One week after nine-year-old Tiffany decides to become a witch, a parallel world in which dreams are true latches onto Tiffany’s world, and the queen of the parallel world kidnaps Tiffany’s little brother. Aided by a clan of six-inch-high warriors, Tiffany uses her wits (the real source of a witch’s power) and a little bit of magic to save her brother and her world from the evil queen.
Theme of the book: “Them as can do has to do for them as can’t. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.”
Kid-o-meter ratings (1 = lowest or least, 5 = highest or most)
1. This book made me laugh out loud: 5. This is one of the funniest fantasy books I have ever read. You’ll laugh out loud, and you may find yourself smiling at random times of the day whenever you happen to think of the Wee Free Men.
2. This book has good action: 3. Much of the action in this book is comedy-type action, but not all of it. The main character is armed with brains and a frying pan, and she’s not afraid to use either. Her six-inch helpers, the fearsome Wee Free Men of the book’s title, are armed with swords and hard skulls. They fight everything that stands in their way and many things that don’t.
3. This book is suspenseful: 4. This adventure book keeps you guessing about the answers to a number of questions, large and small. They include: Will Tiffany become a witch? Was her grandmother a witch or just a wise woman? What happened to the Baron’s son? Can Tiffany save her brother from the evil queen? Can she save her world from the queen’s world? What will the Wee Free Men say and do next?
5. The ending does not disappoint: 4. The ending is excellent but lengthy. The whole last third of the book is long, with Tiffany and the Wee Free Men battling their way through an evil forest, at least three dreams, a painting, and a final confrontation in the real world.
6. I cared a lot about what happened to these characters: 4. From Tiffany and the Wee Free Men to Tiffany’s sticky little brother Wentworth, I cared about everyone in the book—even some of the monsters.
1. How old is the main character? Nine.
2. Is there a group of friends I can imagine I’m part of? There’s a group of friends, but only one of them is a kid. It’s easy to imagine you’re along for the adventure with Tiffany and the Wee Free Men. It’s not quite the same, though, as imagining you’re part of a group of kids like the ones created by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, The Kane Chronicles), John Flanagan (The Ranger’s Apprentice, Brotherband), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), or C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). It’s more like being in Frank L. Baum’s world (Oz), on an adventure with Dorothy and her friends.
3. Is this a series or just one book? This book is part of a series. The other books in the series are A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight.
4. Does it get off to a fast start? I am not a patient reader—I like things to start with a bang—and I would say it gets off to a medium start. You need to be patient through the first chapter, which features a witch spying on Tiffany, and the first part of the second chapter, in which Tiffany lies on her stomach beside a stream, thinking. Then the Wee Free Men appear and things get going.
5. Is there at least one nice grownup? Yes, almost all the grownups are nice, although some of them are not all that smart.
6. Does it get mushy? (Is there L-O-V-E?). Nope, no mush. (But parents please see the section on mature themes below—there’s a brief section in here about making babies, seen from the perspective of a matter-of-fact farm kid.)
1. What’s the major source of suspense? This is a comedy-adventure, and much of the suspense derives from wondering what the Wee Free Men, the Keystone Kops of Fairyland, are going to do or say next. OK, so they’re not exactly Keystone Kops, but they are very, very funny.
Your kids will also wonder whether Tiffany will achieve her goal of becoming a witch, whether her grandmother was a witch or just a wise woman, what happened to the Baron’s son, whether Tiffany will save her brother from the evil queen, and whether she’ll save her world from the queen’s world.
There’s also the larger question of whether and how Tiffany will come to terms with the death of her beloved grandmother, an event that occurred before the beginning of the book. This question runs subtly throughout the entire novel and is beautifully resolved in the end.
2. Which classic fantasy elements does the book contain? Parallel worlds, fairies of all kinds, witches with and without pointy hats, witches’ familiars (a talking toad), warlocks (mentioned in passing), monsters, an evil queen, and magic.
3. What’s the book’s take on tolerance and empathy? These were not major themes in the book. The book has other important themes, though. (Please the section below on “Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child?”).
4. Is there profanity? There’s lots of profanity, all of it made up. If “Crivens!” counts as swearing, the Wee Free Men swear a blue streak (“Crivens, I’m as quiet as a wee moose!”).
5. Is there violence? A lot. The violence involving the Wee Free Men is cartoonish; I didn’t think it was disturbing. There are, however, at least two events in the book I did find disturbing. First, Tiffany relates the story of how the locals killed an old woman they suspected of being a witch. The villagers also killed the old woman’s cat. The old woman was not a witch at all, and the cat was just a cat. This is what I think of as realistic violence—it could happen, and I’m sure it has—and I find it much more disturbing than the antics of the Wee Free Men.
The second scene I found heavy was the one in which several Wee Free Men are seen to be dead after a battle, although none we know by name. The blow is softened somewhat when the reader learns the Wee Free Men consider death to be a passport back into the world from which they came, and, although that world was not as nice as Discworld (the “real” world of the story), they are not bothered by the thought of going back.
Both these scenes of violence come in the first third of the book and serve to raise the stakes and the level of suspense throughout the rest of the book. Because of the death of the old woman and her cat, the reader realizes that Tiffany’s choice of occupation is a dangerous one, not to be made lightly, and that she will have to use her wits to stay alive. Because of the second, the reader realizes that the writer isn’t above killing off Wee Free Men, so you can’t be entirely sure all your favorites will survive to the end.
6. How about mature themes?
a. Deaths and coping with death. Mature themes include the death of the woman suspected of being a witch, her cat, and the anonymous Wee Free Men described above. And as noted above, one of the major threads that runs through the book is Tiffany coping with the death of her beloved grandmother, an event that took place before the book opens.
b. Making babies. There’s a scene in which the matriarch and leader of the Wee Free Men dies, making Tiffany swear to be her temporary successor. Minutes after, Tiffany discovers one of her duties as leader is to marry a Wee Free Man and have lots of babies. Neither Tiffany nor the Wee Free Men are happy about this. Tiffany quickly finds a way out of the conundrum, but not before the reader finds out Tiffany knows how babies are made: she’s been raised on a farm and has observed sheep mating. The description of mating sheep isn’t overly explicit, and I would certainly have let my son read this book as early as he was able—in his case, about the age of ten—but no two parents are the same, and people have different ideas about what’s appropriate for their kids to read at any given age.
c. Fightin’, stealin’, and drinkin’. The Wee Free Men are rowdy, six-inch drinkers covered with blue tattoos. They would steal the humps off a camel if they could. Here they are, introducing themselves to Tiffany:
“We are a famously stealin’ folk. Aren’t we, lads? What’s it we’re famous for?”
“Stealin’!” shouted the blue men.
“And what else, lads?”
“And what else?”
“And what else?” There was a certain amount of thought about this, but they all reached the same conclusion.
“Drinkin’ and fightin’!”
I found them utterly charming and laugh-out-loud funny but realize there are some parents who might be put off by the idea of a book in which the lovable main characters are thieving, rowdy, kilt-wearing, sword-wielding drinkers with blue tattoos and poor personal hygiene. It’s possible the Wee Free Men will influence your kids, but I wouldn’t be so sure. In my experience the stuff that influences my son is almost never what I expect. Like the mushrooms in the hit-the-mushroom games at Chuck-E-Cheese, influences pop up from the most unforeseen places and leave me reeling with surprise. Go figure.
In a clever twist at the end of the book, Tiffany’s little brother Wentworth is influenced by his late-book encounter with the Wee Free Men: “Wentworth had taken to running through the house with a tablecloth around his waist shouting, ‘Weewee mens! I’ll scone you in the boot!’ but Mrs. Aching was still so glad to see him back, and so happy that he was talking about things other than sweets, that she wasn’t paying too much attention to what he was talking about.”
7. What about dark creatures? There are plenty of dark creatures in the parallel world, and some of them slip into the real world and attack. Tiffany and the Wee Free men fight the headless horseman and grimhounds. They face down beings called dromes that manipulate people’s dreams, various kinds of stinging fairies, an army of nameless monsters from nightmares, and the evil queen herself—and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. There may be more.
8. What’s the take on religion and/or God in the book?
a. Heaven. The characters discuss their beliefs about heaven at least once; the Wee Free Men think Discworld (the world in which the book is set) is heaven.
b. Churchgoing. There is a section in which the writer says the locals, most of whom are shepherds, don’t frequently attend church but rather spend their lives taking care of their sheep. They bury their dead with little tufts of wool so God will realize they were busy shepherds and hopefully cut them some slack.
c. Witches. The witches in Discworld are good guys (see the section on civic duty and moral courage below). They tend to use their heads and refrain from magic whenever possible, but they do occasionally use magic. This didn’t bother me at all, but everyone is different, and some people I know are particularly opposed to any positive portrayal of witches, no matter to what end. You will need to decide for yourself what you think about this aspect of Wee Free Men. Personally I think it would be a shame to miss such a good book because one dislikes the idea of a positive portrayal of witchcraft. A compromise would be to read the book with your child and discuss the issue together.
9. What about politics and government? The writer has what is to my mind a pleasantly beady-eyed view of the local baron and his rule. He presents the baron as neither entirely evil nor entirely good, and as much easier to live with after Tiffany’s grandmother puts him in his place. Nevertheless, the baron has countenanced some terrible things before the book opens, including the killing of an old lady suspected to be a witch, and the world needs someone to hold his power in check. What’s more, the baron remains believably none-too-smart right to the end of the book. The various scenes describing what Tiffany’s grandmother did to keep the Baron’s power in check and Tiffany’s takeover of her grandmother’s role are well worth discussing with your children.
10. Any gender issues whack you in the eye? Oh, yes, but in the best possible way. Tiffany is intelligent, logical, independent, and courageous. The writer acknowledges gender inequality in his world in several places. For instance, near the beginning, he writes that “Unlike wizards, witches learn to make due with a little.” There’s a hint near the end that witches and wizards don’t live in absolute harmony with each other, when a witch says to Tiffany, “It [magic] don’t take much intelligence, otherwise wizards wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Last but far from least, there’s a lovely plot thread in which Tiffany encounters the baron’s useless son, the baron glorifies his son’s role in Tiffany’s adventures, and Tiffany reacts in a way that’s perfect fodder for a conversation with your middle-grade reader—no matter how you feel about traditional gender roles or where your opinions fall on the political map.
11. Any other important themes or issues crop up that you might want to discuss with your child? In addition to the many issues discussed above, the topic of civic duty and moral courage comes up. Tiffany has character, by which I mean she has moral courage and a deep sense civic duty. The theme here is embodied in a quote from Tiffany’s grandmother, which guides the grandmother’s, Tiffany’s, and the witches’ actions: “Them as can do has to do for them as can’t. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.” Thus Tiffany sets out to save her little brother even though she doesn’t love him in the classic definition of the word. She protects her people and her country because they’re hers, not because they deserve it—and she lets somebody else have the credit.
At the end of the book, one of the witches tells her that’s the role of witches in Discworld: “We look to . . . the edges . . . . There’s a lot of edges, more than people know. Between life and death, this world and the next, night and day, right and wrong . . . an’ they need watchin’. We watch ‘em, we guard the sum of things. And we never ask for any reward.”
12. Is this book especially challenging to read, and if so, why? Yes, because the Wee Free Men speak a dialect I assume is based on Scottish but with scads of apparently made-up words. The dialect is one of the high points of the book, but you need to be pretty good with the phonics (phonetics?) to read it.
My son has dyslexia, and he’s not able to look at combinations of letters on the page and hear how they sound in his head. We’ve solved this problem of how to read books like this by using his Kindle’s read-out-loud function. He looks at the words on the page while listening to the Kindle’s machine voice read.
13. How’s the writing? What’s the author’s major strength and weakness? This is the most talented writer I have reviewed so far; he’s quite simply superb. I try to write—I’ve finished two books so far, one terrible and one OK—and let me tell you, this guy leaves me just about as far back in his dust as a person can get, and he’s not even breathing hard.
Terry Pratchett’s writing is at the front of the pack in every way I can judge: ear for language and dialogue, deft handling of a multi-layered plot, laugh-out-loud humor, irony, depth of characterization, hard work (where most writers would stop, he takes another step, gives it more thought, and polishes it so it shines), and sheer imagination. This is Master Yoda, and I’m in awe. Maybe after I’ve written a dozen more books I’ll be able to spot an Achilles heel, but not at my present level of ability and craftsmanship.
I would in fact recommend this book highly to adults. Your kids will enjoy it, but they will not get all the jokes or see all the themes. This is a rich book by a highly experienced, startlingly clever, hard-working, imaginative author, and there’s more here than meets the eye in a first or even a second reading. I’ll be reading it a third time soon to examine how the writer wove together his many plot threads, because it’s a tour de force, and he makes it look easy.
14. Might some people be upset by the spelling or grammar? Perhaps. I have a friend who is not a native speaker of English and who just became an American. She wants her kids to see proper spelling and good examples of grammar in books, and she gets irritated when books contain purposeful errors.
Many of the characters in this book use contractions and make grammatical mistakes, and the Wee Free Men speak a made-up dialect. I find this kind of dialogue a strength of the book, but some readers may not.