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:
The 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.
Our 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 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.
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:
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.
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!
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.)
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 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 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 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.
I’d say that I have a definite “type” of picture book I particularly love. “Yes,” say my devoted readers, “ones with words and pictures.” OK, granted, it doesn’t take much to attract me to a fancy new book. But within the realm of the picture book, there’s a type which really hits me in a vulnerable spot– which makes me choke up and get emotional as I read it: the books about books. We’ve already touched on some of those: Willy’s Stories, This Is Not a Picture Book!, This is Sadie, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. All of those are about books and stories, and I love them all.
If you’re like me and you love books about books, I have got a book right here which is going to have a very special place in your heart. It made me choke up right in public the first time I read it. It’s called A Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, recently published by Candlewick Press.
The story is of a child of books who is showing another child around her world: she guides him over mountains of make-believe, they lose themselves in forests of fairy tales, and they escape monsters in haunted castles. The child of books is a guide to her friend, but they also work together: they both participate in and experience the world they made from stories. They both live in the “home of invention,” to which, ultimately, “anyone at all can come, for imagination is free.” (God, I’m choking up again.)
I could go on forever about the beauty of this book, from the design to the text to the illustrations (which are done beautifully in watercolour, pencil, and digital collage). I could talk about the end-papers which are an elegant wallpaper of book titles and authors. I could talk about the subtle use of words to shape clouds of song for the children to sleep on and mountains of make-believe for them to climb over. I could go on forever about the gentle beauty of the language which both evokes the world of the imagination built by others and creates a new imaginative landscape for its readers. And we will talk about that. (I mean, I just did, in my sneaky little way.)
But I also want to talk about how I came to find this book, and about children of books and homes of invention. You see, maybe you’re a child of books yourself, and maybe you know some homes of invention. This is my story:
I’ve bragged a bit to you all before about my local children’s book store, The Children’s Book Shop. Well, I went in earlier this week and one of the lovely employees said, “We just got in a shipment of books and one of them is the new Oliver Jeffers. You’re going to want to see it.” I had to rush away before it was unpacked because, well, sometimes I have things to do other than hang around good books, but I made a special trip back there today, I was so excited to see this book. As soon as I stepped through the door she handed it to me with a smile. And that’s where I first read it, and, as mentioned, sort of choked up in public as I flipped through it. (I also bought a few other books because it would have been irresponsible to make a special trip to Brookline for just one book.)
After I had a chance to read A Child of Books properly, by which I mean reading it aloud to the Changeling at bedtime, I got to thinking: Who is the child of books? In the illustrations, she’s a little girl guiding her friend. But who is she? I thought of all the guides I’ve had to the world of stories– friends, teachers, my husband, my family… my world of stories would be much poorer without these guides to the mountains of make-believe and the forests of fairy tales. I thought, too, about the “home of invention” where the child of books lives with her friend. Surely you’ve encountered “homes of invention.” Growing up, there were libraries where I spent hours browsing the fairy tale shelves, and there was also my mother’s library which I plundered mercilessly (sorry, Mummy).
And as I thought it occurred to me that there was a beautiful symmetry between how I came to find this book and its contents– The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline is a “home of invention” if any place in the world is, and the staff there are all “children of books,” guides to the stories which line its shelves. I’ve always been passionate about the value of good libraries and independent book stores, but this book illustrates exactly why these “homes of invention” are so valuable. They can be good guides to others, as countless librarians and book store staff have been to me, and, in guiding future readers, they can help form future “children of books.” In fact, I know that as the Changeling becomes a “child of books”, I’m partly responsible, but all of the guidance I’ve had from librarians and The Children’s Book Shop must also be given their due credit. I’d never have found half the books I’ve talked about here, for example, without help from my guides and the libraries and book shops I’ve had the great good fortune to visit.
To come back to the story at hand more particularly, its genius, as I’ve tried to show, is in evoking the world of stories which surrounds it: the gentle lines of words which form its illustrations are built of other stories (Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, and so on), all in a landscape of words. Words from other stories form seas and trees and clouds. The whole basis of the story is to glory in the world of literature which surrounds it, and the illustrations gently draw our attention outward, to the intertextual world in which all stories live. That draws us, as I’ve demonstrated, to our own literary lives and our own literary experiences. Despite drawing so much attention to the world of stories, however, A Child of Books hangs together perfectly as a story all its own with characters all its own and, especially, an aesthetic all its own. We care deeply about the girl, the child of books, and the young friend she’s guiding, even as they remind us of ourselves and our own lives. We lose ourselves in their world of stories, even as we find our own world of stories in there with them.
This is a book which will make you grateful for books, their readers, and their homes. This is a book which is a love letter to all the books and readers of books out there, and I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t help guide more young pre-readers and young readers (and their parents) to “the mountains of make-believe.”
So I want to say a little thank you here. Thank you to Sam Winston and Oliver Jeffers for writing and illustrating this book. Thank you to Candlewick for doing such a beautiful job of publishing it. Thank you to The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline for making sure it made its way into my hands. And thank you to the Changeling for giving me the opportunity to read it aloud and enjoy it the way it’s meant to be enjoyed, as a shared moment between two children of books.
I have a confession: I may look pretty well-read in children’s books from the posts you see here, but I have some embarrassing gaps in my reading history. For example, I’ve never read The Wizard of Oz, and until this past weekend I’d never read Peter Pan, either the play or the novel. Well, last week I was in Harvard Square and, moth to a candle, I walked into the Harvard Book Store, which has quite a well-curated children’s book section. I picked up King Baby for the Changeling, and paused in front of the luxury edition section (a terrible idea, really). That’s when I saw Peter Pan as illustrated by the design studio MinaLima.
Sometimes all it takes is a fancypants new edition to lure you into reading that one book you’d always meant to read. Thankfully there wasn’t a fancy edition of The Wizard of Oz right there, or else who knows what would have happened? (Well, I mean, we all know what would have happened.)
So I read it over Shabbat, and I think you don’t need me to tell you that it was good, do you? It’s a fairly well-established fact by now that it’s a pretty decent book and you should all read it. In fact, I’m probably one of the few children’s book nerds around who hasn’t read it, so let’s cut past the “is it good?” part and swing forward to “what do you notice reading it for the first time as an adult? Did it defy expectations? How?”
The answer? It defied all of my expectations. Let’s take a quick glance at the blurb on the back of my edition and talk about the “how”:
“Let your imagination take flight as you journey with Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and the Darling children to the magical island of Neverland…”
Oh. Well, the words “light” and “innocent” don’t actually occur in that quote, but that’s sort of the impression I’d ended up receiving over time: that it would be light, innocent, and magical. I knew it had been interpreted in darker ways from articles and reviews I’d read at various points (I know, weird that I’d have read movie and play reviews without having read the novel– indefensible, I’d go so far as to say). But somehow I expected a charming tale of childhood innocence.
The more fool I. (A quote from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, another tale of innocence which isn’t so innocent.)
Who says childhood is innocent? Not J. M. Barrie, in any case.
Think about the basic plot structure: a boy creeps in at the nursery window to find his shadow, which had been stolen from him (by the way: I’m pretty sure a stolen shadow turns up in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales), and ends up persuading the children in the nursery, who are left completely unattended that night, to run away with him to his home. His home is under constant threat of violence, and all of the children live in the wild, fending for themselves, until they finally end up fighting a dangerous battle and returning home at last.
Severely reduced, that is what happens. And that’s without getting into the frankly bizarre age situation: Peter Pan’s obstinate refusal to grow up, but Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily’s evident interest in him. Then there’s Wendy’s burning desire to be a mother and play at being Mother and Father with Peter. And then there’s the Lost Boys’ burning desire to have a mother, although they have only the vaguest notion of what a mother is. Even the pirate Smee wants Wendy for his mother. We’re also told that only children who are young enough can enter the Neverland, and as soon as they’re too old, Peter sends them “away,” wherever that means. That being said, all of the children except for Peter show signs of “growing up,” which is to say, of being on the very fringe of pubescence, of the desire to get older and initiate some family life. All of the Lost Boys do, in fact, end up growing up and going to school and, presumably, like Wendy, having families.
But to return to, the Neverland: their games there show a tug-of-war between wild independence, led by Peter, and cozy dependence, championed by Wendy. Either they’re fighting with the (so help me God, I’ve never typed this word before and it galls me to do so now) “redskins” and the pirates with Peter or they’re being tucked into bed by Wendy. And Peter and Wendy are joint leaders, a kind of “Mother and Father,” in the Neverland (Peter always being a bit more in charge). The desire for family life, therefore, is central to the novel, even though on another level it’s about rejecting family for a never-ending state of childhood. The Neverland is an island of permissiveness, where childhood dreams are true, and a bit scary.
And there’s a darkness in that. Clinging to childhood as a state of independence means that make-believe can be real, or almost real. Peter believes his make-believe so deeply that a pretend meal is the equivalent of a real meal to him, and the other children sometimes go hungry as a consequence. Death is really death in the Neverland: Captain Hook is truly eaten by a crocodile and truly dies and is never heard from again. In battles, people die. It’s gruesome. So what about this theme of motherhood, of family relationships, of tucking into bed and mending stockings? Where’s the reality of make-believe in Wendy’s games? I think the words which are never spoken there but are so important to her story are “marriage” (her love of Peter) and “sex” (where the babies she so longs for come from).
Fundamentally, there’s a pull between the heartless, independent pleasures of childhood (“I don’t want to grow up and be stuck with a job and family!”) and the more social pleasures of developing pubescence (“I want a mother/to be a mother and to be looked after and to have a family!”). No wonder the generations get mixed up: Wendy is their age but is playing at being their mother, and is playing at being the wife (though that word is never used) of Peter, who’s the youngest and the oldest of them simultaneously.
In a lot of ways, then, this book is incredibly bizarre. This play at family life, of innocent stocking-darning, takes our nursery games of mothering baby dolls and puts it into a strangely realistic setting: what happens if there was a real island somewhere where all of our nursery games came true? asks J. M. Barrie. And the answer is this brilliant, disturbing, and beautiful novel.
I wonder what I’ll find when I finally read The Wizard of Oz?
I think we have covered my admiration of Kate Beaton before now when we talked about The Princess and the Pony. In a nutshell, I completely and unabashedly fangirl over her, and when I went to the Harvard Book Store recently and saw that they had her new book, King Baby, in a beautiful face-out display… well, I don’t altogether know what happened next except that I somehow was at home with a copy of the book (and a receipt to prove that, yes, I did remember to stop at the cash register and pay for it) and the Changeling on my knees asking me to “Read it again!”
Let’s cut to the chase: I love this book, and so does the Changeling. I bought it on Wednesday, and since then it has been read aloud countless times and I’m still not sick of it. By all rights I should be, but I’m not. Why is it so great for both of us? Two reasons come to mind: a) Kate Beaton is damned good at her job; b) the combination of witty text and engaging art is enthralling to both adults and children. I suppose those really come to one reason, when you think about it, but that reason bears being broken down to its component parts.
Let’s start by looking at the cover. What do we see? The first thing to jump out at me was the brilliant, bold colour scheme. It screams “children!” to me: a bright blue cover with big blocks of yellow, purple, and orange. The colours are in no way subtle or restrained, and if that’s all that was involved it would be appealing to children and get no more than an indulgent smile from adults. But then there’s the chair: restrained white outlines trace a beautiful Baroque throne for our King Baby, who reclines on it with a kingly expression of what I would describe as “hauteur” on his face. Our King Baby is decidedly aware that he merits such an elegant chair, and he suffers us to draw near and admire him. That cleverness engages all of our interest. Or at least the Changeling shrieked “Baby!” when she saw the cover, and I chuckled over the elaborate throne supporting the king’s little egg-like form.
That combination of wit and accessibility marks the entire rest of the book. The images are decidedly geared towards engaging children: there are the baby’s toys, his family, and all kinds of goofy situations for children to mull over. And let’s not forget King Baby himself! The Changeling loves to see what he’s doing on each page: eating, burping, playing and so on. But then there are King Baby’s parents for the adult readers to watch. Their pride, excitement, and exhaustion are all clearly visible and will get a sympathetic chuckle from any parent reading. More than that, there are Kate Beaton’s clever layouts: when King Baby is introduced, it’s in the form of a court scene. King Baby reclines graciously in his cradle, his parents standing proudly at his side, and a long line of grateful subjects coming to pay homage to the infant king. I will not tell you how long I giggled over that page; such mirth is unbecoming to your Serious Book Reviewer. I will, however, share a glimpse of that page with you:
Thus much for the art, but what of the story, what of the text? Well, the story is that King Baby has arrived, and is a gracious but firm monarch. He bestows many favours: kisses and giggles and coos. (Imagine the illustrations. Yeah, they’re great.) However, he also expects his subjects to fulfill their duties: feeding and burping and bouncing their infant monarch. This can sometimes be hard on the subjects, but it’s good to be the king. Then one day he issues an order which his subjects are too witless to interpret: they don’t bring him the toy he wants, and he’s forced to undertake serious measures… King Baby crawls to get the toy himself! That’s the beginning of the end of his reign as King Baby, for the gracious monarch has now become an independent, walking, talking Big Boy. But who will reign over his loyal subjects now? Never fear. Here comes… Queen Baby!
As for Kate Beaton’s prose? Well, let me put it this way: while I was summarizing her story, I had a foolish little grin on my face. It’s great, and, like her pictures, spans multiple age groups. It’s perfectly pitched for children: my three-year-old daughter listened very happily and was soon reciting her favourite lines (“King Baby will get the thing HIMSELF!”). And yet it’s in no way toned down for them; instead, it’s witty and fun for adults to read, too. Take the page I showed you above, the opening court scene, as King Baby greets his loyal subjects: “I will give you many blessings, for King Baby is generous.” I’m guessing your toddlers probably don’t often use “for” structures in their day to day speech. My daughter doesn’t. And yet she had no difficulty in understanding what was going on, and the line gave me a chuckle. And as the book progresses, we begin to hear not only King Baby’s narrative voice, but his actual voice in speech bubbles: “ehh bpp,” he says, and, “wrehh!” So much more expressive than the banal “gaga-goo” noises that you usually see, in my opinion. Well done transcribing actual baby noises, Kate Beaton!
The upshot is that we have a book which talks to everyone. King Baby, or Queen Baby, is all of our babies: needy and charming and endlessly surprising and rewarding. They do, indeed, grant us many blessings, even as they ask a lot of us. And the parents are all of us, too: devoted, exhausted, enchanted, and loving even when covered in baby goo. We all see our children and our parents and ourselves in King Baby and his family, I think, and that’s the genius of this book. When talking about This is Sadie, I stressed the importance of imaginative play for children. I think that this book is exactly the kind which gives you the impetus you need to play “let’s pretend”: the first step is to identify with a story, and every child should be able to see him or herself in King Baby and his transition to a Big Boy.
In fact, if we could somehow wangle universal access to the two books (King Baby and This is Sadie) I think the world would become a warmer, kinder, and more sympathetic place to live. So, do your bit and find a chance to read this book, and maybe pass it along to your friends, too!
“What are you doing?” I ask her.
“I’m catching a cloud,” she replies.
“What are you going to do with the cloud?” I ask.
“I’m going to give one to you and one to Daddy.”
This is my Changeling. And I know she’s not alone.
How do I know that she’s not alone? Well, first of all, I’ve read excerpts from my own baby book, although I have to say that I wasn’t nearly as poetic as my daughter is. I’ve also met other children. But most of all I know she’s not alone because of a beautiful book which made its way into my heart almost as soon as I read it: This is Sadie, by Sara O’Leary and illustrated in gouache, watercolour, and pencil crayon by Julie Morstad. Like so many books I love, I found this one at The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline. I found this one, though, through my husband, who handed it to me with the words, “This is from Tundra Books and I think you’ll like it…” By that point I’d already seen the cover illustration and I liked it. You know that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? I have found many lovely books by their covers alone, and this is one of them. Take a look.
To get back to our topic here, though, how do children develop the imaginations that surprise us so much? How do they catch clouds and walk with the moon to the yarn store? (If you know me, it’s about as surprising to you that the yarn store features in the Changeling’s imaginative play as that water is wet.) Frankly, I have no idea how imagination develops; that’s a huge area of research which is ongoing and which I find practically impenetrable. What’s more to the point here is that children are imaginative beings, and that it’s really worth it for us to treat that development with love and with respect. This is Sadie shows us accurately how a child’s imagination works, and shows it not with amusement or condescension, but with warmth, admiration, and respect. That’s why I love it so much, and that’s why I wholeheartedly recommend it here.
The story is of a girl named Sadie. Sadie starts out the book in a box, but it only looks like a box– it’s actually “an enormous boat, crossing a wide, wide sea.” Sailing in it, she’s “looking for land. Only she’s not looking too hard.” By the time she’s finished sailing all the way around her room, it’s still early in the day, not even time for breakfast. So she has plenty of time for all of her other adventures, spent both with the friends who live on her street and the friends who live in her books. What kinds of adventures does Sadie have? She goes under the sea as a mermaid, she’s a boy raised by wolves, she goes to Wonderland, she’s a hero in fairy tales, she’s a bird in a tree (of course she has wings, you know). Sadie’s imagination fills all her days to the bursting point, but although she loves her imaginative games, most of all she “likes stories, because you can make them from nothing at all.”
Do you remember when we talked about Leo: A Ghost Story? If you liked the sound of that book, you’ll love this one. You could see Leo as the specific story, and This is Sadie as the background. Jane from Leo and Sadie could have been best friends, is what I’m saying here. Whereas Leo tells the story of how an imaginative child looks from the outside, This is Sadie tells the story from her perspective. Jane in Leo lives in a world with a mother who doesn’t think imaginary friends are worthwhile; Sadie stands alone in her story and flings herself into her games wholeheartedly. Both books take imagination and imaginative play seriously, and both have great respect for children who blur the line between the real and the imaginary. I can’t even tell you how thrilled I am to find more and more picture books which draw out imaginative play without patronizing it.
But what really distinguishes Sadie, what makes me say that she shows me that the Changeling isn’t alone? I think it comes back to what I said about the story being told from Sadie’s perspective. In it, you see how very completely her imagination imbues her whole life. She gets up before breakfast and plays at sailing around her room in a ship, yes, but she also dives fully into the stories she reads: she’s a boy raised by wolves and she journeys into Wonderland. (I love those moments because they remind me of how deeply I dived into the books I read when I was growing up… and, yes, I still do.) Sadie grows wings to take her wherever she wants to go, but they always bring her home again. Sadie’s imagination is gloriously free, but we get to see the specific places it takes her, and where it takes her is almost anywhere. We go with Sadie, rather than expecting her to come to us.
One of the wonderful things about these imaginative journeys is that they cross age barriers: how old is Sadie? I’m not sure. She’s young, but she knows Alice in Wonderland, which suggests that she’s old enough to read chapter books. And yet playing at having wings is one of the earliest pieces of imaginative play I remember from my Changeling– that and rocking her plushies to sleep. The Changeling identifies with Sadie now, but I can imagine her continuing to identify with Sadie for years to come as she starts to read stories on her own. And I look forward to reading it and talking about it with the Changeling for many years to come.
Sadie, in other words, shows us just how far and how deep the imagination can run, and how much it can add to our everyday lives. She shows us that if you can imagine the little things– flying and boats and stories– that you can imagine the big things– mercy and compassion and what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes– and that’s how human beings make progress. That’s why I try to treat the Changeling’s imagination with respect, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to find books which back us up.
Now it’s time for us all to pause for a moment– pause and imagine a story. As Sadie tells us, you can make one from nothing at all.
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?