Book: The Pomegranate Witch
Author: Denise Doyen
Illustrator: Eliza Wheeler
Age Range: 5-10
I wasn't sure what to make of The Pomegranate Witch when I first saw it. It's a slightly undersized picture book, with a dark, old-fashioned-looking cover. Inside the story has an advanced vocabulary and is written entirely in poetry (real poetry, not just upbeat rhymes). But after reading The Pomegranate Witch aloud to my daughter, I've concluded that it is fabulous.
The Pomegranate Witch is about a creepy farmhouse on the outskirts of a small town. In the yard of the farmhouse is an enormous pomegranate tree. The local children covet the fruit of this tree. However, the tree is protected by the Pomegranate Witch. We never see her clearly, but we see her actions as she battles the local children in an effort to guard her fruit. It's unclear for a time whether the witch is real or a sort of group hallucination, but someone blasts the children with water cannons. The mood lightens late in the book, around Halloween night. There's an ambiguity to the ending, though my seven-year-old has not doubts about her interpretation. The ending and the quality of the poetry both make The Pomegranate Witch special.
Here's an example of Denise Doyen's writing:
"And before its sagging porch, amid a weedy foxtail sea,
Found the scary, legendary, haunted pomegranate tree.
The gnarled tree loomed high and wide; its branches scraped the ground.
Beneath there was a fort, of sorts, with leafed walls all around.
Its unpruned limbs were jungle-like, dirt ripplesnaked with roots,
But glorious were the big, red, round, ripe pomegranate fruits."
Don't you love the word choices? (Amid. Ripplesnaked. Gnarled.) I also like the adjective repetition in the last line of each stanza. You wouldn't write "big, red, round, ripe pomegranate fruit" in a regular sentence. But it works here. Last there's this:
"Some clever gangster-pranksters dug a foxhole in the field.
When they peered below the leaves? Witchy work boots were revealed!
Next, they scavenged broken racquets, rusty rakes, a dead tree limb;
What better tools to yank a pomegranate from its stem?"
The rhyme between limb and stem does work, if you read it aloud. It made me stop and give a little nod. The previous page also has a reference to how "forbidden fruit is tempting." Nice subtle biblical reference. This is clearly a book to reward repeated reads. The story itself is suspenseful (Is the witch real? Will the kids get any fruit?), atmospheric, and occasionally humorous.
Eliza Wheeler's illustrations add to the ambiguity surrounding the witch, shown lurking beneath the tree, in shadow, with her broom most visible. They also lend humor, particularly when the Pomegranate Gang is formed, wielding weapons such as rakes and tennis racquets. There's a timeless quality to the images, with girls in dresses and boys in suspenders and bow ties, but the Gang also displays diversity in ethnicities and sizes. Nothing is shown as red in the somewhat muted illustrations, except for the glowing red pomegranates.
Thought-provoking, surprising, entertaining, and gorgeously written and illustrated. The Pomegranate Witch is not to be missed. The advanced vocabulary makes it more of a book for elementary schoolers than preschool kids. It would make a lengthy but wonderful classroom read-aloud for Halloween. Here in my house, the Pomegranate Witch is going on our "keep" shelf. Highly recommended!
Publisher: Chronicle Books (@ChronicleKids)
Publication Date: August 1, 2017
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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