The other day I was standing in my local yarn and fabric shop– you know, the one where I spend so much of my time that they apparently know me by name. (It’s called Gather Here and they’re incredibly kid-friendly, just by the way.) Anyway, there I was and I suddenly found myself thinking about costumes. After all, the Changeling is 3 years old now and planning a Halloween costume seems suddenly exciting, a radical change from dressing up a baby as a pumpkin, which was fun but a little one-sided. And as I thought about the fun ahead of her, I began to feel nostalgic for my own years of plotting and planning costumes as the red and yellow leaves fell from the trees… and then I got home and pulled out this book: And Then Comes Halloween, by Tom Brenner, illustrated by Holly Meade.
Do you remember dressing up for Halloween when you were very little? What was the best part for you– choosing your costume, figuring out how to make it, actually making it, or joining in with a group of kids, all dressed up, while wearing your costume? Or something else?
I have extremely warm childhood memories of Halloween. Well, the memories are warm– the Halloweens were cold, sometimes even snowy, in the town where I grew up. One of the criteria for a good costume involved the question: “Can I wear this over a sweater or coat, or can I otherwise keep warm in this?” There was one Halloween when my ingenious sister came up with a brilliant idea: she and I and our friend would be a three-headed monster. It was fantastic. We all three decorated two huge lengths of lurid broadcloth sewn together with spaces for our heads to come out of it. We also decorated our faces and hair. It was a chance to just go crazy with expressing ourselves through art in whatever way we liked. And under that huge canopy of broadcloth we could wear whatever we liked. We were comfortable, warm, and extraordinarily creative. Other years my sister and I were mermaids; the Queen of the Night and the dragon from Mozart’s Magic Flute; Cupid and Psyche– the list goes on and on and really only gets nerdier. Halloween in my little town was magical, spooky, friendly, and invariably tasty (we could trust our neighbours so some of them baked treats for Halloween).
All of these memories and more came flooding back when I read this book with my daughter. Frankly, I got a little choked up as I watched the kids in this book and compared them with my own memories. Proust’s madeleine ain’t got nothin’ on a picture book like this one.
But let’s get into the actual contents of the book. It starts out with a lovely description of autumn: “When nighttime creeps closer to suppertime, when red and gold seep into green leaves, and blackberries shrivel on the vine…” And it goes on to describe what you do in the fall: hang dried corn, cut out paper witches and decorate the house for Halloween, jump into leaf piles, and so on. But the ultimate Halloween preparation is this: “decide what to be.”
I love that line: “Then it’s time to decide what to be.” Perfect. Absolutely perfect. All of the other stuff is fall fun, and part of the autumnal experience of the year. For me, I knew it was fall when I jumped in a leaf pile and got poked by that one stick which was always in the pile and always poked me in the stomach. Argh! But the best part of the fall, the most serious and integral part of the fall, was this: deciding what to be. It defined the season. And once the kids decide what to be, the next part of the fun is the grand making of the costumes.
Let me show you the illustration for that page:
That’s the moment in the book when I get a little choked up, and the beautiful watercolour and collage illustrations really get it across, I think. Putting together a costume was the highlight of the season for two reasons, I think, and both of them come through here: a) it was a hell of a lot of fun; b) the more we put into making the costume, the more we were becoming our costumed identity. That one night in the year we got to reshape reality to our own liking, we got to decide who we wanted to be, and the sky wasn’t the limit– just ask the kids who dressed up as astronauts if the sky was the limit for them. No, outer space was the limit. Imagination was the limit. For me and my sister, I’d say that art and mythology were our limits. We were anything and anyone we wanted to be. And I loved how Halloween costumes were gleefully semi-competitive: we each wanted to be the best we could be. We each had friendly interest and enjoyment in each other’s costumes, and enormous satisfaction in knowing that ours was really the best.
That friendliness, that communal aspect of Halloween comes through perfectly as the children, now they’re in their costumes, pace the room waiting for the rest of the gang to show up so that they can go from house to house and show off their new identities. No longer children, but Ballerina, Buckaroo, and Dragon, they twirl and swirl through the night, visiting houses:
Dart past bushes casting spooky shadows, sweep past clumps of moaning monsters, and lug your bursting bag to the next house, and the next.
Is there a better description of how Halloween can feel? The only thing missing, to my mind, is the part of Halloween where you read Walter de la Mare’s spooky poems with your mother. (Look, I said we were nerds, and I meant it. We were champion Halloween nerds, and we revelled in it.)
And then, the end of the book tells us, it’s back home to trade candies with your friends and start to dream about next year… what will you be?
As you can tell, this book was a total nostalgia trip for me. Obviously, reading it with a child is a different experience. To the Changeling, Halloween doesn’t have much meaning, much of a memory yet, although she is old enough to love dressing up. As we read, she loves to ask about the children in their costumes, eagerly asking what they’re doing on each page and examining all of the Halloweeny details in the illustrations. In other words, to me this book is a retrospective glance on all of the glorious fun from my childhood; to her, it’s an introduction. Both ways of reading are marvellous. Both ways of reading really get to the heart of Halloween: the endless possibilities of deciding who to be, and of sharing that joyous lawlessness with your friends. For her, it’s in the future; for me, it’s in my past– and I look forward to watching it happen all over again for the Changeling, who will truly be a Changeling on Halloween. (Hmmmm… having typed that: how would you make a Changeling costume for a three year old? Any ideas, folks?)
So why don’t you find a copy for yourself and have some fun exploring what Halloween means, either with your memories or with your own Changelings?