with a bit of sadness.. and hope. =) I missed reviewing picture books! I have another one of Van Allsburg for our theme. =) And yes Shaun Tan’s Outer Suburbia.


  2. Interesting. A good addition to your theme.

    All of the books “mystery” titles you have reviewed are waiting on my library hold shelf for me! I just need to get down to the library to pick them up. I’ll let you know what we think.


    • Hi Lori! So glad to have you drop by. I am happy to hear that you found the books in your library. Do ping us or let us know as soon as you have read some of them and we’d be glad to visit and see what you think. =)


  3. Tin, I do agree about the relevance of such themes just now. don’t know if you guys caught this article?

    We have this in the school library, but I haven’t yet read it. Myra, thank you for pointing me towards this unusual, somewhat quirky book. The falling into the Abyss illustration reminds me of the wicked witch of the West in Oz.


    • Hi Joanna, thank you for providing the link to this lovely article. Truly meaningful and timely. I am glad that YA authors are using their ‘voice’ to reach out to bullied children who may feel that they are all alone, mute, unheard. Hmmm.. sounds like a bimonthly theme to me for GatheringBooks. We should do a review of books on this theme.


  4. Pingback: Saying Goodbye to the First Half of the Year, Our June Round-Up |

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