Book Review + Excerpts for Close Reading. In Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (winner of Sibert Honor Award for Nonfiction), Schanzer’s straightforward text and stunning illustrations will captivate middle grade readers. The narrative is non-stop craziness – revealing how beliefs can drive a community to foolishness and the devastation of members’ lives.
CAUTION: You may need to help launch students’ reading of this text. The first couple of pages are dense in vocabulary and the content is worthy of close reading and careful discussion. Schanzer describes the beliefs of the Puritans – in two worlds – the natural world of humans and “the Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms of the air” p. 14. (BTW – chapter one starts on page 13. I’d do a close reading of pages 13-15.) Students have to “get” this idea in order to understand the rest of the book and deepening their understanding at this point may serve to deepen their understanding of the rest. No doubt, there are students out there who may not need this support especially if they have been in a unit of study on this period in American history. Just something to consider.
Schanzer’s writing is strong – she doesn’t “make up” what happened; her writing is straight forward. For example, when describing how a former minister in Salem village was accused of being a wizard, she writes “Burroughs was examined…” – in other words, she doesn’t turn it into a drama. You can tell she’s relying on primary and authoritative secondary sources and careful not to embellish.
I don’t know enough about art to comment well on her illustrations – but they set the tone for the book and are worthy of close reading/viewing and discussion by students. I appreciated that at the beginning of the book, she included a two-page layout of portraits of the “accused” with their names and who they were and another two-page layout of the “accusers.” This made for easy referencing if I needed clarity for who the players were at certain points in the narrative.
I’d definitely have this in my middle school classroom library and even encourage pairs or small groups of students to read and discuss. There could be some powerful discussion and essays written in response to questions like, “How does a person’s beliefs drive his/her actions? Why is this important to consider?” These are questions that can serve as lenses for reading other informational texts as well.