(Houghton Mifflin, 1992)
Oh, what a talented man, that Chris Van Allsburg! His realistic, yet fanciful black and white illustrations are masterpieces, works I can marvel at, feeling simultaneously calmed and inspired. But he adds to the awe through clever story ideas, compellingly written. In fact, the opening sentences of The Widow’s Broom caught my attention even before the art:
Witches’ brooms don’t last forever. They
grow old, and even the best of them, one
day, lose the power of flight.
What a concept, what an introduction. Immediately, we think of a broom as a character. The introduction further entertains:
Fortunately, this does not happen in an instant. A witch can feel the
strength slowly leaving her broom. The sudden bursts of energy that
once carried her quickly into the sky become weak. Longer and longer
running starts are needed for takeoff. Speedy brooms that, in their youth,
outraced hawks are passed by slow flying geese.
Pardon the pun, but now we’re fully swept up in our imaginations. We consider the life of a broom. We empathize with such brooms whose glory days were long ago. Moreover, we visualize without Van Allsburg’s illustrations. How fun to imagine a witch making unsuccessful running starts in hopes of flying! How amusing to picture the same exasperated witch falling behind a flock of honking geese! (And oh how those of us with clunker cars can suddenly identify with a witch!)
One day a worn out witch’s broom lands in—or plummets into—a widow’s garden. Naturally, it comes with a witch, but she makes a witchy exit, abandoning the useless broom. To the widow’s surprise, the broom retains some of its magic, displaying its skills as an obsessive sweeper. With a little redirection, the widow comes to welcome the broom. However, her neighbors, particularly Mr. Spivey, feel differently. “’This is a wicked, wicked thing,’ he said. ‘This is the devil.’”
This is a story about superstition, about suspicion, about refusing to modify one’s black-and-white views of good and evil. This is also the story of triumph, not so much the broom’s but the widow’s. Indeed, superstitious beliefs can be manipulated.
Children will easily connect with the broom and side with it when it is taunted, perhaps even bullied. (Though I would argue the broom is never the victim. There is no imbalance of power. If anything, the broom has the upper hand.) It is only at the end or during a repeated reading that an audience will view the story more from the widow’s point of view. This is a wonderful book to use with students in discussing perspective taking. Think as the broom, as the Spivey parents, as the Spivey children and ultimately as the widow. All of these characters have different reasons for their thoughts and their behaviors. A fanciful book like The Widow’s Broom can shed light on real situations, on the notion of fear, on the utility of objects and on how cleverness may prevail.