Hiding in Plain Sight: A Halloween Post

October 7, 2021 § 1 Comment

After hitting the snooze button on Halloween last year while in temporary housing, we were extra-enthused to unbox our spooky decorations last weekend—especially our Halloween books! (Do you pack up your Halloween books with the decorations so you can re-discover them every year? Trust me on this.) As my kids have gotten older, we’ve offloaded many seasonal picture books, and those left are the ones we can’t bear to give up. This includes old favorites like Creepy Carrots, Old Black Witch, The Monsters’ Monster, I am a Witch’s Cat, In a Dark, Dark Room…along with more recent favorites, like The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt and Gustavo the Shy Ghost (for the love of all cuteness, please add this book to your collection…I recently Instagrammed about it here).

Then there are the spooky chapter books we’ve loved reading aloud in past Octobers—by candlelight, of course—like James and Deborah Howe’s classic, Bunnicula, and Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. (I recently did an Instagram video with these and many more, including the books my kids claim are too scary for me to attempt, but darned if we will get to them someday. Also, let’s compare witchy cackles, shall we?)

Which brings us to 2021, where I’ve combed through dozens of Halloween-ish new releases to tell you my favorite. The story I’ve chosen is about vampires—of the modern, hip, urban variety—though it has nothing to do with the actual holiday of Halloween. Which means you get to decide whether you pack it up on November 1st or let it stay out all year round. Who am I kidding? There’s not a chance your kiddos are going to let you pack up this one. In Vampenguin (Ages 3-6), Lucy Ruth Cummins—no stranger to the Halloween market ever since she wrote the darling Stumpkin—has created a story that abounds with visual gags and makes perfect use of that irresistible trope of storytelling, where the reader is in on the joke long before the characters themselves are.

Have you ever considered how a baby vampire and a baby penguin could be mistaken for one another? Nope, me neither. That’s where the fun (and the funny) begins. And, lest you think Vampenguin sounds big on antics and short on artistry, I assure you that Cummins’ expressive line work and limited color palette, awash in turquoise, orange, and pink, elevate the story in both whimsy and wonder.

It’s Saturday, and the Dracula family—mom, dad, and two kids—are up early to beat the crowds to the zoo. They’re not the only ones with this inspired idea, but they eventually get through the turnstiles and into a zoo that bears (is it just me?) a striking resemblance to New York City’s Central Park Zoo, where I grew up going on special Saturdays. Just like in our family, “their first stop was always the Penguin House.”

Is there anything better for little people than a Penguin House? The floor-to-ceiling glass ensures a view for every height, plus the penguins are guaranteed waddling entertainment. At the same time, the rooms are “chilly, dark, and full of visitors” (also, according to my mom, littered with the germs of face-smudged glass). So, when Mother Dracula is distracted by a phone call and Father Dracula is crouching down by his oldest child, is it any wonder no one notices littlest Dracula wiggling his way out of the stroller and disappearing through a door after a zookeeper with a feeding bucket?

The Draculas’ baby, sporting black-and-white garb with an orange pacifier peeking out of his mouth, is a doppelganger for a beaked baby penguin just his size. Before anyone is the wiser, the two switch places. Baby Dracula saunters into the penguin enclosure, and the baby penguin hops into the empty stroller in the viewing area. Just in time, too, since Mother and Father Dracula are ready to move on to the next exhibit (so many animals, so little time). Readers watch as Father Dracula even belts in the penguin imposter without so much as a look his way.

And they’re off! The story now moves back and forth between the penguin enclosure, where Baby Dracula enjoys breakfast with the other penguins—not with quite the same table manners—and the baby penguin gets a front row seat to all the zoo animals he’s never seen before. The narration continues to read like nothing is amiss—just a regular Saturday at the zoo—with the pictures revealing the fun and fallout from this case of mistaken identity.

While the three Draculas are busy arguing over whether they’re looking at a brown bear or a grizzly, our young penguin is busy ordering himself one snow cone after another. (Gotta keep cool.)

While the penguins back at the exhibit show off their fancy dives, Baby Dracula makes his own splash out of the water, donning a pink towel as a fashion accessory. (Kids will need their adult readers to help translate some of these gags; in this case, a vampire’s fear of water.)

On it goes, each picture more amusing than the last, with vampire and penguin each staying true to themselves the entire time they’re out of their respective elements. No one appears to be the wiser! Well, there are a few children in the penguin exhibit who withdraw in horror when they notice Baby Dracula bearing his fangs before hanging upside down among the penguins.

The Draculas’ zoo trip concludes with the purchase of a black balloon for the older sibling (“his favorite color”) and a family photo opp outside the Penguin House. It’s here that the two imposters resume their rightful places—just in the nick of time.

The story doesn’t end there, but I won’t spoil the last few pages. Though everyone may be back where they belong, life in the penguin enclosure will never be quite the same. And the Draculas have the photo to prove it.

Whether on Halloween night or a sunny Saturday morning, the culprit could be hiding in plain sight.  

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Book gifted by Simon & Schuster. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn a small kickback from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we shop local and support our communities when we can. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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