The Story We Found in the Woods by Paul Noth
While writing my middle-grade novel debut, How to Sell Your Family to the Aliens, I found myself reflecting on other stories I created for kids over the years. Growing up with eight siblings, I often had to babysit while still a child myself. I learned early on that stories got kids to listen and engage. And a good one could even create order — at least temporarily — out of chaos.
This lesson was put to the test after my freshman year of college, when I somehow landed a summer job as a day-camp counselor for a Milwaukee community center. Five days a week, we would take about one hundred kids from the city to a nearby state park.
Most of the other counselors were experienced teachers — some with advanced degrees. Though I only had two semesters as a creative writing major, I wasn’t worried. I’d attended the same sorts of Milwaukee Public Schools as these kids and figured I could handle them.
My group of twelve seven-year-olds saw things differently. You could pick us out from across the park — a screaming swirl of misbehavior with me flailing about idiotically to restore order.
My threats of consequences meant nothing to them. The only one who even listened to me was a little girl with yellow barrettes named Deidre, who followed my every direction with a look of profound sympathy on her face.
My campers took to howling profanity whenever we got within earshot of other park-goers. I felt sure I’d be fired before the end of the day, so to get them away from innocent civilians, I decided we should take a nature walk through the woods.
There, my worries took a darker turn.
Every kid but Deidre refused to stay on the path. They went tearing off in all directions, leaping over tree stumps and plunging down rocky ravines.
What if someone broke a leg? Or went missing? Or got abducted? I had visions of search parties and police helicopters.
In my panic, I changed tactics.
“Get back on the path right now!” I bellowed. “Or the witch will get you!”
The kids went quiet. Maybe they’d heard the real fear in my voice.
“Shh,” I hissed. “Listen. You can hear her breathing underground.”
The wind was picking up.
“Naw,” said a boy named Michael. “Witches don’t come out during the day.”
“She doesn’t have to come out herself,” I said. “She sends her henchmen, who catch you and take you down to her cave.”
“What’s a henchman?”
“They were kids themselves once,” I said, “before they wandered off the path. The witch reached up from under the leaves and grabbed them. Deep underground, she fed them a potion. Their skin turned gray, their bodies stretched out to fifty feet long! Now they look just like trees. You can’t tell a tree from a henchman until it snatches you up!”
By now all the kids were back on the path. They crowded me with questions about the witch. My answers unspooled into a story as we crossed the woods. After we emerged from the trees, I decided I had better bottle some of this power for later.
“I’ll tell you the rest after lunch,” I said.
“If you’re good,” I said. “And if you’re really good, tomorrow I might show you the hollow tree that leads down to her cave.”
The Witch obsessed them for days. While the other campers drew Ninja Turtles, my kids sketched the eerie tree-like Henchmen, the Witch in her cave, and the unfortunate children who wandered off the path.
The other counselors congratulated me on turning my group around.
I was feeling pretty good about myself, until one evening at pickup when a parent took me aside.
“I’m Deidre’s mom,” she said. “What’s all this about a witch? Deidre’s been having bad dreams.”
I felt horrible. How could I have been so stupid? So… unjust? I had punished my one well-behaved kid with nightmares, while rewarding the troublemakers with macabre thrills just to keep them in line.
Apologizing to Deidre’s mom, I promised to put an end to the Witch.
Easier said than done. I had unleashed an imaginary monster that I had no idea how to kill.
By now my kids were telling their own tales of the Witch on our nature walks.
To stop them, I started a new story of my own.
I don’t know why I made it about the Witch and a scared little girl. I don’t know why I modeled this girl “Stacy” on Deidre, right down to the barrettes. The idea, which shouldn’t have made any sense, only became logical in the telling. Stacy, the one kid who listened, who paid attention, who took things seriously, really would discover the secret to slaying the monster.
But how would a girl kill a witch?
With a bucket of water of course. This was far more convenient than an oven in a candy cottage.
Despite the unoriginality of this twist, the kids were thunderstruck by the death of the Witch and fascinated by our new unlikely hero, whom the grateful forest creatures named “Stacy Witchkiller.”
With the Witch dead, my campers wanted more stories about Stacy. Deidre especially wanted stories about her. Scary monsters were fine, but only in Stacy Witchkiller stories.
Though I got better at that job, it was never easy. Every night I fell into bed as though I’d been doing manual labor all day.
I was relieved to go back to college in the fall. When my writing friends asked if I’d come up with any new stories over the summer, I said I’d been too busy to write a word, which was true.
I’m certainly not the author of Stacy Witchkiller. That story’s older than “authors.” It’s older than civilization. It still lives where our ancestors first found it, in the woods.
Paul Noth’s cartoons have appeared regularly in The New Yorker since 2004. He has created short animated films for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and been an animation consultant for Saturday Night Live.