October is but a mere few hours away from November’s hostile takeover and I’ve yet to post reviews of new Halloween books for 2015, mostly because I have only one. I’m sure there are more, but I’ve been bereft in my picture book trolling. Nevertheless, Leo: A Ghost Story is a gooder and I am happy to add it to my list of BOOtiful Halloween confections. And so, I bring you my annual celebration of the macabre, the creepy, and the deliciously twisted in children’s literature. Yes, this is a re-hash of previous Halloween posts and ghosts of Halloween’s past (CLICK on the links for longer reviews):
This rather amusing statement initiates a series of events in Leo: a Ghost Story (Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson/Chronicle Books) resulting in a young ghost-boy leaving his home and venturing far afield in search of a more welcoming abode. Young Leo is self-entertaining house ghost occupying an old dwelling on the edge of the city. When a new family moves in, his friendly overtures are less than well received. The family calls in a scientist, a clergyman and a psychic to de-ghostify the house, which Leo believes is a waste of money. He knows he is unwanted.
“I have been a house ghost all my life. Maybe I would like being a roaming ghost for a while.”
Leo says farewell to his home and ventures into the city. Judging by his Little Lord Fauntleroy attire, he is about a hundred years old, and the city looks very different to him. He is quickly lost in the bustling urban setting. The first person to ‘see’ Leo is a little girl named Jane, who invites him to play Knights of the Round Table. Jane takes Leo home, where both the girl and her parents assume he is imaginary. When Jane discovers he is a ghost, she’s pretty cool with it. In fact, she’s a pretty cool girl. Her games are imaginative and inclusive, and it’s wonderful to see her calmly accept Leo for who he is – a ghost in need of a friend.
I am familiar with Mac Barnett of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole fame but had not heard of Christian Robinson until his name started popping up on the internet in gleeful anticipation of Leo: a Ghost Story. A previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Josephine: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, Robinson’s newest book retains the old-timey simplicity of form but introduces a minimalist and much bluer palette. The San Francisco-based artist uses acrylic paint and cut out construction paper to create his humourous and playful illustrations. Leo is a blue outline, but no less substantial than the rest of the characters – just a little more see-through. The use of varying shades of blue is a nice way to bring diversity to the page without being overt. Leo: a Ghost Story is also beautiful. The colours, though limited to blue, black, and orange (on the cover), are stark and chilly. A little haunted, but invitingly so. I’m with Jane on this one – I would share mint tea and honey toast anytime with Leo.
My only quibble – the title. Personally, I would have gone with Gary I’m Scared, or I See Blue People
Published in 2014, the truly scary WHAT THERE IS BEFORE THERE IS ANYTHING THERE by the Argentine cartoonist Liniers. This beautifully illustrated book is wildly funny, and surprisingly disturbing. As a former scaredy-cat kid, I can relate to the lad’s nightmarish visitations when the lights go out. Liniers balances humour with creeptastic (and yet somehow affable) creatures that do nothing but stare at the boy – until the thing that is there before there is anything there arrives. Yikes!
Fresh off the high seas, the wickedly funny HERE BE MONSTERS by the great Argentinian illustrator Poly Bernatene (with delightful swashbuckling rhymes by Jonathan Emmett.) Previous conspirators on The Santa Trap, this brilliant twosome have created a pirate tale like no other. Beware of hidden treasure folks, this beautiful and deadly tale of Captain Cut-Throat and his unfortunate crew will leave you laughing (and running for shore.) Arrrrrrr…..
What is Halloween without a ghost story? Look no further than the deliciously witty GHOSTS (Sonia Goldie/Marc Boutavant, 2013.) Courtesy of a couple of affable spooks, the record is finally set straight with regard to ghosts, specifically house ghosts. Apparently, we’ve been mislead. True ghosts inhabit every corner of our homes, and nary a one would be seen dead (well, you know) in a sheet, or utter a single ‘Boo.’ Boutavant’s gorgeously illustrated book is packed with every type of apparition; library ghosts, television ghosts, and of course, that big fellow who lives under your bed. Supernatural fun.
CREEPY CARROTS (Aaron Reynolds/Peter Brown, 2012) Absolutely the best and most beautiful book on haunted root vegetables in print. Poor Jasper Rabbit, with his instatiable taste for carrots. Who will believe that he is being stalked and tormented by garden vegetables? Not his friends, not his parents. Jasper is forced to act alone, and his ingenious, and somewhat over the top solution may be the answer to more than one problem.
THE INSOMNIACS (The Brothers Hilts, 2012)-An amazing discovery on the shelves of my local bookstore, The Insomniacs is not so much a Halloween story as an appreciation of all things that go bump in the night. The Insomniacs are a strange little family, recently displaced, who just can’t get their circadian rhythms to play nice, until…they discover the dark secrets of the world at night. Lots of quirky touches, like the star-gazer mother, the upside-down Humpty Dumpty father, and all the odd, nocturnal creatures that populate this unnamed town on the ocean.
THE DEAD FAMILY DIAZ~P.J. Bracegirdle/Poly Bernatene (Dial, 2012)-No Halloween celebration is complete without at least one ghostly visitation from the great beyond, and in this sense, what could be more Halloween than El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead? Yes, it’s a Mexican festival, it’s celebrated on November 1, and no-one sits in a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin, but in both traditions, skeletons and other assorted dead folk roam the streets in search of a party. In The Dead Family Diaz, young Angelito Diaz is about to walk among the Living for the first time in his life, I mean, death, and he’s a little frightened. The living have ‘big red tongues and bulging eyes,’ his sister teases. Angelito meets a boy (of the living variety) named Pablo, and even though he calls Angelito a popsicle and tries to remove his skeleton ‘mask’, the gruesome twosome strike up a friendship.
The Dead Family Diaz is another stunning example of the genius of Poly Bernatene, the Argentinian artist at the heart of When Night Didn’t Come, The Santa Trap, and 60+ other children’s books. Working digitally, his colours seem newly invented, with an inner luminescence that makes each page glow. In The Dead Family Diaz, the candy-coloured swirl of cars, buildings, skeletons and sombreros mirrors the exuberance of the festival both in real life (or so I understand), and as written by P.J. Bracegirdle. While Bernatene takes us to a darker, stranger place in The Dead Family Diaz, the vividness of his palette remains, as does his ability to turn a visually chaotic scene into a beautifully balanced illustration. This is not to suggest that some of the artwork, especially the close-ups of the skeletal Angelito, are not disturbing; they are, but not overly so. In word and image, The Dead Family Diaz is a celebration.
THE MONSTERS’ MONSTER (Patrick McDonnell, 2012)-A sweet treat for Halloween. Don’t let the presence of Frankenstein fool you, this book is more about gratitude and friendship than terrorizing hapless villagers. As Grouch, Grump and little Doom & Gloom discover, monsters do not always act as planned. From the artist who brought us the cartoon strip Mutts, and the perennial Christmas favourite-The Gift of Nothing, comes a most unusual, and funny tale of a kindly monster in search of…jelly doughnuts.
Scary Poems for Rotten Kids (Sean O’Huigin/Anthony LeBaron)-They don’t make kids books like this anymore, at least not without warning labels. This collection of deliciously creepy poems is trying very hard to scare kids, and according to the friend who brought this book to my attention, it was fantastically successful in this regard. A truly warped sense of humour is behind The Day the Mosquitoes ate Angela Jane, Acid Rain (hello 1982), Bye Bye (about a spider…a really, really big spider), and my particular favourite, The Body-a boneless beast who lives behind the walls and eats the flesh of little kids~
“…so don’t in darkness close the lids upon your eyes or you might find your body’s just ‘the body’s’ kind.”
Hmm. The newer edition of Scary Poems for Rotten Kids has a friendlier cover and interior illustrations that are far less sinister than the original black & white artwork by Anthony LeBaron. Presumably, this is an attempt on the part of the publisher to make O’Huigin’s nightmarish words more palatable to the modern child who is perhaps less rotten and a tad more sensitive than kids 25 years ago. The cartoonish drawings are no match for LeBaron’s ink-stained malevolence. Wonderful.
JEREMY DRAWS A MONSTER-Peter McCarty (Henry Holt 2009)-Like The Monsters’ Monster, there is nothing scary about this book, other than McCarty’s genius with a bit of ink and a coloured pencil. His finely detailed illustrations are so exquisite, I find myself staring at them in a (failed) attempt to decipher the secrets of his paintbox. In Jeremy Draws a Monster, an isolated and lonely kid draws himself a blue, horned beast for company. To Jeremy’s frustration, his new buddy is a bit of a nightmare, demanding all sorts of drawings to fufill his escalating list of monster comforts, including sandwiches, hotdogs, a soft chair, and finally, a big pink hat to wear ‘out on the town.’ When the monster returns, and takes over Jeremy’s bed, the worn out kid draws a bus and a bus ticket and bids farewell to his friend. While waving goodbye, Jeremy strikes up a conversation with the neighbour kids, who invite him over to play. Not particularly Halloweeny, but a beautifully illustrated paean to the power of imagination.
THE MONSTER RETURNS-Peter McCarty (Henry Holt, 2012) Uh oh, he’s baaack! This time, however, Jeremy is prepared. Our little artist enlists his friends to draw their own monsters as c0mpanions for his monster. Very clever, Jeremy. Incredibly, with all the colourful new beasts, this sequel to Jeremy Draws a Monster is even more beautiful than the original. Lest you think Peter McCarty capable of only one style of illustration, check out Hondo and Fabian, one of my all-time favourite picture books. McCarty has a very elegant touch, with an eye for detail that is nonpareil.
On a related note, I picked up The Monster Returns on September 15th, 2012. It is the last book I will ever purchase from Greenwood’s Bookshoppe, a local independent bookstore in the city that closed two weeks ago. Heartbreaking. Such a great kids section, and many of books reviewed in this blog have come from Greenwood’s. You will be missed, and thanks for all the great books!
And now…HALLOWEEN treats (excluding those horrible molasses things) from the archives~
One of the most memorable books of my childhood, THE LITTLE LEFTOVER WITCH (Florence Laughlin/Sheila Greenwaldis), a short novel about a seven year old witch named Felina who breaks her broom on Halloween night and is unable to fly. In spite of her protests, the stubborn and disheveled girl is taken in by a family, where she is gradually made to feel at home in a non-magical world. What I remember most is the way she is cared for by the mother. Her long hair is brushed and brushed until it is shiny and all the knots are gone, her dirty black dress is washed and ironed, she has a bubble bath for the first time in her life, and instead of bat soup and jibbers’ gizzards, she is fed chicken and dumplings, peach cobbler, ice cream, and big glasses of ice-cold milk. Felina resists the kindness of the family, but eventually succumbs. The Little Leftover Witch resonated with me as a child. As the fifth girl in a family of limited means, the nurturing was a little thin, but I did have my school library, where I found this book, and many others. Coincidentally, I found it again the first day I started working in the children’s section of a bookstore. Different cover, same book. The simple pen & ink illustrations are just as evocative as they were decades ago, as is the story of a lost little girl. The jaded adult in me wonders why Felina wasn’t allowed to retain her true witchy self and is instead persuaded to follow the conservative values of her adopted family. Luckily, a good story and pretty pictures never fail to knock me off my portable soapbox. The Little Leftover Witch is a book about love and transformation, and on that level, it succeeds beautifully. And what could be more ‘Halloween’ than a story of transformation…from summer to autumn, light to dark, jibbers’ gizzards to chicken dumplings. Although I believe the book is currently out of print, I surprised to read that Chris Colfer from Glee is making a movie out of The Little Leftover Witch for the Disney Channel. Looks like the book is about to undergo…a transformation.
HALLOWEEN by Harry Behn, with bootiful illustrations by Greg Couch. In the ridiculously talented hands of Greg Couch, Halloween has never looked so stunning. Every page is a sparkling gem. This is one of those books I bought based entirely on the cover with it’s grinning and slightly demented pumpkin. I’m a little surprised it didn’t hit with a bigger splash, or be nominated for a Caldecott. It’s tough out there for genre books. Please Caldecott committee, give gourds a chance.
THE WIDOW’S BROOM by Chris Van Allsburg. Other than The Polar Express, this is my favourite Van Allsburg. I cannot fathom how he does what he does. I have an inkling of the method he employs, and the materials he uses, but that doesn’t begin to explain the genius. The illustrations are works of art, and so very evocative of autumn. An enchanted autumn, in black and white, with magical brooms and stuff, but still autumn in all it’s leaf-strewn moodiness.
SPOOKY ABC by Eve Merriam, illustrated by Lane Smith. As any regular reader of this blog will know…I am in love with Lane Smith. Not romantically (although he seems like an exceptional fellow), but illustratively, if such a thing exists. He is brilliant. And hilarious. And stupidly inventive. Spooky ABC is a reprint (with additional pictures) of Halloween ABC. It’s phenomenally good, and a must-have for any serious Halloweener. Or Halloweenie, whatever your persuasion.
WHAT WAS I SCARED OF? by Dr Seuss. Awe…I love this book! But then, I am a sucker for Dr Seuss, and stories about haunted pants. Haunted green pants. You’ll never look at your trousers in the same way again.
DILLWEED’S REVENGE by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Carson Ellis. What could be more Halloween than a suitcase full of ghouls, a lizard named Skorped, and a young psychopath in a sweater vest? Still, they deserved it.
Last, but not least, one of my favourite books of all time~THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving. If you haven’t read the original, I strongly urge you to do so. It’s surprisingly witty, and a window into late 18th century New York. In describing the itinerant school teacher’s appetite, Irving states that Ichabod Crane, “…was a huge feeder, and though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda.” One of the funniest lines I’ve ever read, in any century. Also, there is a headless horseman, and gorgeous illustrations by Gary Kelley. It is a real corker.
Honourable…or dishonourable mention goes to the Hob Stories by William Mayne, with illustrations by Norman Messenger and Patrick Benson. There was no actual review of this book in 32 Pages for a number of reasons, but the fact remains that these are fun stories to read, and the art is fantastic.
That’s it…so far. If any other Halloween lovelies materialize…I will amend this list. I remain hopeful.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN, OR…DIA DE LOS MUERTOS!