As I said when I posted yesterday, I think this is a great year for some good, spooky reads. Take a dark, cozy, spooky day and tell some stories, read some stories, maybe choose a good eerie novel, even! But this list is mostly for picture books I’ve either reviewed in the past or have recently come out and I haven’t had a chance to review this year. It will be a list, not a Big Chonky Review, so have your indie book shop’s website or phone number handy, and get ready to impulse buy!
I’m going to start with a brief list of new books to try (I will note those I’ve read and those I haven’t yet had the chance to– sob!)
Gustavo, the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago (I have NOT read this, but doesn’t it look great? Sold out at my shops already by the time I went to check!!!)
The Little Kitten, Nicola Killen (picture book, enchantingly lovely and cute with just a hint of spookiness in a final twist– ages 2+)
How to Make Friends with a Ghost by Rebecca Green (a real family favourite, year-round. Ages 4+ picture book. So much heart and truth with leavenings of humour and macabre which never, EVER take from the love.)
Ten Timid Ghosts, by Jennifer O’Connell (young picture book; a simple counting book with a Hallowe’eny twist!)
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Sheffler (a truly classic book, available in many formats, toddler and up)
I Am a Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster (more of a story-type picture book, ages 4 or 5+, a seemingly straightforward book of Hallowe’en imagination… until the end…)
Honestly, if you haven’t found something good in here? You’re picky, indeed! But hop to it– Hallowe’en is ELEVEN DAYS AWAY SO RUN TO YOUR SHOP! Or write to me in the comments or at email@example.com for help finding your indie book shop!
So, I’m honestly appalled that it’s OCTOBER 19 and I haven’t posted my usual Hallowe’en reviews. (You have twelve days left, just in case you lost count.) In past years I do feel like I’ve done more, and I did, in fairness, review The Little Kitten for you in July? But, excuses excuses! I’ve had this post in my back pocket for a while now, and haven’t written it, in essence, because covid has taken its toll on us all, and figuring Hallowe’en out is a complicated thing this year.
But, on reflection, this is a perfect Covid-19 time Hallowe’en book: Screech!: Ghost Stories from Old Newfoundland by Charis Cotter, with illustrations by Genevieve Simms. Nimbus sent this to me, very kindly and very quickly, so I got to read it before Hallowe’en, and I’m going to beg you– if you’re Canadian and want a copy, would you consider buying it from my old hometown book shop, Tidewater Books, in Sackville, New Brunswick? (If you’re in the USA, you may not want to pay international shipping, so I’ll let you buy it at your local shop or mine, here!)
Here’s the thing: I’m not a girl for scary stories or scary movies and I still haven’t forgiven my dad for the day I was watching Disney’s Fantasia and ran away in terror from The Rite of Spring scene with the viciously murdery dinosaurs and he pretended to be a dinosaur and I fled sobbing upstairs. But: I love Hallowe’en. It’s not about scary for me… it’s about playing with identity through costumes, and it’s about the spooky, the unknown just around the corner… the unknowable, perhaps, as much as the unknown. That’s why you need this book this year. Allow me to emphasize: IF YOU HAVE HALLOWE’EN PLANS OR NEED TO MAKE HALLOWE’EN PLANS THIS YEAR, PLEASE BUY THIS BOOK, THANK YOU. LINKS ABOVE.
Let me explain my expertise: I had a childhood of Hallowe’ens in Sackville, New Brunswick. I’m not saying we did the most innovative and creative costumes every year (though the Three-Headed Monster costume was GENIUS, and I have yet to hear of a better idea from anyone ever), but the playfulness was there, and so was a bit of nice anarchy to accompany the homier traditions. We kids rambled and ran through leaves, probably making enormous messes that grown-ups had to rake up after us with a sigh. We had the perfect balance of tradition (my mother ALWAYS made us beans with hotdogs in them Hallowe’en night) and innovation (costume planning fun, slight alterations in route: “can we turn here?”, new pumpkin ideas) every year. The move to Toronto from Sackville, from a Hallowe’en perspective, was a severe disappointment. You couldn’t ramble, people drove around for trick-or-treating, which I consider, to this day, sacrilegious, and it was over way too soon. Too much candy, insufficient costuming. OBVIOUSLY no one baked, because the very IDEA of giving a stranger a homemade cookie is simply terrifying! I dunno, Hallowe’en in the Maritimes is a special thing, and I don’t think you city-dwellers have the right of it, sorry.
Now, what does this have to do with books, you’re asking? And would I please be so kind as to tell you about this book of ghost stories? Patience, readers.
This year is, you may have noticed, different. I don’t know about you, but my family’s decided against trick-or-treating this year (I’m sure this depends on location, but here in Massachusetts we’re being extra careful so that we don’t have to close schools again, basically). My Changeling will be changing costumes (probably three times, she has several ideas) at home, not rambling from house to house with her cousin. And I thought: “We have to do something special. We have to bring out the spooky playfulness of Hallowe’en at home.” We’re going to decorate. We’re going to have a backyard scavenger hunt to get a bit of candy in there, fine, but we’re also doing spooky candles (she thought we should put them in pairs to look like glowing eyes, isn’t that a great idea?), and I’ll make our traditional Hallowe’en supper (we don’t do beans with hotdogs, we do mac and cheese, and she can help me cut out cookies) and I have LOTS of stories she doesn’t know about yet.
Why emphasize stories, apart from the mere fact of “Deborah likes Hallowe’en stories”? Look, if you want spooky, what do you do? You sit by a flickering candle and read spooky stories, of course! Think of the background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example! (Which is told in a great picture book, by the way.) But, more to the point of this post– think of the traditional ghost story: in the fall and winter, as the nights close in, you need entertainment… and the delightfully chilling and warming of a spooky story as you sit round the flames together, passing the hours with a yarn and a good apple and a drink… but then the winds batter the windows and somewhere a door slams and everyone jumps…! Now, that’s Hallowe’en.
In grad school, my supervisor had the right of it: every Samhain she read us a spooky story, usually translated from Old Irish, sometimes Middle Welsh, and we’d sit, rapt, listening to her. (Yes, my supervisor was the best.)
Now: if you want to experience that as a family, this book is for you.
OK, let’s circle back to my sentence where I said: “I’m not a girl for scary stories or scary movies.” That’s true. I actually read this book carefully and slowly and with trepidation. I’m such a wimp that I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula during bright daylight hours, laughing at the overdone descriptions and chuckling at the obviousness of it all… then couldn’t sleep all night and checked on my daughter about six times to make sure no one was hovering, bloodthirsty, over her bed. I’m a wimp.
And I read Screech! with zero problems sleeping at night thereafter, but with many a spooky shiver in the process of going through each delightfully told story as darkness closed around the house. There’s a difference between a horror story and a ghost story, and this collection nails it. Screech! is a beautiful book, and I can’t let this review go without nodding to Genevieve Simms’s evocative illustrations which enhance rather than spoil each story. It’s also a toolkit, rather than a horror novel. It tells of the mysterious, the unknown, the uncanny, the unheimlich, and the fabulous. Some stories breathe an air of potential danger– some of sorrow, loss, or desperation– but some are, instead, shadows of old joys, lingering on at the end of autumn with a wistful passing sigh… The idea is of ghostliness, not simply scariness, and I love the spooky, uncanny telling of a joyful ghost story as much as of a screechy, scary, cackling ghost story.
The images that flicker through each story still resonate in my mind, just as a good ghost story should: an eerie light in the darkness, fog over water, a shadowy dancer, a bell in the night, a blue shawl over a field…
But what I love best in this collection is this: as I said, it’s a toolkit, with instructions at the back to guide you through telling a scary story (or not-so-scary, but still spooky, story!), so you can share these stories with your kids and families. The book is introduced by information about where these stories came from, so that you can feel as firmly embedded in the hominess of the uncanniness as any Newfoundlander, and each story is followed by precise details about the gathering of each tale.
This is a brilliant book, and I felt nostalgic in the reading of it– I felt crisp air and crisp leaves, I started to panic about “oh no, what if it snows on Hallowe’en?” (that doesn’t happen here, but did back home occasionally), and I felt a yearning to make cookies. (I should really make cookies.) But I have the funniest feeling…
I feel like, even if you’re not from Atlantic Canada? I think you’ll still feel a creepy nostalgia in the reading of this book. I think it’s that sort of book, that takes you back home, that reaches foggy fingers into the “spooky” bit of your brain, and that you just revel in forever afterwards.
Please, consider getting this quickly before Hallowe’en! You have twelve more days! And then make cookies and hot chocolate, or mull some cider, get in costume, turn out the lights… light a candle (maybe pairs of candles, like glowing eyes in the darkness)…
And tell a ghost story.
(For Hallowe’en picture books: please search “Hallowe’en” on the blog and you’ll turn up lots! I may do a follow-up post with a link to all picture books for Hallowe’en here, but haven’t time right now.)
This isn’t exactly a review of any sort whatsoever. Call it more of a confessional.
See, if you don’t know me very well– I love poetry. A lot. My PhD was in 14th century Welsh and French poetry, but also, more generally, a love letter to how poetry sounds, how it evokes feelings and thoughts, and it was a personal attempt to puzzle out how I could talk about poetry with love but still say something sensible and useful.
I. Love. Poetry.
I also don’t know much about poetry as it is written today, and when the American poet Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” I was quite genuinely thrilled. I looked around eagerly for more information, read a number of her poems, and was pleased to discover someone writing in the 21st century who has a sensitivity to the lyric and yet works in a concise and direct style. In all, she seems like a worthy choice, and between her this year and Alice Munro in 2013, that’s two strong choices I can really celebrate.
I don’t have a “but.” I do have an “additionally,” though, hanging at the end of that paragraph.
Look, this blog is called “The Children’s Bookroom.” Well, I think many kids, or at least young adults, can read Alice Munro and Louise Glück and get a lot out of them! I also think there’s not a literate adult living (although, sadly, there are many children out there who don’t grow up with the benefit of literacy, and we should never forget that) who didn’t benefit from stories and poetry as a child, and I do wonder why we don’t celebrate the authors of genuine worth who form those earliest impressions of literacy, beauty, humanity, and the worth of the world.
So much is at stake, when you think about children’s literature! As I hinted in the above paragraph, childhood literacy is a critical topic. No adult can sit with a volume of Louise Glück poetry, admiring her austere beauty and lyricism, without first having the beautiful, necessary opportunity to learn from Goodnight, Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I certainly don’t begrudge a brilliant poet today her prize– I laud it! But I have here beside me The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley, illustrated by Peter Sís. An extraordinary book! And on the back cover there’s a nice blurb from Mario Vargas Llosa: “Borges is the most important Spanish-language writer since Cervantes…. To have denied him the Nobel Prize is as bad as the case of Joyce, Proust, and Kafka.”
If he can lament the awfulness of exclusions, I can, too. So I just want to think a bit about the contributors to our earliest senses of literacy and literary beauty. Who would be on my list? Who’s as bad an omission as Proust? (My husband reveres Proust, so I consider him the Highest of the High, lest I be cast out of the house.) Well, I want to think about those who I feel have been overlooked in the area of kids’ lit, and maybe you want to think about it, too.
Joan Aiken: creator of an alternate historical timelines in the Wolves chronicles, but also, quite simply, a creator of characters at least as fine as any in Dickens.
Diana Wynne Jones: for versatility of voice and style from mischievous humour to philosophical gravity, from the fairy tale to the cosmic significance.
Eleanor Farjeon: unmatchable in her ability to convince me that there must be a historical source or basis– wait, that’s really original? Unbelievably, it always is.
Ezra Jack Keats: for the honesty and truth with which he represented what and who were always there, exploding our ideas of what we thought was reality, with gentle kindness.
Maurice Sendak: has anyone matched his ability to speak to children on their own level, without ceding ground to interfering adults?
Margaret Wise Brown: like Julian of Norwich, she is often read today as almost kindly and banal, but, like Julian, there is a depth and nuance there– one which every child feels when read to at night, even if we forget the subtleties as we age.
Arnold Lobel: the raw, deep truths of love and friendship have never been better represented, for child or adult, than in the stories of Frog and Toad.
What if we were in an alternate reality where I was casting the deciding vote for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and I were to award the prize to someone in children’s literature in 2020– a sort of “lifetime achievement award”? Who would it be, what would be my reason?
The award, I think, would go to:
Eric Carle, “for his clarity, gentle truths, and directness in writing to the youngest of us, and his kindness in mentoring all those following him.”
Let’s have some fun now, shall we? A wonderful woman at Candlewick who apparently knows my taste through and through sent me a note before Rosh Hashanah asking if I knew about The Clockwork Crow, by Catherine Fisher, which was released on September 8. I had not seen it, but she compared it to Joan Aiken and Eva Ibbotson and you all know my feelings about Joan Aiken and also did I mention it’s set in Victorian Wales?
I don’t know how to sum up this book better than to say it was incredibly fun to read and I was gleeful to find out that it’s the first in a trilogy, because the thought of more made me clap my hands, and no I’m not exaggerating. I read it in what felt like five minutes over Rosh Hashanah, but I’m sure was about two hours. The time zoomed happily by as I took the train to Plas-y Fran in Wales with poor orphaned Seren Rhys who so longed for a home and happiness after her time at the orphanage. Then the tall, dark stranger hands her a newspaper bundle… and he disappears. When she arrives at the lonely, dark mansion house (not the lovely, illuminated home she’d been expecting and hoping for), she opens the bundle, connects the pieces– and finds she’s made a clockwork crow who is much more than he seems. Can Seren discover the secrets and mysteries behind the emptiness of the mansion house, the disappearance of young Tomos, the son of the house, and, perhaps, even of the cranky mechanical crow himself? (SPOILER ALERT: It turns out fine.)
With a tall, remote housekeeper who may or may not be friendly and a healthy dose of magic into the mix, this book might honestly have been written with me in mind, so I took the precaution of checking with the owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, where it had a face-out display, if she thought it was as enchanting to read as I’d found it? “It was just so much fun!” she exclaimed. “It might as well have been written for me. And the comparison to Joan Aiken was so apt, really.” So, you know, endorsed not just by me, but also by an actual expert who’s apparently been waiting for a really fun mystery and fantasy novel rooted in Wales as much as I have.
The goal, I always feel, is for a perfectly natural reading experience. If you’re jolted by a feeling of “was that right, would that have happened?” the experience is destroyed and the book is ruined. Well, Seren Rhys is the ideal protagonist: she’s smart and wary and clever. She reads all the right books for the time period, and she explores the twisty, turny house just enough to get your heart beating but not so much that you think she must be stupid. As for the writing, Catherine Fisher’s prose is smooth and readable by any middle grade child today (they recommend for ages 9-12, but I suspect you could stretch a bit in either direction) but without either sounding unduly “modern” or, worse, fatally aiming towards a “Victorian style” which is utterly unachievable and rings a false note.
In short: this did not jolt me out of the motion of the plot and character, and it was a truly delightful read. I can’t wait for the next books in the series, and I have a strong suspicion you and your kids will feel exactly the same way. I’m going to make you a suggestion, though:
This is a time for innovation in reading groups, and I had so much fun chatting about this book at the book shop, I think your kids would like to chat about it, too. I want to recommend that if you have a kid the right age and with the right interests? Set up a reading group with a friend or two. My Changeling asked me to set up a “book club” for her and a friend, and I thought it was a brilliant idea! I’ve written to the other kid’s parents with a short list of suggested titles (you’d better believe this is on the list, along with Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon— how have I never reviewed that?– and a few others). They’ll meet to talk on Zoom and maybe for a few socially distanced outdoors celebrations when they finish a book.
And if you need suggestions for your book club, or just for your kid’s reading? Don’t forget my offer in my Three Little Kittens post!
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following:
a) Your literary interests
b) Your name
c) Your mailing address
I will write you a recommendation on a Three Little Kittens card, with a Snowy Day stamp! That’s it! Easy as that.