Hallowe’en Trio

Oof, does it feel good to be back here after a crazy October of holiday after holiday!  Busy as I’ve been, though, I’ve been determined to get back here before the most notable literary holiday in October, by which, of course, I mean Hallowe’en.

I remember two things clearly from Hallowe’ens of my youth: Choosing what to be for Hallowe’en (as I describe in this post), and stories.  (That’s not entirely true: I also remember that our pre-trick-or-treating meal was always baked beans with hot dogs in it.  It was delicious, but I don’t remember having it any other time than Hallowe’en.)  My mother had a wonderful selection of Hallowe’en stories, and we also read a lot of Walter de la Mare poems.  (Does anyone else love Walter de la Mare as I do?  Please tell me I’m not alone.)

I’ve been trying, therefore, to build up my own library of good Hallowe’en stories for the Changeling (who is going to be Little Red Riding Hood again this year).  I want her to have as many good memories of ever so slightly spooky stories as I have.  My problem is that, search as I might, I haven’t found a huge number of recent Hallowe’en stories.  I have no idea why not (I might be looking in the wrong places, of course), but the good news is that I have found some really good stories while I’ve been searching.  Let’s go in chronological order, oldest to most recent:

Scary Scary Halloween.jpgThe earliest of the books I discovered is actually older than I am, so I have no idea how I didn’t know it growing up: Scary, Scary Halloween by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Jan Brett.  It’s the story of a group of glowing green eyes watching as all of the dangerous creatures in the neighbourhood creep about on Hallowe’en night.  The mysterious watchers are nervous of the monstrous creatures slinking by, one by one, until, in the end, it’s revealed that the glowing green eyes are a group of sweet little kitties, and the spooky creatures roaming the night are trick-or-treaters.

I’m sorry I was slow to discover this book for many, many reasons.  First, the story itself is the perfect balance of spooky and sweet: there’s a little suspense, but never actual fear, and the charming conclusion will make any reader smile.  Second, related to the first, Jan Brett’s beautiful illustrations help both the spooky and the sweet: their realism and depth of texture and colour give the mysterious green eyes and eerie creatures a certain heft in the narrative, but the same realism makes the sweet little kitties at the end a snuggly surprise.  If you have any cat-lovers in your family, this book is an absolute must, but even if you don’t love cats as much as I do, this book offers a lot to enjoy in its slightly spooky story and gorgeous art.

Ten Timid Ghosts.jpgOur next book is Ten Timid Ghosts, by Jennifer O’Connell.  This is a funny little counting book with a twist at the end.  A witch has decided to move into a haunted house, and so she decides to evict the previous residents of the house– ten timid ghosts.  One by one she scares them away, one with a skeleton, another with a bat, then a vampire, and so on.  The timid little ghosties just can’t take it, and they flee to the woods.  The last ghost, however, figures out what’s up, and decides that it’s rather unfair to be shooed out of his own house.  He gathers up his fellow ghosts and returns to give the witch a taste of her own medicine– they scare her out of the house and take back what’s rightfully theirs.

I didn’t find this book so spooky as Scary, Scary Halloween, and neither did the Changeling, but there’s a lot to love about it.  For one thing, it really is a simple concept, executed extremely well.  It’s a counting book, but with excellent bounce and rhythm and a great story behind it.  As a parent, I was left wondering: “Is the witch going to get away with it?  Is there going to be some saccharine ending where everyone learns to get along?  What will they do?”  I was thrilled when righteous vengeance was meted out instead.  This is a great book to read with your toddler or early reader before going out to scare the world with a spooky costume.

Ghosts in the House.jpgGhosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara was one of the Changeling’s earliest Hallowe’en books (we found it last year), and it’s remained a favourite with both of us.  A little girl moves into a house, which turns out to be haunted.  Fortunately, the little girl turns out to be a witch accompanied by her cat, so she’s got the situation under control.  She flies about capturing the ghosts, gives them all a good wash, and then puts them to great use as curtains, tablecloths, and blankets.  After a busy day, she and her cat go to sleep, nicely tucked in under ghosts, and that’s that.

It’s a story which really hasn’t grown old for us, and I put it down to the freshness of the concept.  There’s an eeriness to the story: it’s humorous, not at all frightening, but it is a bit unnerving.  Ghosts are supposed to be haunting creatures, and witches are uncanny.  Here, neither point is denied: the ghosts haunt the house, and the witch easily domesticates the ghosts.  It’s all a bit uncanny.  But on another level it’s just a funny little sweet story about a girl decorating her house… she just happens to be doing it with ghosts.  It’s absolutely simple and original, and the Changeling loves it wholeheartedly.  If you have very young children (toddlers and early readers, I suggest), this makes a great book to read when trick-or-treating is over and everyone needs to wind down before bedtime.

I hope this gives everyone some good ideas for Hallowe’en, and if you have any great suggestions yourself, I’d love to hear them!  Happy Hallowe’en to all of you.

Advertisements

Apologies

I swore to myself when I started this blog that I wouldn’t waste posts on apologizing for not writing, but I’m just going to poke my head in now to say that I really am truly sorry that October’s falling apart like this.  I knew the holidays would be tough this year, but I hadn’t expected them to be this tough, so I’m really quite abashed about the lack of updates.  In the meantime, here’s a few books for you to look at, though, which are appropriate to October:

Room on the Broom.jpg

 

Start with Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler.  A funny, clever, and just a teensy bit spooky book for Halloween, excellent for toddlers and up.

 

 

I Am a Witch's Cat.jpg

Another good one is I Am a Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster, a truly charming little story about a girl whose mother is a witch, she’s sure, and she’s her mother’s cat.  But what does the mother do on Friday nights…?

 

 

Those books should be a good start for any family looking for some Halloween reading– but do you have any other good spooky books to share?  Let us know in the comments!

The Left-Handed Fate

Have you ever stumbled on a book completely by accident?  I did, with Kate Milford‘s The Left-Handed Fate.

Left-Handed Fate.jpg

It went like this: I was reading John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, and saw that one of his Big Idea posts happened to be for a middle grade novel!  That’s always exciting, and is something I watch for.  I read the post (here) and was impressed by a few things: a) it’s a seafaring novel, b) it’s set during the War of 1812, c) she writes entertainingly.  I decided to keep an eye out for it.  Then my copy of The Horn Book Magazine arrived, and totally by accident had a review for this book in it!  (Amazing how a children’s book review magazine happened to review a recent children’s book.)  It compared the book to Patrick O’Brian, which intrigued me further.  So when I happened to be at the best-curated children’s book store I know, I promptly looked around for it and saw they had a copy of this book on prominent display.  At that point I caved to fate.  I accepted that I was obviously destined to read it and I bought it.  It was all completely and totally accidental, you see, if you ignore the part where I spent all that time looking for it.

Since I had some reading time during Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), I accordingly read it.  Let me start by saying: Why, yes, this is a very good book and you should read it.  It has fine characters, many of them intelligent and courageous young people it would be easy for middle graders to relate to.  It has a plot which is finely balanced between fast-paced action and thoughtful analysis of the difficult circumstances the characters find themselves in.  It’s also just deliciously, compulsively readable.  I dare you to read the first chapter and not be sucked in.  (Go on, go on– I dare you!)

As for the novel itself– well, I don’t want to ruin the reading experience for you, so I’ll try just to give you a taste of the characters and story without going too far.  The Napoleonic Wars are raging, and the War of 1812 has just broken out.  Lucy holds the equivalent rank of lieutenant on her father’s letter-of-marque (or privateer’s ship), The Left-Handed Fate.  The Fate has been hired by young Max Ault to help him retrieve the pieces of a mysterious artifact which he believes to be a weapon so powerful it would end all wars.  Or will it?  Is it even a weapon?  What is he searching for?  The French are also pursuing the artifact, hoping to get their hands on this destructive weapon.  To complicate matters further, the Americans and English are now at war, just as Max and Lucy arrive in American waters.  When the Fate is captured by the Americans and Lucy’s father is killed, it seems the whole adventure is about to come to an end.  But young Oliver Dexter, an American midshipman, is given command of the prize to bring her to Norfolk, and things get complicated: The French are after the Fate, and Oliver needs the Fate’s sailors to help him fend them off so he can preserve his prize ship for the Americans.  Who is whose enemy in such a case?  And how will Lucy and Max finish their mission now?

What with the shifting politics of the wars and the overarching desire to find this fabulous artifact which will rend future wars impossible, there is plenty of excitement in this novel.  But there’s more than that.  I want to point to two elements: a) the fantastic; b) the realism.  You might just have blinked and wondered if I’d gone crazy, but, truly, this novel walks a fine line between fantasy and realistic historical fiction, and that’s part of what gives the novel its distinctive flavour.  Let’s start with the fantastic.

First of all, the weapon or artifact Max and Lucy are hunting down is evidently fantastical.  Everything about it has an aura of the mysterious, starting with the cryptic and ancient Egyptian inscription which guides those who pursue it.  Then the crew of the Fate finds itself pursued by an apparently indestructible and unbelievably fast all black brig with black-uniformed crew.  Who are they, and what are they after?  And when the ship arrives in Nagspeake (a fictional city), it has almost the feeling of a goblin market.  And, finally, when the artifact is– well.  I won’t spoil that for you.  But the supernatural is definitely in the air.  If you can ignore how realistic, and even scientific, it all seems.  Everything is practical.

You see, Kate Milford has certainly read her Patrick O’Brian novels and done thorough research of her own.  She represents the politics and intricacies of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 as clearly and precisely as O’Brian, but pitched at a much younger audience.  She raises the issues of impressment and treason, describes the horrors of the war in the Vendée, and altogether evokes a rich and textured picture of the tumultuous years around the early 19th century.  She does all this without taking sides and consistently providing an array of sympathetic (and, occasionally, less sympathetic characters) of all stripes.  There’s Lucy, brisk, no-nonsense and more at home on the ship than on land; there’s her brother, Liao, a young pacifist and fireworks expert; there’s Max, the clumsy but endearing natural philosopher; and there’s Oliver, the glowing idealist who suddenly realizes that maybe the world’s a bit more complicated than he gave it credit for being.  (Confession: I may have a slight crush on Lucy.  She’s a truly wonderful character.)

This balance means that as we read, we’re living in a real world.  We know the people and the flavours and the sights.  We know the people and we know the issues and the dangers they face, and we care.  At the same time, some of those problems are just a bit more mysterious than we’re used to, and we always have the feeling that maybe there’s something more happening just around that corner.  What do those strange lights mean?  What about the black brig?  And yet it’s all really real.

This is a perfect middle grade novel, in other words.  For a flavour of the naval issues surrounding the War of 1812, and the war’s connection to the Napoleonic Wars, you can hardly do better.  But in addition to being an excellent tie-in to a history lesson, it’s also an excellent writing lesson.  Kate Milford shows you how to make a big, apocalyptic, fantastical story interesting: by focusing on the precise and minute realism.  She evokes a real, true world and populates it with warm, knowable characters, and the big story grows out of that tangible background.

In a nutshell, then, if you like seafaring adventures, or if you’re a history buff, or if you’re simply looking for a quick, fun read with a cast of some of the most sympathetic characters I’ve met lately– get yourself a copy of The Left-Handed Fate.

(Also, Kate Milford?  If you decide to emulate Patrick O’Brian further and write twenty of these novels, I’d probably read them all.)

Monthly Retrospective

As October dawns, we’re having a rather early monthly retrospective.  A Sunday one.  Why?  Well, the Jewish holidays are upon us, so I must commune with the blog when I may!

What does October mean for you this year?  To me it’s going to be a rather hectic month, so far as I can tell: as I said, the Jewish holidays fall during October this year, which adds an extra layer to my workload.  Don’t be surprised if the blog falls a little quieter as I try to keep up with everything else.  But what does October really mean?  Fall, Hallowe’en… stories.  Telling stories about who you are, making yourself through stories, enjoying new experiences through stories.

That’s certainly the trend I notice in our reflections on the last month’s books.  Of course we’re always all about stories at the Children’s Bookroom, but this month seems to have a lot of identity-play through stories.  Some are a full exploration of being someone else (And Then Comes Halloween), others are more of an investigation of what your own place in the world is (Peter Pan), and still others have a very particular focus on the world of imagination and stories (This is Sadie; A Child of Books).  The common thread through a fairly diverse set of stories, however, seems to be the question “who am I?” or, perhaps, “who can I be?”

Last, month, then was rather introspective.  Who knows what next month will bring?   Stay tuned!  In between my holidays I hope to find you something good and spooky to read for Hallowe’en.  (And I’m always on the lookout for good spooky books, so if you have any recommendations– share in the comments!)

this-is-sadieThis is Sadie: A little girl spends her days diving into her own world of make-believe and storytelling, whether she sails all around her room in a cardboard box boat or dives beneath the sea as a little mermaid or has adventures in Wonderland.  There’s a Sadie in all of our lives, and this book reminds us of the beauty they live with– and reminds them that they’re not alone.  Perhaps you’re even a Sadie yourself.  This is Sadie is a story about living in stories, and is a reminder that it’s really OK to get a little lost in a good book.  Beautifully illustrated in gouache, watercolour, and pencil crayon by Julie Morstad, this is a perfect book for any imaginative child, or for anyone who loves a good story.

 

king-babyKing Baby: When a baby is born, we all gather and coo over the gurgly new being in our midst.  But what does the baby think?  Kate Beaton is here to tell us King Baby’s perspective: he knows his power, and is both a benevolent and a stern monarch over his subjects.  What happens, though, as King Baby grows, and crawls, and walks, and talks?  King Baby is, in a nutshell, one of the most charming books out there to explain babies to children (or adults).  It may seem an outlier in my introspective October batch, but don’t be fooled: King Baby is a most thoughtful and self-aware little monarch.

 

a-child-of-booksA Child of Books: Holy mackerel, I thought I’d gotten over being a bit choked up about this book, but then I flipped it open to write this blurb and my eyes prickled.  There is one word for this book, and it is: beautiful.  What is more powerful than watching the child of books guide her friend through the world of stories and the mountains of make-believe?  Only the reminder at the end that we, too, can visit the realms of stories as imagination is free.  A Child of Books provides a fresh and original story out of the enduring world of books and stories that surround us every day.

Dear readers, those are some very good books, indeed.  And here are some more good books, all the books we looked at in the last month:

  • Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (A beautiful and gentle novel and collection of stories, suitable for middle grade readers and up)
  • And Then Comes Halloween (If you understand and appreciate costumes, you’re ready for this; toddlers and up)
  • This is Sadie (An inspiring story about imagination and stories; probably best for ages 4 and up)
  • King Baby (A sweet story about the power of babies; toddlers and up)
  • Peter Pan (Zany and powerful, for middle grade and up)
  • A Child of Books (A book for a all ages about the places a story can take you)

That’s it for this month!  For a sneak peek into next month’s books, check out the Changeling’s new favourite story: I Am a Story.