Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Talking Out the Scary

October 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily JenkinsMy daughter loves to tell us that she isn’t afraid of anything (Me thinks thou doth protest too much!). While JP is cowering under a pile of stuffed animals during a thunderstorm, Emily will announce, “I’m not a bit scared of thunder.” Last Halloween, when JP screamed bloody murder as a suspended bloody hand lunged towards him in a haunted house, Emily was quick to point out, “That’s not even real.”

But ask her to go upstairs to get something in the evening, when the lights haven’t been turned on yet, and she will rattle off every excuse in the book as to why she can’t. “I’m super busy helping my baby use the potty right now.” Not surprisingly, JP can’t resist taunting her: “Are you scared of the dark, Emily?” “I’m not scared, JP. I just don’t like it. Also, sometimes you jump out at me.”

In case you missed my list of favorite Halloweeny-but-not-Halloween-specific books, which was featured last week on local blog DIY Del Ray, you can find it here. But before we wrap up one of the best holidays for reading aloud, I want to tell you about one other new picture book. It features ghosts and witches, but it also introduces a broader conversation about what children find scary—and how talking can sometimes be the best cure for what lurks in the dark.

Written by Emily Jenkins (who has yet to write a book I haven’t loved) and charmingly illustrated by Hyewon Yum, The Fun Book of Scary Stuff (Ages 5-8) is told almost entirely through dialogue, via speech bubbles (this is becoming quite the theme lately) between a little boy and his two (talking) dogs. Our protagonist has made a list of “everything that frightens” him, and as he runs down the list in front of his pets, the dogs expose different flaws in his logic. Witches might “put spells on you,” the larger of the two dogs concedes, but “what are they cooking in that cauldron?” (Food trumps fear if you’re a bull terrier.)

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Trolls are on the list, because, according to the boy, “they’re just gross. All bubbly and warty.”

When did you see trolls? [asks the dog.]

What?

When did you see trolls?

Um. Never.

You keep being scared of stuff that probably doesn’t exist.

So?

I’m just saying.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

The banter between child and canines is equal parts hilarious and endearing. Because it turns out that even macho dogs have their limits. Halfway through, the story moves from monsters and trolls to real-life occurrences, like sharks, or the cousin who once put ice cubes down the boy’s pants (“two times!”). Or the “bossy” crossing guard by the school. “I’m scared of her, too,” confesses the pug, “She smalls like gasoline.”

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Bit by bit, the dogs begin to betray some of their own vulnerability, culminating in the book’s highly entertaining conclusion, where the boy drags the dogs into a closet with him and closes the door, attempting to illustrate his greatest fear: the dark (“Nameless Evil could be lurking!”). The dogs start freaking out and howling and freaking out about who is howling and the whole thing is downright hysterical to my children who, of course, are listening to the story in a brightly lit room tucked around me on our comfy sofa.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

And yet, who saves the day by calmly reminding everyone that you can turn on the light? That’s right: it’s our young human hero who answers the distress calls of his four-legged friends. In the process, he realizes that he might be braver than he thinks. Sometimes.

"The Fun Book of Scary Stuff" by Emily Jenkins & Hyewon Yum

Somewhere between humor and heart, the book subtly delivers an empowering message to its reader: It’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to be afraid of things both imagined and real. It’s OK for us to poke fun at our neuroses, and it’s equally OK to curl up in a ball and howl.

But when the lights go out, before we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the worst, we might try to look deep within us to see if we can remember how to turn on the light.

Have a safe and happy Halloween, but don’t give up reading spooky-themed stories when November 1 arrives. Reading and talking about the dark throughout the year makes it a little sillier, a little more transparent, and a little easier to navigate.

Other Favorite Picture Books About the Dark:
Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night, by Jon Davis (Ages 4-8)
What Was I Scared Of? by Dr. Seuss (Ages 4-8)
The Dark, by Lemony Snicker and Jon Klassen (Ages 5-10)

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Yes, I am Recommending a Book About Zombie Tag

October 1, 2015 § 5 Comments

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormickYou know when you read something and you realize, WAIT, you mean other people’s children do that, too? You mean other mothers feel that way, too? You mean I’m not spinning alone in some upside-down bubble in this roller coaster we call parenting?

And then you think, I need to read this more often (much cheaper than therapy).

That’s the central driving force behind my willingness to oblige my children and read to them Scott McCormick and R.H. Lazzell’s graphic chapter series about the illustrious troublemaker, Mr. Pants, over and over again. As a general rule, I’ll usually do whatever it takes to avoid reading graphic novels aloud (yes, I know they can be amazing, but I find them incredibly awkward to read aloud; plus, my eight year old is so obsessed with all things comics that he’s perfectly happy to read them quietly to himself).

Don’t get me wrong: the Mr. Pants books (Ages 6-10) are fan-freaking-tastic for developing or reluctant readers to read themselves. I’m just saying that I will gladly pounce on the chance to read them aloud. Because, well, it’s like reading about our life. ONLY FUNNIER. Much, much funnier. As in, tears running down my face as my kids roll around on the floor clutching their sides. It’s possible that I’m just really, really good at this…although I have faith that you’ll rise to the challenge, too.

"Mr. Pants" series by Scott McCormick

Mr. Pants (nickname: Slacks) is a young, orange, anthropomorphic cat, who lives in a modern apartment with twin feline sister Foot Foot (nickname: Feet) and baby feline sister Grommy (no nickname)—as well as their distinctly nondescript human mother. (In the boy to girl ratio, Mr. Pants is severely outnumbered.)

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

The fact that Mr. Pants is a cat is irrelevant. What you need to know is that this amped-up, prank-loving, sister-teasing, physically-comedic, competition-obsessed, explosion-sound-making character is none other than your son (oops, did I say your son? I meant my son).

Only—and here’s the icing on the cake—as much as Mr. Pants may be a Whole Lotta Trouble, he’s equal parts Big ‘ol Softie. Think Calvin and Hobbes if Calvin used more innocent language and had a baby sister he couldn’t resist. You getting this?

In the first installment, Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time!, we learn about Mr. Pants’ propensity for bribery: his disdain for back-to-school shopping (especially when he gets conned into a princess unicorn backpack) is placated only by the promise of a family game of laser tag.

"Mr. Pants: It's Go Time" by Scott McCormick

The second book, Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action!, dives deeper into the laugh-out-loud sibling dynamics at hand (Mr. Pants must help host his sister’s Fancy Hat Tea Party), while also revealing Pants’ budding success (or not) as a documentary film maker.

"Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action" by Scott McCormick

And, now—just in time for Halloween—I’m positively giddy to introduce you to Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet!, where Mr. Pants’ dream of winning a ten-pound bag of candy in Zombie Tag in his grandparents’ town is shattered by a blizzard that strands his family overnight in an airport on Halloween. So much for Mom’s best-laid plans.

Can we talk for a moment about Mr. Pants’ mom? She ROCKS. She is my literary parenting idol. Sure, she occasionally falls asleep reading to her kids. Sure, she has been known to raise her voice at the dinner table (haven’t we all?). And, sure, she once made Halloween costumes for her children that were so embarrassing, they refused to leave the house to trick or treat (hey, crafting isn’t my thing either).

"Mr Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

But she never fails to see the humor in a situation. And she isn’t afraid to partake in her kids’ shenanigans, especially if it means beating them at their own contests and bets. (Did I mention she also kicks butt at laser tag?)

"Mr. Pants: Slacks, Camera, Action" by Scott McCormick

But I digress. Because we’re supposed to be talking about Halloween—and how to save it when you’re stranded in an airport. As Mr. Pants quickly discovers, games of tag on the People Movers and races in wheelchairs only work until Airport Security catches you.

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

It doesn’t take long before Mr. Pants and his sisters are bemoaning (you can hear the take-no-prisoners whining, can’t you?) the fact that nothing around them looks or feels like their favorite holiday.

Never underestimate maternal resourcefulness. With a little make-up from her purse, Mom transforms her brood into something kinda sorta resembling zombies. Halloween Airport Style commences with a widespread game of Zombie Tag, joined by the other stranded passengers and airport personnel, big and small. Even the disgruntled Security Guard can’t resist.

The only catch? Mom thinks that all this talk of eating brains is a little archaic. The sisters are quick on the uptake: how about VEGAN zombies who only eat GRAINS? As in quinoa and oats and barley and amaranth (say what?).

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

That’s right.

"Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet" by Scott McCormick

No, you aren’t misunderstanding me.

These books are just that good. They’re just that entertaining. They’re just, well, one more day in the life of modern parenting.

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Review copy provided by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Skulls & Ghosts & Black Cats (Oh My!)

September 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise BroachWherever you fall on the “free range” versus “helicopter” parenting debate, I think we can all agree that the former makes for much more exciting fiction. After all, kids do way cooler stuff outside the watchful eyes of their parents. When I was growing up, my favorite chapter books—spooky, suspenseful titles, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Children of Green Knowe—starred children who were forever falling down the Rabbit Hole of grave danger. The appeal, of course, lay in watching them wrangle their way out again—oftentimes, without their parents even noticing that they were gone.

This past summer, my son and I were looking for read-aloud inspiration at our local bookstore, when we happened upon Missing on Superstition Mountain, the first book in a newly completed trilogy by Elise Broach (Ages 9-12). I have always heard wonderful things about Broach’s writing, but it was the subject of these books that quickly sold us. Three brothers (ages six, ten and eleven), having relocated with their parents from Chicago to rural Arizona at the dawn of summer, begin exploring the mountainous terrain in their backyard, more out of sheer boredom than owing to any strong desire to go against their parents’ stern warnings. Before long, the children find themselves in the center of a centuries-old unsolved mystery—involving murder, ghost towns, and buried treasure.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

In short, these books seemed like the perfect ticket to a Summer of Literary Adventure.

Indeed, they were. And yet, with summer now behind us, I see no reason why these books can’t be your children’s entree to a Spooky Fall. After all, with October almost upon us, it seems only appropriate to arm your young readers with a ghoulish graveyard scene, or a black cat who may or may not have been reincarnated for the purpose of taking her revenge.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is where I feel obliged to insert a word of caution. These books are not for the faint of heart. There were more than a few moments when, as I was reading them aloud, my stomach began to knot for fear that I might be scaring my son out of his pants (certainly, I seemed to be scaring him under his sheets, for he listened to a good part of each book with the sheets pulled over this head). Still, as much as JP would gasp and shriek—Broach is a master of ending nearly every single chapter with a cliffhanger—he always begged me to read on.

As far as I know, he  never had any nightmares.

And, trust me: some of this stuff is the stuff of nightmares. How about coming face to face with rattlesnakes and mountain lions? How about nearly getting buried alive by a rock avalanche in an ancient gold mine? How about stumbling upon eerie warning messages inscribed in the dirt, or watching a rock splinter apart from a gunshot just inches from your head?

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Or how about the fact that Broach has based her books (as the Afterward points out) on an actual real life place—Superstition Mountain—with a history of unsettling legends and folklore that involve the Apache Indians, Spanish explorers, and gold rush prospectors? That’s right. To my son’s absolute astonishment, what happens to these contemporary children could kinda sorta happen to anyone.

And yet, still no nightmares.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

I have a theory on why JP was able to grasp the classic horror elements of these stories without completely cowering. And this reason speaks to something prominent in much of the best middle-grade fiction (including, coincidentally, the Harry Potter books, to which Broach makes many references).

The charm of this trilogy lies in its rich and realistic character development.

Child readers will be able to see a bit of themselves reflected in every one of Broach’s young protagonists. The three brothers—along with a savvy girl-neighbor named Delilah, who quickly joins forces with the boys—react to situations as anyone of their age might. For starters, they never take no for an answer, and they never for one second stop asking questions.

"Revenge on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

This is free-range parenting at its best (or most unrealistic—you can take your pick): a pack of kids, high on adrenaline and outside parental supervision, must become their best selves in order to survive. They must listen to one another; they must compromise; they must aid and support one another. They must decide when to be deliberate and when to be rash.

"Treasure on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

To accomplish this, they must also work through sibling dynamics (the pitfalls of being the eldest, middle, and youngest are keenly exploited here); they must question gender stereotypes (Delilah shows them up more than once); and they must make up their own minds about which adults to trust and which to doubt (starting with the nosy librarian with the saccharine-sweet voice).

Think of these books as a kind of moral compass for young readers.

"Missing on Superstition Mountain" by Elise Broach

Missing on Superstition Mountain, Treasure on Superstition Mountain, and Revenge on Superstition Mountain might make the hair stand up on the back of your child’s head—but, ultimaetly, they are stories about kids being kids and coming out on top.  Kindness, collaboration, curiosity, determination, resourcefulness, attention to detail: these are the qualities that prevail. These are the traits which feel so deliciously tangible to the young reader. They inspire, they comfort, and they give hope that each one of us possesses the power to make our own adventures—and then to find our way safely home again.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–because I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Weird and Wonderful Hospitality (Courtesy of Ben Hatke)

May 21, 2015 § 8 Comments

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben HatkeI’d like to be the kind of mom who has the house where all the kids want to hang out. I’d like to be the kind of mom who throws back her head and exclaims breezily, “The more the merrier!” Who pulls out a sheet of warm chocolate chip cookies from the oven and, after grubby little fists have snatched them up, goes on to say, “You know, why don’t you all stay for dinner? I have something delicious bubbling away in the crock pot!”  I’d like to be the kind of mom who turns the other cheek at dirty footprints, blots of ink, trails of sand, and piles of crumbs; who sighs and thinks, “All that matters is that they are here and they are happy.”

I am not that kind of mom. Two years ago, I participated in a Spring Break Swap with a group of close friends, where we each took turns at our respective houses watching nine kids for a day. My kids have lovely friends. Kind, intelligent, creative friends. But that did little to quell the feeling that I was UNDER SIEGE. So many little mouths telling me they were hungry! So many eager eyes imploring me to admire their drawings! So many children running up and down stairs, squealing and shouting and scrabbling!

Nope, I am not that kind of mom. It turns out that becoming a parent didn’t transform my Type A personality. I’m often still as inflexible as my daughter is when she’s presiding over her tea parties. Still, the idea of having an open-door policy, of creating a space where everyone feels welcomed and accepted, holds great romantic appeal. On paper.

This promise of hospitality is just one of the many reasons that I continue to be taken with Ben Hatke’s 2014 picture book, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (Ages 3-6). The only reason I didn’t write sooner about one of my favorite books of last year is that it was initially such a runaway hit, the Indie publisher couldn’t print them fast enough!

Allow me to touch on some of the gems in this story. To begin with, there’s Julia, our young Type A heroine with a handkerchief in her hair and gold in her heart; who dreams of making her large, rambling Victorian house a refuge for “Lost Creatures.” (Incidentally, Julia’s compassion towards “misfits” reminds me of the equally enchanting Miss Maple’s Seeds.)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

But WAIT. My children would go absolutely bananas if I wrote another word without mentioning their favorite detail: that the book opens with Julia’s life-sized house arriving at the seaside on the back of a turtle. That’s right, some people go where the wind blows them; others follow the whim of a giant, purposeful turtle.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

Then there are the Lost Creatures themselves: an energetic hodgepodge of trolls, mermaids, ghosts, dragons, fairies, folletti, and other unidentifiable but irresistibly appealing creatures—some sad, some hungry, some lonely, and some just plain curious. (Here, we get reminders of another favorite, The Monster’s Monster.)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

There is the predictably unpredictable chaos that ensues when all the creatures suddenly find themselves under one roof—and the effect that this has on poor Julia, who would really like to be a lot breezier than she is. Even if she can get past the mountain of dirty dishes, the footprints on the walls, and the loud music, a folletti toasting a marshmellow over a small bonfire on her roof is just one step too far.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Bob Hatke

There’s Julia’s stroke of genius—a chore chart!—which ultimately allows everyone to co-habitate in peace and harmony. (Of course! Give everyone jobs! Why didn’t I think of that?)

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

Finally, there is author-illustrator Ben Hatke’s unique treatment of the subject matter. Those with kids who have been bitten by the Graphic Novel Bug (which may not be a new phenomenon, but which is gaining momentum like never before) may already know Hatke from his acclaimed Sci-Fi series, Zita the Spacegirl (Ages 8-14). Even I—not by nature a comics lover—have fallen in love with this sophisticated graphic novel trilogy for its spunky heroine, other-worldly setting, deeply cadenced narrative, and all-around cool factor.

With Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, Hatke’s first foray into the picture book world (and the beginning of more to come!), he blends both traditional picture book elements with comic-strip attributes. Playing to his strengths as a graphic artist, Hatke is able to advance Julia’s story as much through the visual spreads and frames as he does through the carefully-chosen sentences. The resulting hybrid feels almost like a new literary category, and both of my children Can’t. Get. Enough.

"Julia's House for Lost Creatures" by Ben Hatke

When I learned that Ben Hatke would be leaving his rural Virginia home (nestled in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife, four young daughters, and an eccentric cast of cats and chickens) to visit Hooray for Books here in Alexandria, you can bet we were going to be there. Hatke is exactly the kind of literary artist that I would like my children to know: approachable, vastly talented, and bursting with pleasure to be doing exactly what he is doing. His enthusiasm for book making—specifically for experimenting with the comic format—is positively contagious.

Ben Hatke at Hooray for Books

My seven year old, fueled by what I am not sure is a healthy obsession with Calvin and Hobbes (if you hear the rustling of pages in his room at 6am, you can bet that he’s reading one of the ten Calvin books stacked next to his bed like a second nightstand), has spent much of this last year attempting to write and illustrate comic stories of his own. When Hatke told JP that each of his book projects originates in a designated notebook, and that most of his ideas arise from free-form sketching in said notebook, I saw JP’s eyes light up. I was not surprised when, the next day, he brought his wallet to the grocery store to purchase a notebook for his “next project.”

Ben Hatke Event

Speaking of projects, here is a glimpse of Hatke’s next picture book, starring a misunderstood goblin and his skeleton friend, destined to live in that same compelling cross-section of fantasy and realism that is very quickly becoming Hatke’s claim to fame.

Ben Hatke

And even before the goblin book comes out, as early as this September, we’re going to get an early-reader graphic novel, somewhere between the levels of Julia and Zita, titled Little Robot. That’s right, people, this guy is on a roll.

"Little Robot" by Ben Hatke

Perhaps someday I’ll get up the courage to invite Hatke and his family and his four-legged and feathered pets to my house for a play date. Heck, maybe I’ll invite all of you to bring your kids, too. I’ll sit back, watch the kids overturn paint cups and spray each other with our garden hose, and I’ll smile and think, “The more the merrier.”

Or perhaps I’ll leave the hosting to local bookstores.

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All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Feeling Witchy

October 16, 2014 § 4 Comments

"I Am A Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster“Mommy, you know how those witch hats got there?” my four year old casually ventured, as we walked through the Halloween section of our local variety store. Then, before I could answer, she stopped and turned towards me, her expression suddenly serious. “The witches dropped them,” she whispered.

I love October. Not for the costumes, or the weeks of planning that go into them (read: daily changing of minds). Not for the candy, which I can never get out of the house fast enough. I love it for its air of anticipation. That mysterious, slightly uneasy, could-it-might-it-be-real feeling that pokes at the back of our minds. As the evenings darken, the wind picks up, and the creaks on the roof grow louder, the lines between real and imaginary begin to get a little messy. You might say that for these few weeks, we get a taste of the way our kids feel all year long.

Indeed, many of my favorite “Halloween” stories to share with my kids are, in fact, not about Halloween at all—which means (hooray) that they can be enjoyed all 365 days. I’m referring to gems like Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina. This year’s newcomer is  I Am a Witch’s Cat (Ages 2-6), by Harriet Muncaster: a simple picture book narrated in the voice of a little girl, who loves to dress up like a little black cat, because she believes her mother to be a witch (“but I don’t mind, because she is a good witch”). On each page, the girl presents proof of her mother’s witchiness: her bathroom is filled with “strange potion bottles…that I am NOT allowed to touch”; “when we go shopping, she buys jars of EYEBALLS and GREEN FINGERS”; and “whenever I hurt myself, she MAGICS it all better.” The gag, of course, is that this proof is entirely in the eye of the beholder. As the pictures subtly reveal, the potions are actually perfume bottles, the green fingers are pickles, and the boo-boo magic comes straight out of a first-aid kit.

"I Am a Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster

It’s no surprise that my Emily has fallen under the spell of this book—and not just for the joke in it (which on some days I think she totally gets, and on others I’m not so sure). Emily sees herself on every page. In the hours between the time I pick her up from preschool and the time we head back to get her brother, she is my sidekick, my buddy, my little helper. She doesn’t normally don a kitty costume (preferring her tutu with superhero cape), but she does all the same things as the little girl in the story: helping me stir my brews in the kitchen; unloading our grocery cart of mysterious jars; and listening to my fellow moms and I cackle as we “swap spell books.”

"I am a Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster

Oh, but I’m not even to the best part yet (although maybe you’ve gleaned it from the photos above?). First-time author-illustrator Harriet Muncaster has crafted her book out of miniatures: assembling dioramas of paper, fabric, and mixed media and then photographing them. If you know a lover of doll houses—or perhaps someone whose fists are often full of tiny panda figurines or paperclips she’s rescued from the sidewalk—then I think you can guess why this book is Pure Magic.

Oh, and it turns out that this book strikes a chord with me, too. On the occasions that, like the mom in this story, I get dolled up and leave my kids with a babysitter, who’s to say that my “me time” doesn’t entail trading in my car for a witch’s broom and casting off freely into the night? Perhaps the next time I’m out, I’ll drop my tall black hat for some little girl to find—someone who won’t have any trouble imagining the adventures this hat has seen.

"I Am a Witch's Cat" by Harriet Muncaster

Other Favorite Stories About Witches:
Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Ages 3-6)
Big Pumpkin, by Erica Silverman (Ages 3-6)
A Very Brave Witch and The Sweetest Witch Around, by Alison McGhee & Harry Bliss
Old Black Witch!, by Wende Devlin & Harry Devlin (Ages 4-8; this wonderful 50-year-old classic is finally back in print—get it before it goes out of print again!)
What the Witch Left and No Such Thing as a Witch, by Ruth Chew (Ages 7-10, chapter book)
The Witches, by Roald Dahl (Ages 8-12, chapter book)

Counting Down to Halloween

October 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ten Orange PumpkinsOur decorations are up, the kids’ costumes are ordered, and earlier this week, right on cue, a streak of stormy weather moved in. All in all, the perfect time for getting out our Halloween-themed books and sharing tales of ghosts and goblins with my revved up trick-or-treaters (it’s not just about the sugar, my sugars). Honestly, I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by this year’s Halloween offerings. Of course, last year was particularly exceptional: we were treated to Creepy Carrots, The Monsters’ Monster, and Vampirina Ballerina—all three brilliant and all three enjoyed (since none actually mention Halloween) long past pumpkin-carving season. But speaking of pumpkins, it has been a long time since a great pumpkin book has entered the scene, and this year of slim pickings has at least given us that.

Stephen Savage’s Ten Orange Pumpkins (Ages 2-6) is billed as a counting book—and it’s true that there are opportunities to count on every page, as ten pumpkins become nine, become eight, and so on. But the “trick” of the book lies in how each pumpkin disappears, and the answers are (often quite subtly) revealed in the striking illustrations. In the opening spread, for instance, ten pumpkins sit beside a pair of pants, socks, and a shirt, all silhouetted in black on a clothesline: “Ten orange pumpkins,/ fresh off the vine./ Tonight will be a spooky night.” We turn the page to reveal the rhyme—“Yikes! There are 9”—with the nine pumpkins now beside an empty clothesline and a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin for a head. (For the record, it took my kids a good 60 seconds to figure out where the 10th pumpkin had gone.) A different fate befalls each of the other pumpkins: one becomes pie in the hands of a ghost; another falls off a truck into a pit of alligators; while still another is struck down by lightning on a rainy night much like tonight. The last pumpkin standing becomes the glowing jack-o-lantern of Halloween night.

The eighth pumpkin vanishes into thin air when it is struck by a lightning bolt: "Flash! There are 7."

The eighth pumpkin vanishes into thin air when it is struck by a lightning bolt: “Flash! There are 7.”

Savage’s artistic style has a distinct “flatness,” devised from digital art that emphasizes simple, two-dimensional forms with little to no detail. It is his magnificent use of color that infuses emotion into the pictures (his first book, Polar Bear Night, fills our hearts with warmth despite its ice-blue landscape). Any good Halloween book should make creative use of orange and black, and Savage does not disappoint. The deep vivid orange of the pumpkins shimmers on the page, so striking is its contrast to the largely monochromatic backgrounds, dominated by black silhouettes. Savage could easily have limited his palette to orange and black, but he doesn’t. Instead, he chooses a different color for each background—and each one feels spookier than the next, from the electrified green of the witch’s lair, to the crimson of the alligator water, to the smoky grey of the pirate ship descending through the fog. Night after night this week, as the rain has pummeled the window panes, I’ve cuddled my little ones under a blanket on the couch and read this simple but perfect book—counting the pumpkins as we count down to our own All Hallow’s Eve.

Other Favorite Picture Books Featuring Pumpkins:
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda Williams (Ages 3-6)
Big Pumpkin, by Erica Silverman (Ages 3-7)
The Ugly Pumpkin, by Dave Horowitz (Ages 4-8)
Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden, by George Levensen (Ages 4-8)
How Many Seeds In a Pumpkin? by Margaret McNamara & G. Brian Karas (Ages 4-8)

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