How to Make Friends with a Ghost

Dear Readers,

I am super swamped right now, so I’m going to try to be brief, but Hallowe’en is upon us and I simply couldn’t justify letting the holiday go by without recommending the one really good new Hallowe’en book I found this year (thanks for the tip, Mummy!).  I got it through my local children’s book shop, where, apparently, it’s been selling extremely well.  OK, to be honest, I first got the book at Type in Toronto (but I gave that copy away to someone who was lacking in good Hallowe’en books), then I got it through The Children’s Book Shop, and now I have another copy on the way to the Harvard Book Store because my little neighbour downstairs needs a copy, too, in my opinion.  So, basically, this is one of those books: the ones that just sort of become… around a lot.  After all, when you find a book you love, you want to share it with your friends.  But I am remiss!  I haven’t told you what book this is yet:

Today we’re looking at How to Make Friends with a Ghost, by Rebecca Green, who did the fabulous illustrations for The Glass Town Game, and is rapidly becoming a favourite illustrator of mine.

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In How to Make Friends with a Ghost, however, Rebecca Green shows that she not only has great skill and talent as an illustrator (working with a limited palette in gouache and coloured pencils), but she also is an accomplished writer.  She balances her text between humour and sweetness with a dash of spookiness and just enough grossness to make a youngster squeal a few times throughout the story (remember: don’t let your ghost be used as a tissue, because booger removal is never easy!).

In brief, this is a guidebook for how to make, and maintain, a friendship with a ghost.  It has an Introduction (how to find a ghost– hint: let the ghost find you), Part 1: Ghost Basics (Dos and Don’ts), Part 2: Ghost Care (feeding, activities, and bedtime), and Part 3: Growing Together (with tips such as making sure your new home isn’t haunted, because ghosts don’t like competition).  The structure is wonderful for taking what could be a really text-heavy book and breaking it down into bite sized chunks of valuable information, including advice from the well-known expert Dr. Phantoneous Spookel.  What’s ingenious, however, is how it still hangs together in a nice package, like any really well-written guidebook.

But while everyone I’ve spoken to has enjoyed the journey through the book (the recipe for Floating Spaghetti and Mudballs is generally popular– although, warning, I sort of gagged while reading it!), the universal response is, and I paraphrase: “I really didn’t expect that ending.”  And I’m about to spoil that ending for you, so if you care about that sort of thing, stop reading here.

Ready?

You see, this is a guidebook to a lifelong friendship with a ghost: it gives tips and recipes and suggests activities, but, in a nutshell, it also covers the enduring nature of friendship with a ghost– unto death and beyond.  The ending is so touching, in fact, that I choked up reading it.

In itself, I wouldn’t really find the presence of death in a picture book too startling: I’m not too sensitive to that sort of thing so long as it’s handled appropriately, and Rebecca Green handles it with sensitivity, grace, and even humour.  No child would be disturbed by it, and many might learn from it.  (I wonder if she read the section on the death of the squirrel in Moominland Midwinter?  That was also handled beautifully.)

In fact, while she did a beautiful job of that, what I really admired was the more universal message of friendship through old age.  Take this line, accompanying the picture of the ghost’s friend grown old: “And even if you can’t remember jokes, your ghost can.  It will be there to make you laugh.”  That’s the part where I choked up.  I remembered visiting elderly friends and relatives, some whose memories had started to slip, and I remembered talking with them about favourite books, and I remembered laughing with them.  Those are memories I wouldn’t trade for anything, and I love the thought that in this book for children there’s a message about the value of friendship even through old age and beyond.

Sure, this might be a simple, funny story smiling at its own improbability (I hate to break it to you, but you’re unlikely to find a ghost, especially one who’ll become a real, lifelong– and beyond– companion).  More than that, it’s a message about enduring friendship, and sharing kindness throughout one’s life.  And it conveys that without ever, at any point, saying, “It’s a kind and charitable act to visit the elderly.”  That?  That is truly accomplished writing.

So, folks, this Hallowe’en, why not snuggle up with a slightly spooky, slightly macabre, and very sweet story?  Go forth and purchase yourself a copy of How to Make Friends with a Ghost!

Other Hallowe’en books you might enjoy: Hallowe’en Trio.  Or why not go for a creepy read for older children (MG, but, well, you’ll love it, too!): The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.  And if you have any great spooky books for Hallowe’en in your arsenal, share them in the comments!

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The Glass Town Game

This post took me longer to write than usual.  Mostly because this book took me longer to read than usual.  Partly that would be because I read it at a family gathering in Toronto where I knew I’d be unable to write my dissertation, and it’s a long book (535 pages).  Since I was at this gathering I didn’t have the unlimited time to really plunge into a story the way I used to.  I had to pick my times and read a few pages here and a few pages there in between other tasks and visits.  (Aside 1: I really did enjoy the family gathering.  It’s just that it did cut into my reading time.)  (Aside 2: When I was a kid and I saw grown-ups reading like that I was totally appalled; how could you put down Harry Potter without just reading it straight through?  Now, I’ve become one of those appalling adults myself.  So it goes.)

But the other reason I was reading so slowly is because this is a book which asks you to think.  Don’t get me wrong: this is a fun, MG novel and it’s easy to get caught up in the plot and, particularly, in the characters– I’d have enjoyed reading it straight through in a gulp when I was a kid.  But it’s also a thinking book, and reading a thinking book slowly has its advantages.  To be honest, I actually considered reading it through a second time before writing it up, but you all need to know about it NOW, not whenever I’m able to get through a second reading.

And so, now that I have read it through and thought it through, let’s talk about The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente, illustrated by Rebecca Green.  (Hint: we’re going to see more of Rebecca Green shortly.)

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Folks, this is absolutely one of the best MG novels I’ve read since… oh, probably since Fairyland.  (Yes, we’ve already noted many times over that I have a tendency to fangirl over Cat Valente.)  It’s filled with what I consider traditional features of Cat Valente’s writing, including her fascinating tendency towards allusiveness, her beautiful prose (if I could figure out how she combines such lyricism with a fun, conversational tone I’d be a very happy lady), and, perhaps most strikingly, her innovative, distinctive characters, each with a unique and believable voice.  In other words, the quality of the book is very much in line with what you expect from Cat Valente.  What stands out in this book and makes it different from all other Valente books I’ve read is really in the subject matter.  Whereas Fairyland and Deathless, for example, are well-researched books in their own rights, they derive from a mishmash of sources.  Glass Town, by contrast, while it does have its diverse sources (I defy you to identify every allusion to English, and, to an extent, French, literary, military, and scientific history in the book), is largely faithful to one work: the Brontë children’s games.

“Games?” I hear you ask.  I know, I too, was stunned to hear that the Brontë children were engaged in extensive and in-depth imaginative games together, games which they wrote about in detail.  I was even more stunned to learn that there has already been a children’s book published about the children and their games, The Return of the Twelves, which I briefly wrote about over here: Saturdays.  I’m not going to go into the history of those games here, as I’m no expert on the subject, but I will point you to Cat Valente’s article describing what those games were like, and how a modern audience might understand them: The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente  Read it, please.  I’ll be here when you’re done.

Ready?  Good.

Now that we know a bit more about the children’s games and the children themselves (believe me, I’m thrilled that Branwell and Anne get some stage time as well as Charlotte and Emily), let’s talk a bit about what happens in the book.  Without giving too much away, what happens is that the children, traumatized as they are by the terror of returning to the school which effectively killed their older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, somehow end up in the world they had created: a world containing Glass Town, Gondal, Angria, and all the other regions and bits and pieces they’d imagined into being.  And among those “bits and pieces” are the inhabitants of Glass Town and its environs, particularly the twelve wooden soldiers who were their favourite toys at Haworth (the home of the Brontës) and were effectively the conduits for the children’s imaginative games.  All of them had names (Crashey, Gravey, Rogue, etc.) and all were alive and real in Glass Town.  The children, of course, were the odd ones out in this world: in Glass Town, everyone was of something, whether wood or cloth or metal or books or something else entirely, and the children, being of flesh and blood, were called “Breathers,” and, having invented this world, now had to learn how to live in it and work with its rules.

But the incredible cast of characters isn’t limited to the twelve soldiers.  No.  If you read Cat Valente’s essay (linked to above– but you did read it, didn’t you?), then you’ll know just how amazingly detailed these games were, and, yes, Cat weaves in a huge assortment of the characters the children invent or people they encountered in their lives, including editors (Mr. Bud and Mr. Tree), Napoleon and Wellington (whose conflict is at the heart of the novel), Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Young Soult the Rhymer and so forth.  In true Cat Valente form, as these characters are formed, form themselves, and form the book, I can’t quite tell what is historical, what is derived from the children’s writings, and what is hers: it’s all been stewed together over the fires of her imagination until it has become something wonderful and original, but, again, without ever losing the true Brontë flavour at the heart of the text.  There is a source at the heart of this book, and that’s the Brontë’s writings, and she remains fully, wholly faithful to that source.

To step back from the analysis a bit, I just want to tell you that I can’t remember the last time I savoured a book so completely, read it as slowly and carefully as I could so as to glean the sense from each word and each sentence.  And I can’t remember a time I encountered a MG novel so wholly trusting of its audience.  Is Branwell bad?  (Oh man, I could write a whole other post comparing him to Edmund in Narnia, but I’ll spare you my thoughts on that for now.)  Is he a traitor?  Is Napoleon the Bad Guy and Wellington the Good Guy?  What do we make of Anne’s favourite: the young princess Victoria?  Cat doesn’t tell you what to think at all.  She trusts her readers, young and old, to engage in conversation with the Brontë children and see what they think for themselves.

In other words, folks: when you get a chance, read this book.  Choose a time when you think you’ll really be able to lose yourself in its prose and characters and ideas, and then surrender to the pleasure of just reading, as you did before you grew up and became a poky adult with responsibilities.

Warning: it’s a bit compulsively shareable.  I’ve already purchased four copies because I keep giving them away so as to increase the chances of having someone else to talk to about it.

They All Saw A Cat

I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and I love writing on it.  When I get a chance to write in between deadlines, I’m always thrilled.  One thing I love is that perfectly poised moment in time before I choose a book to write about.  I ask myself the question: What do I love so much I can’t not write about it?  And there are always a million and four books which pop to mind before the choice plops into my head.  And then there are days like today.  Days when I’m forcefully reminded of the world outside of my deadlines and my family and my blog– days when I’m reminded that All Is Not Well.  I won’t go into all of the news of the past few days– but the devastation around us can’t be ignored: the hurricanes, the strained relations with other countries, the shooting.  How do we respond to these crises, beyond opening our hearts and our hands and giving where we can?  How do we learn to relate to them without either trying to ignore the bad news or crumbling into a depressed and anxious mass?

Warning: this is a slightly irritable post because I am anxious and scared about the state of the USA right now.  I’m also writing from a café, without really editing properly, so please be aware that I’m writing off the top of my head slightly, and cut me some slack accordingly, please.

I am probably the world’s worst person to give advice on such matters:  my usual response is either to stop checking the news or, as after the Sandy Hook school shooting, which happened when I was pregnant, I collapse.  Today I thought I’d try something different.  I thought I’d seek wisdom in my considerable library of excellent books: was there something in there which would help me attenuate my fear and anxiety without repressing the ugly truth?

I was reminded of the book my Changeling and I were reading last night before bed: They All Saw a Cat, by Brendan Wenzel.  (This is his first book, I believe, which makes me rather jealous– it’s a beautiful first effort!)

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This is an ingenious little book, where we see the cat walking through the world with his whiskers, ears, and paws, and then we see how each of the creatures the cat encounters, from a child to a goldfish to a bat, sees the cat differently.  The cat, we are reminded, is always himself, with his whiskers, ears, and paws, but a dog will see him one way while a bird will see him another way.  And, in the end, we’re asked to imagine how the cat sees himself.

There’s more than a little reminiscence of Kipling in here (“But still I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”), but the perspective isn’t the cat’s, whom I can imagine saying, “The dog sees me as a ranging danger, but still I walk through the world with my whiskers, ears, and paws.”  No, the perspective isn’t even the dog’s, who might say, “There walks my enemy the cat with his whiskers, ears, and paws.”  The perspective is the omniscient third person narrator’s, which is to say, our author-illustrator, which is to say, the one creature who sees how we all see differently: bat, earthworm, and snake.

Remember, this is not a “Charlesbridge book,” it’s a “Chronicle Books book.”  What do I mean by that?  I mean that the publication style is different.  If this had been published by Charlesbridge it would have had back matter including lots of excellent information about how different creatures see things differently, coming from a scientific point of view.  There would have been a page of resources for children and one for instructors.  It would have been an excellent book in that way, and you’d know that the very best fact-checking had gone into each illustration.  (I love Charlesbridge, people.)

Coming from Chronicle Books, however, it has none of that– and, in this particular case, I don’t feel the lack.  (I did read a review where one reader did lament the lack of back matter, but I disagree.)  The book, as it comes to us from Chronicle Books, is instead about the subtler message of our own perspectives: how do we all see things differently, and what does that mean?  Just as I can imagine two different publishers handling the same manuscript in two different ways which would have produced two radically different books, and each would be a valid take– well, our narrator sees how all different creatures can see the same animal, a cat, in all different ways, each valid to his own experience, and we come away with a kind of “hodgepodge” cat of different perspectives.  And we wonder, further, how does the cat see himself?

Leaving it here, you might be thinking, “Deborah, this all sounds terribly flaky and, frankly, like you’re saying that everyone’s perspective is valid– no matter how violent and awful it might be.  And didn’t you start out saying that you lamented the violence and awfulness out there?”

Trust in Chronicle Books, my friends.  Have a little faith.  (I love Chronicle Books, too.)

No, this isn’t a primer in what we might describe as moral relativism.  This is simply a book about how we all see a cat– and how that cat sees himself.  If there’s a deeper message to that, it’s not about moral relativism; it’s about empathy.  The book doesn’t tell us “Everyone’s position is valid,” but, very simply, “How does this creature see this other creature?  Can I understand him?”

For example, I am deeply and profoundly convinced that the dog’s perspective on our cat is WRONG.  That dog is completely off in every imaginable way.  But when my heart is finished flooding with anger over the dog’s essential wrongness, I am capable of absorbing what his perspective is, and I know the breadth and the limits of that perspective.  What does it teach our children when we read this book together?  The hope is that it teaches them the following: “This dog sees the cat as dangerous, and he’s scared of it.  He’s also incorrect because I know that cat isn’t dangerous.”  That might lead us to wonder, “Is there a way to help attenuate his fear of the cat?”

Maybe.  That’s the hope.

I could go on into a discussion of how adults could apply these lessons– how I intend to apply these lessons– but let’s stick mostly to children and general lessons here, and refrain from wandering into the sticky region of gun laws, etc.  And I think the general lesson here is to remember the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would be treated yourself.  Think of their fears as you think of your own fears.  This doesn’t mean you have to accept their positions, but it does remind you of their humanity.  And a child who remembers that is less apt to smack a friend and take her truck away; we can extrapolate how an adult who absorbs these lessons might behave.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of being told either: “You have to accept this other person’s perspective because it’s equally valid,” which feels irritating and, frankly, stupid; or “Fear and hate anyone who is Other,” which sits badly with my bleeding-heart Canadian liberalism.  I’m sick of it all, and I want a new perspective.  Brendan Wenzel recommends standing back, taking a deep breath, and absorbing others’ perspectives.  Well, I think it’s worth a try, isn’t it?  How do we cope with the depth of destruction going on around here?  We remember that our fellows are our fellows, and we try our best to treat them with respect, even when we violently disagree about the path forward.

If you think this sounds a little simplistic and airy-fairy, that’s fair criticism.  I’m arguing that with myself, too.  But remember that my particular argument here is how to respond to tragedies without either collapsing under the nastiness or denying it.  And, yes, I think that remembering that we’re all in this together is at least the first step forward.   Arguing comes next.

These are just some quick thoughts, top-of-my-head style, but thank you, Brendan Wenzel, for the reminder to think and feel with others– and ultimately to come back to: How does the cat see himself?

(But the dog is wrong.)