Fertile Ground: Children's Book Review: The Last Wild Witch
I really love children's books. One of my favorite parts of parenting is getting to read books to my son. Kids' books make me happy. When I'm feeling all gloom-and-doom from reading Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion or Jared Diamond's Collapse (both wonderful and highly recommended books, by the way), I can have my son sit down in my lap and feel better reading him Dr. Seuss's Mr. Brown Can Moo, Ezra Jack Keats' One Red Sun, or any of Amy Wilson Sanger's books about ethnic food (she uses cut-outs of paper and cloth to make the pictures of food, which make me both hungry and happy). OK, so my son is only at board-book level, but I think once he hits two and beyond, we may be able to delve into meatier, actual-paper books.
One of these longer, made-of-easy-to-rip-paper books that I am excited to read to him is Starhawk's The Last Wild Witch. When I found out that Starhawk, famed Earth Activist, spiritual feminist, Witch and permaculturist, had written a children's book, I bought it before I knew I was ever going to be pregnant. The pictures, done by artist Lindy Kehoe, are beautiful paintings. The story centers on an herbalist (or witch), and introduces children to a woman healer making healing decoctions with herbs, emphasizing how important it is to keep wilderness, healthy plants, and wild spirits within alive, as well as being appreciative of the women (and men) who take care of the natural world. The herbalist witch in the book knows the natural world intimately, and knows how to respectfully and ethically use plants to make strong teas, brews and "soups." She not only uses the natural world, she is part of it, intertwined seamlessly in its tree branches, helping give health to it just as it gives it back to her.
The one letdown of the book is its lack of class diversity. While I appreciate the whimsical using of different colors for the characters' skin (the child characters of Janey Green and Billy Blue have, yes, green and blue skin), rainbow-colored skin does not a diverse book make. The book starts out with "a perfect town," with each family living in same-size, stand-alone homes. (Really, no one can live in an apartment complex?) I only wish Starhawk could have thrown in a few more relatable tidbits for those that don't live in a small town or suburb, where the idea of scrunched-together buildings and apartments resting on top of convenience stores is not unheard of. Writing a children's book like this is so important to teach kids about getting outside, away from their TVs, appreciating plants, and encouraging them to take part in the natural world, no matter where it may be or how it may look. But not incorporating any different class or lifestyle situations just isolates the cause, speaking to only one sector, making it tough for some kids to apply it to their own lives—and that can't be fixed by painting someone purple.
However, I would still highly recommend this book, if not to own, than to get for your local library. It's helpful in its encouragement of outdoor play and nature appreciation, and what's not to love about paintings of children dancing with rabbits and skunks? I also recommend it in order to introduce the de-stigmatization of the word "witch." The central character is not called a witch in a derogatory way—a rarity for children's lit. Most children's books with the word "witch" in the title will show you a black cap-wearing, sneering, broomstick-riding old woman, and many times with a Halloween theme. This evil-old-woman-in-black trope is incredibly offensive, especially in the light of history's witch burnings, and not particularly helpful in teaching children what it is to be a part of a just, non-discriminatory society. In this book, the witch is a woman making medicine from plants, and her importance is evident. She has many things to show and teach these children. As for making this book more relatable to all kids instead of just some—well, until they learn to read, you can do what I do: Make up some of the words as you go along.
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