Wee Free Men is the first of four books about Tiffany Aching. In Book 1, Tiffany is nine years old and thinking about becoming a witch. She discovers that she has unusual powers when she is able to bash a sea monster over the head (using her sticky baby brother as bait). She is visited by the Nac Mac Feegles, or the Wee Free Men, or the Pictsies – you choose your term. The Feegles are six-inch tall kilt-wearing Scotsmen with blue skin and read hair who love drinking, fighting, and other rough activities.
The Wee Free Men are hilarious, and if you love all things Scottish half as much as I do, you’ll enjoy this book. Also if you love the kind of tongue in cheek brand of fantasy you find in A. Lee Martinez or Christopher Moore or Douglas Adams. Pratchett is excellent at turning all the witch-and-wizardry clichés on their heads (for example, pointing out that Tiffany is a most inappropriate name for a witch, or poking fun at schools for teenage witches and wizards).
At the same time, as with any good children’s book, it’s not all humor. Tiffany struggles with resentment towards her baby brother, mourning the loss of a beloved grandmother, and generally feeling out of place in the world. She comes to find that her brains, quick-thinking and courage are characteristics she can feel good about. Tiffany learns a lot about who she is in the course of this book. Perfect for any child who feels like a misfit.
The story begins with 9-year-old Tiffany deciding that a witch is what she wants to be. She seeks out a witch who can tell her more about witchcraft, not realizing that the witch is in fact looking for her. It turns out Tiffany is pretty powerful, despite being raised on chalk (because, of course, the soil is too soft to breed good witches). Just as Tiffany’s trying to learn more about her abilities, an evil fairy queen steals Tiffany’s baby brother and threatens to unleash nightmare monsters into the world.
While the book is very funny, the fantasy story itself is pretty dark, including things like nightmares that become real and a fairy world you can become trapped in and lose your mind.
But all of my favorite children’s books are dark. If you don’t realize how dark Roald Dahl, Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, etc. could be, go back and read them some time. There’s something about fantastic horror that is meaningful to kids. Peggy Orenstein in Cinderella Ate My Daughter talked to a psychologist about the impact of Grimm’s Fairy Tales on children (the really gruesome classic versions), and was told that the fairy tales are actually an important way for children to process their fears about the real world.
But that suggests The Wee Free Men has some kind of deep psychological purpose. I’m not sure that’s true. I mainly like the little blue men in kilts who drink, swear, fight, and have names like “Slightly Bigger Than Wee Jock But Not So Big as Middle-Sized Jock Jock”.
I’d buy this for my nieces, and probably will. It’s completely enjoyable, perfect for any YA or adult who loves a good fantasy story. It reminded me a lot of a Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) story, but written for a slightly younger audience. Book Two is A Hat Full of Sky — now I have one more book to add to my TBR list.