September 22, 2013

Curse of the Dream Witch

by Allan Stratton
Scholastic Canada
266 pp.
Ages 8-12
September, 2013

While Allan Stratton has demonstrated a craft for social justice fiction writing with Leslie's Journal (Annick, 2000), Chanda's Secrets (Annick, 2004) and Chanda's Wars (HarperCollins, 2008), last year's The Grave Robber's Apprentice (reviewed here) has grounded the author's writing feet firmly on middle-grade turf.  With Curse of the Dream Witch, Allan Stratton has secured himself a position in MG youngCanLit.

In the Kingdom of Bellumen, it is the twelfth year of the Great Dread, a time in which parents fear for their children's safety, with boys and girls disappearing at night or in the woods.  All is blamed on the Princess Olivia, whose parents King Augustine and Queen Sophia had sought the help of the Dream Witch in having a child.  The Dream Witch had only asked for a small keepsake which she demands at their daughter's christening: the heart of their daughter, Princess Olivia.  But, Olivia is protected by a dozen pysanky (decorated eggs) gifted to her from Ephemia, the court wizard, and the Dream Witch angrily curses them,
"By the morning of the princess's thirteenth birthday, these twelve pysanky will be destroyed and I will have her heart. Until it beats in my hand, none of your children will be safe." (pg. 11)
So the Great Dread began, with curfews and restrictions placed on the children of the Kingdom, including Olivia, so that they may be kept safe from harm, though many children do go missing and their family homes burned.  By the time Olivia is 12, there is only one of the delicate pysanky left unbroken and she is locked in a turret cell with it and only her books and pet mouse, Penelope. 

Milo, a farmer's son born on the same day as Olivia, is desperate to leave his tedious life of corn farming by day and locked in the house at night.  Accidentally, Milo ventures into the woods and is taken by the Dream Witch, awakening in a glass jar, one of many with children from which she takes gratings for her spells. Using a drawing to transport Milo to the armoire in Olivia's turret, the Dream Witch threatens Milo with his parents' lives if he does not bring Olivia to her.  It is fortuitous that Milo is there in the armoire when Olivia decides that she must runaway rather than going with the disgusting and arrogant Prince Leo of Pretonia and his uncle, the Duke of Fettwurst, ostensibly to keep her safe but ultimately for marriage.

So the adventure begins, with everyone tackling their fears, Olivia trying to evade Leo and the Dream Witch, Milo struggling with his need to save his parents but not get Olivia harmed, Penelope showing herself to be...(you'll discover this when you read the book) and Leo and the Dream Witch manipulating everyone with lies and magic.  For Olivia, Milo and Penelope, it's a perilous escapade through repugnant heaps of earthworms, demon dolls, deceiving look-alikes, and other beasts, with only fear, friendship and courage to guide their actions.

Curse of the Dream Witch is a cautionary tale that illustrates, as the Dream Witch so aptly recognizes, "Dreams can become nightmares" (pg. 4) with Allan Stratton's imagery so visual that the nightmare is almost tangible. From the Dream Witch's nose that was,
"Longer than an elephant's trunk, and twice as wrinkled, its base spanned the width of her forehead, descending between her eyes to her waist, where it coiled around her body and looped itself into a belt." (pg. 4)
 to Leo who was "... slimy, with spots. Sweat dripped from his pasty cheeks, while his pimples glistened like ripe cherries" (pg. 59) and a beast with, "Claws attached to tentacles with suckers the size of plates." (pg. 152-3) Yuck, right? In the true spirit of folktales and fairy tales, children's stories that include supernatural elements such as the magic of the Dream Witch, Curse of the Dream Witch does more than teach about perseverance and self-respect and caring for others (that's the teacher in me talking): it entertains with humour, irreverence and surrealistic repugnance, without the violence.  I can already hear the laughs and "Yucks" soundtrack that is sure to accompany any reading of Curse of the Dream Witch.

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