Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Tilly Witch

For Halloween's sake, I bring you Tilly Witch, the 1969 book by Don Freeman (who was also the author of Corduroy). I had forgotten about Tilly, until I encountered her by chance this summer, and remembered that I had been obsessed with this book as a child. I have a feeling now that being obsessed with a book back then meant being in love with the pictures, pictures you could gaze into for extended periods of time, and detect new entire stories.

The pictures are pretty wonderful, dark and spooky, but made magic by juxtaposition-- Tilly's yellow surfboard, the witch doctor's mask, the colour from the window in the picture shown here.

The story begins with Tilly Ipswitch, Queen of Halloween, suddenly finding herself in a rather jolly mood. She doesn't see why she shouldn't be-- after all, "if boys and girls get to have fun pretending to be witches, I don't see why I can't play at being happy and gay, just for a change!" But Tilly soon finds that playing at happy is sort of like pulling faces-- once in a while, you might stay that way. Tilly dancing around with flowers, and on the eve of Halloween-- even she knows something has to be done.

Naturally, and most politically incorrectly, Tilly hops on her surfboard and flies the the tiny island of Wahoo to see a Doctor Weegee. (Walla walla bing bang). He is horrified upon examining her, and writes an emergency prescription to Miss Fitch's Finishing School for Witches.

Upon re-enrolling at the school where she'd once been star pupil, Tilly's problems only get worse. The lessons fail to take, she keeps giggling, and finally she is sent to the corner to wear a dunce cap. Such degradation proves too much for the Queen of Halloween, and Tilly begins to get angry. Seething-- she is not a dunce! She leaps up from her stool and stomps on her hat. It is Halloween night, and she has duties to attend to.

Tilly flies back home, takes some great joy in frightening her cat, and then sets out on her broomstick to scare children the world over. The story ends with a moral: "For Tilly had indeed learned her lesson. As long as Halloween comes once a year you can count on her to be the meanest and wickedest witch in all Witchdom".

So the lesson is bad is good-- and as a little girl, I think I appreciated such a complex message. The greater lesson being that non-conformity (and rich pictures) can really make a children's book delicious.

Happy Halloween.