Why Are Witches Green?

girl witch green pot

We all know that witches ride brooms and keep black cats for sidekick pets, but why the green witch? That tradition started more recently than you might think.

The history of witches is terrifying and sad and is basically the story of marginalised people. Worse, people around the contemporary world are still abused because of supernatural beliefs about their so-called witchcraft.

In children’s literature, however, witches are a useful trope.

We’re all familiar with the idea that witches ride brooms.

But when did witches become green?



The Green Witch In The Wizard Of Oz

Before the film adaptation, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz looked like this:

Wicked Witch of the West by original illustrator William Wallace Denslow

Anton Loeb illustration of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz

Then the film was made. If successful, a film changes a work permanently. Just as Disney has forever placed in our minds the names of the seven dwarfs (who were never named before that), the film starring Judy Garland forever left us with the image of the green Wicked Witch Of The West.

Margaret Hamilton in the 1939 film

The green-skinned crone is actually a relatively new incarnation of the evil witch – in fact, while the evil witch as a cultural narrative dates back millennia, the green skin dates precisely back to 1939 and the MGM film, The Wizard of Oz. Margaret Hamilton’s cackling and emerald-tinted portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West, rendered in vivid Technicolor, is the only reason that anyone associates green skin with witches. As Professor Marion Gibson, associate professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at the University of Exeter and an expert in popular depictions of witches, explained, via email, “There are a few images of witches for instance, on Halloween postcards with odd coloured faces (usually red/orange, surprisingly) but MGM’s green-faced witch is the first to make a key feature of a completely non-human skin colour.”

Why Are Witches Green? from Boing Boing

There is a sad story of actor abuse behind Margaret Hamilton’s greenness.

On 23 December 1938, while filming the Wicked Witch’s exit from Munchkinland in a blaze of fire, Hamilton suffered first-degree burns on the right side of her face and second-degree burns on her right hand; the flames rose too soon, before she had descended below the stage. Hamilton’s green makeup was copper-based and potentially toxic, and had to be removed from her burned flesh with alcohol — an intensely painful process. She was not able to return to the movie until 10 February. When she did return, she wore green gloves, since her hand was not yet fully healed.

OzWikia

Soon, witches in picture books turned green under the influence of the Wizard of Oz.

Below is an illustration for the Charles Perrault’s 1961 depiction of Sleeping Beauty. The wicked fairy is depicted as an ugly green witch, to match her ugly personality.

La belle au bois dormant : The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories, retold by Shirley Goulden; illustrated by Benvenuti, 1961

In the 1977 illustration below the skin is grey and sallow but the greenness is still there, in her gown. To make use of some very basic symbolism — the fairy is experiencing feelings of envy because she has not been invited to the party.

Sleeping Beauty grey green witch
Illustration by Sheilah Beckett, 1977

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked

There have been many, many retellings of The Wizard of Oz but the most culturally significant of those must be Wicked, in which Elphaba’s greenness is central.

[A] witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz’. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.

Socademia

Macbeth’s witches were not green in Shakespeare’s day. So we know this cartoon is post Wizard of Oz movie.

Why green, though?

Green skin makes a character unambiguously non-human, so there’s one reason for the green skin. But there are real-world illnesses which can give skin a greenish hue.

Physical damage of various sorts can cause greenish skin. These causes include infections, fungal attack, chemical damage, bruising, and gangrene, among others.

Holidappy

Witches tend to be green and sick looking when they are not sexualised. (Not sure if you can be sexualised AND green — I’m sure it can be done):

Witches in popular literature and media […] became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. […] “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” […] Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterisation of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function”.

However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company.

Socademia

GREEN WITCHES AND… LITTLE GREEN MEN?

If I say ‘little green men’, you know I mean aliens, right?

Since when were aliens meant to be green? 1947 is when. The UFO sighting craze kicked off in America in 1941 with the Cape Girardeau flying saucer crash (which definitely happened), but get this, the guy who saw the alien thought it was grey. It was a reporter who made aliens green, in a seemingly off-the-cuff phrase.

Dunno about you, but I think that reporter had seen The Wizard of Oz on film. And I bet In 1946, Harold M. Sherman, who wrote a pulp science fiction book called The Green Man: A Visitor From Space had seen The Wizard of Oz, too. 

The Green Man

Either that or green as Other was in the air. No surprise that Day of the Triffids was published in 1951.

For more on that whole green alien history, listen to Alien Invasion: How Little Green Men Took Over from the Every Little Thing podcast.

SEE ALSO

Header photo by Paige Cody

The Girl Title Trend In Children’s Books

The girl title trend in publishing is interesting because it is popular despite some pushback against using the word ‘girl’ to refer to grown-ass women.

Author Emily St John Mandel wrote this week about why so much of the bestselling fiction this year has ‘girl’ in the title.

  • It’s an evolution on all those titles from a few years ago which emphasise a woman’s relationship to a man. The [X’s] Daughter/Wife and so on.
  • Book titles are like book covers — not decided by authors but by marketing departments.
  • This ‘girl’ trend probably started with the phenomenal success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and marketing departments are hoping to replicate that success.
  • There may be something about ‘girl’ that promises a character arc (with the ‘girl’ becoming a ‘woman’, regardless of the fact she’s already a woman in years at the beginning of the story.)
  • I am slightly disturbed by the stat that when men write books with girl in the title the girl is significantly more likely to be dead by the end of the story than when the book is written by a woman. This leads to the question: Are male authors more likely to kill characters of any gender than female authors, or do best-selling male authors take a particular pleasure in killing off girls?

Those are my takeaway points but the entire article is well worth a read.

Basically, books with girl in the title tell the reader that this is a ‘psychological thriller about middle class white women with jobs’.

girl title tweets

The Girl Title In Kids’ Books

This book impresses me about as much as the UN’s decision to appoint Wonder Woman as its gender equality ambassador, even as the UN itself haemorrhages women in leadership roles.

the-big-book-of-girlpower

Contrast with the ‘boy version’ of the book, reinforcing for everyone that when girls have power it’s ‘girl power’, but boy power is the unmarked version.

the-big-book-of-superpowers

It may be 2016, but be very suspicious about books for young readers which emphasise gender on the cover.

YA titles are a slightly different matter.

Girl Titles In YA

The basic criticism of all those adult novels with girl in the title is about the infantalisation of women. This isn’t an argument when it comes to YA characters who are, indeed, minors.

While Mandel’s article looks only at books marketed at an adult audience, I wondered if those bestselling adult thrillers were influencing marketing decisions in the YA department.

On the Barnes and Noble list of bestselling YA 2016 (so far) we have a standout collection of titles about kings and queens, with a not-insignificant number of covers which are quite obviously hoping to attract Stieg Larsson crossover audiences. When a YA book has ‘girl’ in the title in 2016, it’ll probably be a gritty crime thriller.

dragon-tattoo-cover_472x700 the-girl-from-everywhere_462x700

The word ‘gone’ in the Heidi Heilig cover will also appeal to the Gone Girl audience. (About fifty percent of YA readers are adult women.)

moth-girls-cover

This book doesn’t have ‘girl’ in the title but the cover design is very reminiscent of ‘Gone Girl’. Same font, perhaps?

Moth Girls is a YA thriller. The book tells the story of Mandy, and her friends Petra and Tina. Petra and Tina had gone into an old local house years before and never been seen again. Mandy is only around because she refused to go in with them.

american_girls

In case the American Girl series with the expensive dolls springs immediately to mind, this new publication is a YA crime thriller focusing on a 15-year-old who runs away to Los Angeles to live with her D-list actress sister. The sisters are based on the Manson sisters, who the author researched heavily.

This book is marketed across the pond as My Favourite Manson Girl. So, same book, different English speaking cultures, both with girl in the title.

my-favourite-manson-girl

If I Was Your Girl breaks the mould. This isn’t a crime/thriller but a realistic coming-of-age novel about a transgender girl by a transgender woman.

if-i-was-your-girl-cover

This Goodreads question gave me a chuckle:

if-i-were-your-girl

What will 2017 look like for YA?

I predict more books about transgender because there is a need there, and those books are highly likely to indicate gender in the title or title graphic somehow.

Mandel is hoping adult titles will evolve to include woman in place of girl, and offers an example of that starting to happen. But we’ll have to wait and see, I guess.

The Rule Of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks

Alphonse Mucha- The Moon and the Stars

There is a rule that moons in picture books must be bigger than the look in real life, from anywhere on Earth. I didn’t fully realise this was a rule until a beta reader for Midnight Feast asked me why my moon was so small. In fact, the moon was the ‘correct’ size, but then I realised why he had asked the question: Every single picture book I looked at had an oversize moon.

Why is this? I believe it’s because picturebooks don’t happen in the real world. They happen inside this other reality, in which size is all out of whack. Children can behave autonomously as adults; adults can behave as children.

For the record, the moon at the end of Midnight Feast is now oversized. I did change it. And yeah, it does look better.

final scene from Midnight Feast
final scene from Midnight Feast

There is also an oversized moon in The Artifacts, but because it’s in a picture book, it doesn’t look big, does it?

The Artifacts sheep moon

Why is the moon so important in literature?

  • A (large) moon can infuse your story with magical powers, even when the story is not of the fantasy genre per se.
  • The moon is a physical manifestation of fate.
  • A moon can be seen from everybody, anywhere on Earth and therefore makes a story feel universal, much like a myth.
  • The moon can lend a feminine feel to a story, since it is connected to the menstrual cycle.
  • The moon is comforting, since it waxes and wanes predictably.
  • In picturebooks, for practical purposes, the moon provides a great source of light, making night scenes glow.

The Moon ‘Incorporated’

Sometimes illustrators emphasise the importance of the moon by incorporating the celestial object into the design in a way that makes the moon seem part of the earthly landscape.

On the cover of Slinky Malinki it’s done subtly, with the glow from the moon providing an illuminating frame for the title.

Slinky Malinki cover

Which Witch’s Wand Works? by Poly Bernatene

Which Witch's Wand Works01

Which Witch's Wand Works02

Kay Nielson’s illustrations incorporate the moon more fully into the story, as the story requires:

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson
East of the Sun and West of the Moon, 1914 Kay Nielson

This is a crystal ball, but we’re lead to associate the crystal ball with the moon.

Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson
Red Magic, 1930, Kay Nielson

In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson moon incorporated
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MOON DEPICTED IN ART

One of the oldest portrayals of the moon was made at the height of the Bronze Age. The two-dimensional sculpture, forged from metal and gold, is called the Nebra Sky Disk because of where it was discovered in Germany. It dates to 1600 B.C. and is one of the oldest known depictions of the cosmos. Art historians believe it was probably an astronomical tool, hinting at how some Bronze Age cultures kept watch on the sky.

To the East and many centuries later, the crescent moon appeared in a sculpture called the Stele of Nabonidus. In ancient Babylon, King Nabonidus worshiped the moon god, called Sin, represented as the crescent moon. The king even gestures upward as a mark of his devotion. This piece dates to the sixth century B.C., during the last neo-Babylonian era, when religious worship of the moon was common.

NYT

Exception

In her illustrations of Beauty and the Beast, Schroder creates a fantastical moon which is actually smaller than a real moon.

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

Massive Moons On Book Covers

There’s a graphic design advantage to huge moons as covers — the moon provides a light-coloured circle upon which to showcase the title.

Pitschi

The Moonday Cover moon is massive.
This story was based on the author/illustrator’s dream.

dragon rider

Oversized Moons In Books For Adults

This design feature isn’t limited to kidlit. Adults and teens are also drawn to oversized moons.

Header illustration: Alphonse Mucha- The Moon and the Stars

Composing The Thumbnails Of A Picture Book

composing thumbnail sketches

How do you go about the task of mocking up a picture book? Most picture book illustrators make a dummy of thumbnails, to check the story flows well. Many writers (who are not also illustrators) find this a helpful practice, too.

The following notes are from Framed Ink: Drawing and composition for visual storytellers by Marcos Mateu-Mestre (2010) and various other sources such as Reading Contemporary Picturebooks by David Lewis (2001).

  • When composing a piece, decide first which part of the picture you would like the audience to see first.
    • To draw attention to something, make it bigger, and if it’s not actually bigger, position it closer to the camera.
    • We tend to look towards a vanishing point. So you can position important things there.
    • The audience tends to look in the same direction as the main character, assuming something relevant is going on in that direction.
    • For English-background readers, we are used to reading from left to right. If the action is going in that direction we’ll feel more at ease. If the action is going from right to left we’ll feel something’s not quite right: hard times and difficulty.
  • Decide on the emotion you want to evoke, and its intensity. (Sadness, happiness, action, suspense?)
  • The execution of the artwork — the stylemust suit the type of story being told.
  • In visual storytelling, looking great is not enough. Each work of art (frame) must help to propel the story along. Something which is simply beautiful may pull the viewer out of the story. [I think now of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which some scenes are not vital to the plot but exist only for world-building and atmosphere. This is important too.]
  • Is there anything that can be left out without changing what you want to say?
  • The first shots will establish the milieu and emotional landscape. This must remain consistent until the final frame.
  • To build atmosphere manipulate lighting, pacing and colour.
  • Give the audience the opportunity to create their own reality as much as possible, by creating a gap between the visuals and the text. When answering a question, raise another at the same time.
  • Simplicity, shadows and silences are sometimes more important than detail. Leave the reader wondering about something.
  • Where to position the ‘camera’? Looking up/straight on/from above/from some other weird angle?
  • Naturalistic perspective, flattened or exaggerated?
  • We look at things depending on what we’re focused on at the moment. [So if there was a hint of a gun in one frame, we’ll be expecting to see it, and therefore focused on it, in the following frame.]
  • Curved shapes = subtle/peaceful.
  • Diagonal lines = dynamic/aggressive.
  • Straight lines = assertiveness.
  • Avoid weird coincidences, like a tree growing out of a head just because someone happens to be standing in front of a tree.
  • When cutting in closer to a scene, there is a rule to be followed, to do with proportions. Keep the subject at the same position in both frames so the reader knows it’s the same subject and not a different one.
  • To make an image seem deeper, create an uneven balance of shapes — big to small.
  • To better convey the direction of action in action scenes, make the action follow the lines of perspective.
  • To establish intimacy between two characters, clear the space between them. To create antagonism, put obstacles between them. (Or make use of light and darkness/background shapes.)
  • High and low, right and left are all locations that can have significance. Figures positioned up high may be interpreted as in ecstatic or dream-like states, or may have high social status or a positive self-image.
  • On pages where pictures are mere vignettes or are only partially framed so that the words push in from the side, or where pictures are irregularly sequenced down or across the page in asymmetrical arrangements, then high and low, left and right have no significant value.
  • When studying picturebooks closely, positional codes are used relatively sparingly [when compared to comics and graphic novels].
  • More common in picturebooks: the convention that places figures in motion facing left to right. Any character attempting to move from right to left will be perceived as interfering with the natural course of events: they’ve returned from an adventure/blocking someone’s path/have sinister intentions etc.
  • Children are remarkably quick to take in a scene, even in cases where the illustration is not particularly ept, and interpreting that scene as intended, but there are certain features of visual images that are harder for children to understand: anything which has a meaning over and above what is represented. Children may or may not understand, for instance, that a red cross indicates medical assistance, depending on their age and cultural background.

SEE ALSO

Character Relations In Picturebooks