For those of you who have never read The Witches (and if you haven’t, you should – stop reading this post, which contains spoilers about the ending, and pick it up!), the basic plot is this: a young boy and his beloved grandmother enter into a battle with the witches of England. They come out victorious, but the boy has been turned into a mouse.
The ending is bittersweet because even though the boy is permanently a mouse, he muses that it’s actually quite perfect because the life expectancy of a mouse is similar to the amount of time that his grandmother has left on this earth, so they won’t be alive without the other for very long.
As a kid, this ending upset me. A lot. It disrupted the saccharine, clean narratives of less interesting books and movies to which I was also exposed. Only as an adult do I really appreciate how good it is – how rare a gift it is to fill readers with such a sense of disquiet. Roald Dahl is the master of the macabre ending, but too often parents find these sorts of unpleasant endings objectionable – something their children shouldn’t be exposed to. But how else do you prepare children for a world in which nothing wraps up neatly?