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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Roald Dahl Day 2011: Guest Post by William Hussey (author of the Witchfinder series)


As promised earlier today, here is the great piece that William Hussey wrote for me to help The Book Zone celebrate Roald Dahl Day 2011. One of the things I love the most about running The Book Zone is the chance it has given me to interact with some of my favourite authors, especially when they are so passionate about books and encouraging kids to read for enjoyment. Massive thanks to William, as well as Sarwat, Ivan and Will who shared their thoughts about Roald Dahl with us earlier today.

William Hussey (author of the Witchfinder series) 

It’s my experience, based on thousands of pupils at hundreds of schools, that  kids love being read to. Not just kids, either – a lot of teachers seem to get a kick out of it as well! Anthropologists, psychologists and lots of other clever clogs with ‘ist’ at the end of their title would probably be able to explain to you far better than I ever could why this is so. All I know is that people really enjoy hearing stories read out loud. As long as the tale’s engrossing and the teller is able to put a bit of oomph into the telling, then an audience will lap it up.

Hearing stories read aloud is a very different psychological experience from sitting down and reading a book yourself. Again, I’m no expert, but words entering through your ears rather than your eyes seem to do different things to different parts of the brain. Imagination is stimulated wonderfully by both experiences, but the sensations that accompany them vary hugely. I think it is absolutely vital that, in their youth, writers have exposure to both private reading and being read to – lots and lots of exposure if possible! Reading by yourself gives you an idea of story structure, character development, how sentences and paragraphs are put together. Being read to gives you an appreciation for the flow of words and how they can create atmosphere that leaps off the page.

I was very lucky in that I grew up in a house chock full of books, and that my parents and grandparents read to me every night. Not only that, my primary school had a dedicated ‘story time’ every day. I remember half a dozen excellent teachers reading to us over the years while we curled up on the carpet, cross-legged, eyes wide, mouths agape. My favourite teacher, and by far the best storyteller, was Mrs Tish. She was a master of voices, the subtle inflection to change mood, the quickening of pace at exciting bits. Mrs Tish loved CS Lewis and Roald Dahl, so by the time I’d moved on to high school we’d journeyed with her through all the known lands of Narnia and into the deepest, darkest imaginings of Mr Dahl.

I remember the heart-warming adventures of the father and son poachers in ‘Danny, the Champion of the World’; the hilarious antics of that most grisly of couples, ‘The Twits’; and, of course, the wish-fulfilment fantasy that beats all others, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. But my absolute favourite, read with all the feeling and gusto Mrs Tish could muster, was Dahl’s delightfully devilish ‘The Witches’. First off, it was a horror story for kids – a common enough thing now (thank God!), but a rarity in my young days. By this time my reading appetites had already turned to old horror comics like ‘Tales from the Crypt’ and ‘The Haunt of Fear’, so I lapped up this dark (and very funny) story of a young boy’s campaign to thwart all the witches of England.

I also loved Dahl’s new take on witches. These weren’t the hook-nosed, black hat-sporting hags from fairytales. They looked like sweet, innocent ladies… until they removed their wigs and slipped off their shoes. Shudder. And then there was the Grand High Witch herself, and the monstrous secret hiding behind that mask of hers. I’ve since read all the grown-up tales of the macabre penned by Dahl, but honestly, not one of them comes close to the nail-biting creepiness of ‘The Witches’. The book has lived so long in my memory that I decided to pay it homage in the last Witchfinder book – check out the chapter ‘Catechism of the Canvas Man’ in ‘The Last Nightfall’, then go back to ‘The Witches’ and the bit where the grandmother tells the story about the little girl from her village.

A book that can chill your marrow on a drowsy summer afternoon in the safe environment of a primary school classroom is worth its weight in gold. By way of the brilliant Mrs Tish, Mr Dahl helped set me on the road to a career scaring children!

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