The White Witch
Roaring Book Press
People have long whispered about Gwendoline Riston - her way with animals, her skill with plants, and most of all, her pale skin and white hair.
But Gwen has never taken much notice of their talk. Her father says she looks like an angel here on earth, and her friend Jack has always been a trusty companion even as the rest of the village folk shun her.
Now a great and terrible plague has come to England and no one is safe, least of all Gwen, who the villagers now call the White Witch. As the disease rages across the countryside, Gwen finds herself left alone to face an angry mob that blames her for the black death. In the end she must discover her own powers if she is to survive.
White Witch Discussion Questions
1. In Gwendoline’s village of Letchlade, she is known as ‘the pale one’ and ‘the white witch’ because of her pale skin and white hair. In what ways do people discriminate against others based on their looks?
2. Gwendoline’s father places her in a secret chamber inside the church. How does he think this will protect her from the plague?
3. If a plague were about to spread to your town, what would you do and where would you go? What problems would you see for other residents of your town?
4. Gwendoline has a special way with animals and the gift of healing. How is this shown in the story?
5. Gwendoline has to decide whether she will try to save Hannah Mullin, who is sick with the plague, when she knows she may risk suffering the same fate if she does. Do you think Gwendoline made the right decision? What difficult decisions have you had to make in your life?
Set in Restoration-era England, Graber’s slight but compelling tale centers around a young girl whose deft healing touch, easy way with animals, and eerily pale complexion naturally lead some of her Puritan neighbors to assume that she’s a witch. When the plague erupts, she is hidden by her father in a secret chamber of the local church and instructed to lay low, no matter what happens.
As the disease decimates her village, she progresses from self-preservation to self-sacrifice to, eventually, self-realization. It may take some dedication for readers to adjust to the antiquated, flowery locution (“A scarlet frill sewn upon a petticoat . . . does naught but aid the Devil in his work.”), but when the inherently gripping hooks of plagues and witchcraft sink in, kids will be off and reading. And though some pretty outrageous coincidences stitch the plot the villagers together, that’s a forgivable offense in light of the suspense and vividly imagined historical realism at work here. A concluding author’s note and glossary help situate some additional context.
Fourteen-year-old Gwendoline Riston is in big trouble. Her startlingly milky skin, ash-white hair and abilities as a healer have the villagers spooked, so when the Great Plague spreads from London to Letchlade in 1665, they blame her, “the pale one,” a witch to be sure. For her own protection, her loving father hides her in a secret attic chamber in St. Giles church while he ventures off in search of his missing adopted son, Gwen’s true love. Days turn to months in the solitary confinement of Gwen’s increasingly fetid prison. Readers will share her horror as she witnesses, through a small window, the plague’s ghastly toll on the villagers below her . . . and their superstition-driven rage: “’Purge us of the evil one,’ mutters Mistress Bramwell… ‘She lurks in the air. I feel it.’ “Themes of willful ignorance, blind faith, persecution, honor, altruism and love swirl through this tightly knit, genuinely suspenseful and occasionally gruesome novel, whose vivid sense of time and place is only intensified by the formal, elegant cadence of Gwen’s fiercely passionate first-person voice.
(author’s note, glossary)
(Historical fiction. 11-14)
HORN BOOK July/August 2009
With her strange appearance and seemingly magical healing abilities, Gwen has always been a bit of an oddity in the small village of Letchlade, and when the plague strikes, her differences brand her as a witch. Gwen is soon left to fend for herself after her father leaves to warn the next town. Hidden away in the church attic, she watches as the outside world slowly succumbs to the plague and panic overtakes reason while the witch-hunt mentality grows. Her attempts to heal Hannah, the betrothed of her best friend Jack, only succeed in revealing her whereabouts to the remaining villagers, and when Jack returns to find that she had failed to keep Hannah alive, he abandons her to the fate of a witch. This slim historical novel packs quite a punch, with a seventeenth-century setting fraught with religious and political tensions as well as vivid descriptions of the plague’s effect, both emotional and physical (the scene in which Gwen drains Hannah’s sores is not for the faint of heart). While the secondary characterizations are a bit heavy-handed, Gwen’s narration is genuine both as a period character and as a teenage girl struggling to be accepted. While a helpful glossary and author’s note provide further information about the bubonic plague and witchcraft, be prepared to offer supplemental materials (such as Gilin’s absorbing When Plague Strikes, BCCB 10/95), as readers’ curiosities will surely be piqued. KQG
Muktar and the Camels
Christy Ottaviano Books
Henry Holt and Company
Muktar lives in an orphanage on the border between Kenya and Somalia.
He daydreams about his old life with his family when he helped to tend camels. One day, a visitor arrives, traveling with camels and bearing books. Muktar quickly discovers that one of the animals is injured. This is his chance to prove himself. If there is anything Muktar knows, it is camels.
Vol. 105 No. 19/20
6/1/09 and 5/15/09
In an orphanage on Kenya’s border with Somalia, Muktar, 11, mourns his parents, who died during the drought and war that engulfed his homeland. Always, he remembers how his father spoke of camels as treasure. Then a librarian, Mr. Mohamed, brings books carried by three camels, and as Muktar helps unload the titles, he sees that one camel has a deep cut in her forefoot. He tries to point it out to Mr. Mohamed, but the irritable grown-up is too busy to listen. So, Muktar tears his own shirt into strips and binds the camel’s wound. In the happy ending, Muktar gets the job of caring for the camels. The spare
present-tense narrative is beautifully illustrated by the spacious oil paintings, in desert reds and oranges, which convey the boy’s bond with the animals. An author’s note and a map fill in more about the war and about the camels, which really do deliver library books.
SLJ August, 2009
Muktar, a Somali orphan in Kenya, misses the nomadic life of his people. His friend Ismail is determined to learn the “new ways” at their orphanage school, but Muktar daydreams of camels and the important place they have in his culture. When a trio of camels visits his school bearing a traveling library, Muktar cares for them so well that he is offered a job doing just that. While many books offer a view of third-world cultures, they often mirror our own values and concerns: Katie Smith Milway’s “One Hen” (Kids Can, 2008) tells the story of nascent capitalism in Ghana: Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen’s commendable “Elizabeti” Titles (Lee & Low) enlighten readers about Tanzanian family life. Graber’s story offers an anthropologist’s appreciation for Somali nomadic culture without westernizing Muktar. He is not a bookworm or entrepreneur – he is a displaced child who is made drowsy by the “tangy smell of fresh excrement.” Muktar longs to live the life that is in his blood, and Graber tells his story well, though the simple maps and the brief historical context come at the end of the book or on the endpapers. Readers may be concerned when the teacher calls Muktar “lazy” and will have to
dig deep to appreciate a dream about dung collection, but the effort will be worthwhile. Mack’s oil-on-canvas paintings evoke the sun and dust of Kenya, giving readers an impression of the landscape. --- Lisa Egly Lehmuller, St.
Patrick’s Catholic School, Charlotte, NC
Graber's (Jacob and the Polar Bears) quiet story centers on an 11-year-old “dreamer” who deeply misses the time “before drought and war engulfed his homeland.” Muktar and his family had roamed Somalia as nomads, their “worldly possessions strapped to mighty camels”; Muktar's father had repeatedly told his son, “Camels first. Always camels first. Camels are treasure.” When a traveling librarian delivers books to the orphanage where Muktar now lives, he asks the boy to guard his three camels. Muktar notices that one has a gash in its foot, and he gently treats the wound with paste from a gnarled root that his father had given him; the librarian offers to take Muktar with him to care for his camels. A brief author's note about recent Somalia history gives the story a real-world context (the Kenya National Library Service deploys teams of camels each month to deliver books to schools and orphanages). First-time picture book illustrator Mack contributes muted, atmospheric oil paintings of a hazy African landscape and, depicted in grayscale,
Muktar's treasured memories of a life before war. Ages 4–8
It is 1942 and much of the world is at war. German troops have invaded France. The father of fifteen year old Marianne Labiche has been killed. To avenge his death, Marianne’s mother and brother join the Resistance, an underground movement organized to fight the German occupation. Marianne is furious when her mother hides a fugitive English soldier in the cellar of their woodshed. Her fury turns to confusion and dread when a sadistic German commandant attempts to molest her and billets a young German soldier in her home.