Channeling Our Inner Ghost
October 8, 2020 § Leave a comment
In the past seven months, many of us have learned to move with a new heaviness in our body. It’s the extra weight of uncertainty and anxiety, of mask wearing and hyper-vigilance. We may not be able to see it, but it’s there. We find evidence of it in the new depression in our sofa cushions. We find evidence of it in our interrupted sleep patterns, our bizarre dreams, or the way we take an extra day or ten to return emails.
Our kids feel it, too, even when they’re not slogging through school on screens. How many of us have struggled to push our kids out the door—Go ride your bike!—only to be met with resistance: I’m too tired! These babes of yore, previously so quick to bound out the door, to reach for their friends’ hands, to tear down a soccer field, are grappling with their own heaviness from a life disrupted.
Perhaps this is why it’s easy to feel a kinship with the star of the new picture book, The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt, by Canadian team Riel Nason and Byron Eggenschwiler, about a young ghost who envies the weightlessness of ghosts who float easily through the world like the sheets they are. Our ghost is a quilt, and quilts are infinitely heavier than sheets. And when you’re supposed to do ghost-like things but you’re born a quilt—well, it’s easy to feel a little down and out.
It has been a long time since I’ve been excited about a new Halloween book. Let’s be honest: it’s hard to compete with the likes of Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, or Ten Orange Pumpkins—and don’t even get me started on my love for the early reader, In a Dark, Dark Room, or my dog-eared, cherished-above-all copy of The Blue-Nosed Witch. But from the moment I opened The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt, with its moody pencil illustrations rendered in a limited palette, I had another favorite. That it feels more than perfect for this particular Halloween is just a bonus.
“Once there was a little ghost who was a quilt.” Has there ever been a sweeter opener? Just look at that droopy patchwork quilt with the big eyes, gazing out the attic window of his delightfully cobwebbed house. We instantly adore him.
The little ghost doesn’t understand why he was born a quilt. It defies sense. His mom, his dad, and his friends are all sheets, who “flew high and fast and twirled and whirled in the sky.” By contrast, when our ghost tries to fly, his layers of fabric pull him down. He gets hot and sweaty and…“[t]he only time he attempted to twirl and whirl, it didn’t end well.”
The little ghost’s misfortune follows him outside as well. When his friends dart behind a bush at the first sign of human activity (“ghosts are terrified of people”), our ghost makes it only as far as a park bench, where a little boy proceeds to drip “a big blob of melted ice cream right on the little ghost’s face!” Later, as he drags himself back home with an orange stain, the little ghost is laughed at by the other ghosts.
Different is good! Different is special! we might tell our kids. But what young child hasn’t felt the sting of feeling like they don’t fit in? Our little ghost “didn’t like being different.” His mom reassures him that one of his ancestors was a “checkered tablecloth,” another was an “elegant lace curtain.” But none of this helps our little ghost feel better. The moroseness in these pictures might be depressing…if it wasn’t so adorable.
But there’s a bright spot in the little ghost’s existence: Halloween! Halloween is cause for celebration among all ghosts, who marvel at the one day of the year when people get excited about ghosts, when they sometimes even dress up as them. All the ghosts love watching the trick-or-treat festivities, and our quilted ghost is no exception, though he has a harder time keeping out of sight owing to the fact that he can’t hover or move quickly.
This Halloween, however, emboldened by his brief stint on the park bench, the little ghost decides to place himself in the center of the action. He aims to drape himself over a chair on a porch of one of the busiest streets, but he doesn’t make it up the stairs before he hears someone coming. He settles for “flopping” himself over the railing instead.
At once, he watches as a pink-clad ballerina approaches the door, accompanied by her mother in a witch’s costume. When a man answers the door with a bowl of candy, the little ghost notices the mother asking him something. Moments later, the mother picks up the quilt and wraps him around the girl’s shoulders. As the mother pulls her daughter in a wagon, the little ghost realizes he has suddenly shouldered the important responsibility of keeping the girl warm.
When the wagon stops and the girl enters her own house, the ghost is still draped around her shoulders. Surprisingly, he is too curious to be afraid. It’s his first time in an inhabited human home, and he delights in its cozy ambience and ample decorations, particularly the miniature ghosts that look like him.
The ghost stays with the little girl while she sorts through her candy. He is surprised to find he doesn’t even mind when she wipes a bit of chocolate on him. Later, when the girl heads to bed, he relishes the feel of the mother’s hands on him, smoothing and admiring his stitches. As readers, our hearts swell, keenly aware of what it means for this little ghost to be needed, to be desired, to be accepted. To realize that the very thing that makes him different can bring comfort and joy.
At this point, everyone in our family (I should mention each of us read this book independently) had the same reaction: we were certain the ghost would stay with his new human friends. Surprisingly, that’s not what happens, and I respect Riel Nason for making the unexpected narrative choice. Without spoiling the ending, let me say this: sometimes a change of scenery, some self-care, and an unexpected dose of kindness are all we need to unburden ourselves of the heaviness in our hearts. After all, we, like our ghost friend, are just waiting to set ourselves free.
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Published by Tundra Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are used, although I prefer we all shop local and support our communities when we can. My copy is from Politics & Prose, one of my favorite bookstores in Washington DC!