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