Thursday, October 30, 2008

More Halloween Picture Books

It's the night before Halloween, and the Light and Seal will shortly be having fun carving jack-o-lanterns with Mom and Dad. To get in the mood, I thought I'd take a minute to tell you about a few more great seasonal picture books to share.

One of our absolute favorite Halloween picture books is Eve Bunting's The Bones of Fred McFee. Illustrated with Kurt Cyrus's wonderfully detailed scratchboard and watercolor drawings, Bunting's rhyming verse tells the eerie tale of a plastic skeleton that may be something more than simply a Halloween decoration. A brother and sister get a plastic skeleton at a local fair and hang it high in their sycamore tree in preparation for Halloween. They give him the name "Fred McFee," which seems like wonderful fun, but there's something odd about this grinning ghoul. The dog and rooster are wary of it, and one night, the sketleton disappears. The only trace of his existence is what seems to the children to be a small grave beneath the tree. Bunting's rhymes weave a delightfully spooky atmosphere that will provide just the right amount of gentle fright to chill your little pumpkins. My kids love this book and reading it has become a Halloween tradition.

While I've got Eve Bunting on the brain, let me mention another of her books which strictly speaking is not a Halloween story, but would be a great choice to share on a cold October night. Night of the Gargoyles is illustrated by the wonderful David Wiesner, famous for his own books, Tuesday, Flotsam, and June 29, 1999 among others. His amazing black and white drawings appropriately bring to life Bunting's tale of gargoyles coming to life to fly through the skies and make mischief when night falls. Who hasn't had thoughts about statues coming to life? My kids particularly love the image of the gargoyles making faces at a watchman who has witnessed their nighttime antics but is not believed by those he tries to tell.

Wiesner's perfectly eerie black-and-white atmosphere reminds me a bit of the artwork created by author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg for his book, The Widow's Broom. Again, this is not necessarily a Halloween story, but it does involve witches and would be a great choice for seasonal storytime. This is the tale of a witch's broom that ran out of magic, causing a witch to fall from the sky. A widow named Minna Shaw finds her and takes her home to care for her. The witch manages to heal herself amazingly quickly and leaves before dawn, abandoning what she believes to be a useless broom. Pragmatically, Minna begins to use the broom around the house, and soon discovers that although the broom may not be good for flying on anymore, it is anything but ordinary. In fact, the broom is sentient and seems to enjoy helping Minna with her chores, as well as playing the piano to relax. Minna overcomes her initial shock and learns to appreciate this strange companion. Her neighbors, however, are not so openminded, and react as people often do when confronted with something they fear and do not understand. I love the scheme that Minna and the broom come up with to protect the broom from their neighbors' fear. This tale will launch some interesting discussions about tolerance, and why intolerance might just be more frightening than an enchanted broom.

Judy Sierra's The House That Drac Built is a cute Halloween version of the nursery rhyme The House That Jack Built. While this house is occupied by some seriously creepy creatures, including a werewolf, "fearsome manticore," "mummy from days of yore," and a "zombie famous in lore," it isn't really a scary story. In fact, the story ends when a group of plucky trick-or-treaters show up and put things right in the house, calming all of the monsters and sharing some candy with them too. Will Hillenbrand's oil paintings are suitably ghoulish and cute simultaneously. I know that seems like an odd description, but genuinely his monsters manage to be both creepy and endearing by the time the tale is done.

Finally, Phillip Yates's Ten Little Mummies: An Egyptian Counting Book is a great counting book that might be included in your Halloween storytime, even though it also is not specifically about Halloween. What would Halloween be without a few mummies? Illustrated by G. Brian Karas, this interesting twist on the "10 Little Indians" rhyme helps kids learn to count down from ten while watching the antics of a group of cute, simplistically drawn mummies that are separated from the group one by one. But there is a happy ending when one lonely little mummy returns to her tomb to find her comrades back together and waiting for her. Be sure to read the endpapers carefully, as the pyramid stones pictured there contain Egyptian trivia to spark the interest of your little readers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Whimsical Witches

Halloween is only a few days away, and there are more great Halloween-themed books than I could hope to write about before then. I wanted to highlight a few cute, non-scary witch stories that I've come across over the last couple of years which I hope you'll have time to share with your children or students as you get in the mood for Friday.

This year, my kids enjoyed reading A Very Brave Witch by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Harry Bliss. In this story we learn that witches fear humans (apparently for the purposes of this story, witches aren't simply humans with magical powers). This is because of the ways in which humans are different from them (aren't perceived differences the basis of most fears and stereotypes?). The most frightening difference about humans is that they aren't green-skinned, as witches are in this book. But one brave little witch thinks that humans might not be that bad and decides to visit them during Halloween. Unfortunately, she gets confused when she thinks she hears them say something about "tricking a tree" as they go from house to house. In an attempt to show them she knows how to "trick a tree" by flying around it quickly on her broom, she gets dizzy and crashes, resulting in her meeting a human girl dressed as a witch. This little brave human is impressed by the witch's flying ability and tells her she always wanted to fly. The two girls are able to see past their differences, and the book ends with the witch taking her new human friend for a ride on her broom. The use of speech balloons and the cute illustrations full of funny little details add to the appeal of this book (I especially like the witch's orange cat who reminds me a bit of one of our cats). The message is that you can't judge others based upon their appearance and that you shouldn't simply accept prejudice that others teach you. (Hoodwinked, mentioned in my previous post, is another cute witch tale with a message about looking beyond appearances.)

While we're on the subjects of looking beyond appearances and witch/non-witch relations, Mark Kimball Moulton's Miss Fiona's Stupendous Pumpkin Pies must be mentioned as another example of a non-scary Halloween picture book in which a person's value is recognized despite outward differences. Moulton's rhyming text tells the story of Miss Fiona, a witch reported to be over 400 years old, who lives in a scary old house near a graveyard. Despite this and the fact that locals clearly believe in her magical abilities, she is a treasured member of the community due to her Halloween tradition of baking pumpkin pies to share with trick-or-treating children. At midnight on Halloween, children gather at Fiona's house for a party. She serves pie and cider, tells ghost stories and even sends home extra pie with the kids for their parents. Clearly she is kind and trusted by her neighbors despite her obvious differences from them. "I must admit, Fiona's kooky, with her warts and pale green skin;/but who cares how kooky someone looks/when there's goodness deep within!" Karen Hillard Crouch's folksy illustrations have an antique effect that adds to the warmth of the story. (Read a more complete review of this book here.)

Recently, the Light (my daughter; see "What's in a name?" in the sidebar) was given a copy of The Little Red Hen, and I was reminded of sharing The Little Green Witch with her last year around Halloween. Barbara Barbieri McGrath reframes the classic tale for Halloween, substituting a little green witch for the red hen. In this version, the lazy comrades who won't share the work but want to share the results are a ghost, bat and gremlin, and rather than growing wheat and making bread, the witch grows a pumpkin and makes a pie. Martha G. Alexander's soft illustrations make these potentially spooky characters downright adorable. (Read a more complete review of this book here.)

Finally, while the above books are all picture books, I wanted to include what has become one of my absolute favorite first chapter books for Halloween--Vivian Vande Velde's Witch's Wishes. When I checked this book out of the local library last year to read to my daughter, I had never read any of Vande Velde's work. I was so delighted by it that I have since read several of her books meant for older kids and adults and become a real fan of her writing. This is a really funny story which lends itself well to being read aloud. The story is about a clumsy, forgetful and somewhat impulsive witch on her way to a Halloween party for which she is on the refreshments committee. She's running late and needs to stop by a grocery store to pick up some ingredients for mulled cider, so she ignores a rule about witches waiting for a certain amount of time after dark to fly (in order to avoid being observed). She narrowly avoids a collision with a traffic report helicopter and crashes behind the market, where she is observed falling from the sky by a little girl trick-or-treating with her brother. Instead of being scared, the little girl shows genuine concern for the witch's welfare. To show her thanks, the witch casts a spell that will allow the girl's fake magic wand (she's dressed as a fairy princess) to do real magic in the form of granting wishes for remainder of the evening, despite the protests of her sentient broom (a great character with a smart mouth--or handle, I suppose). This well-meaning but not well thought out gesture results in chaos, because every time the little girl says "I wish this or that," the thought comes true. As we all know, anyone, especially a child, may wish a lot of things impulsively, sometimes in anger, that that person doesn't really want to come true. Imagine what might happen if every wish, no matter how small or large, came true. Eventually the witch realizes her mistake and tries to set things right, only to run into further complications. I think kids will relate to the characters and situations in this book and find the story hilarious and suspenseful. (See a more detailed review of this book here.)

As always, if you have other suggestions for great non-scary witch books to share with kids or remember some good examples from your childhood, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Halloween Cats

Halloween is probably my family's favorite holiday. I love having an excuse to share Halloween picture books with the kids (although sometimes we read them at other times of the year, just because). For the rest of the month, I'm going to feature some of the books we've read as we prepare for trick-or-treating. Today I'm focusing on four picture books that involve cats. We have two cats of our own, and my kids adore cats whether they're real, stuffed, animated or drawn. So these books pressed a couple of different buttons with my little ones.

Pumpkin Cat by Ann Turner, illustrated by Amy June Bates, really is a Halloween story only because events take place during that time of year. This sweet, non-scary picture book follows a stray cat that takes refuge in a library's outdoor book return box. Two kindly librarians find the cat and decide to give her a home in the library, naming her "Pumpkin Cat" because Halloween is approaching. Pumpkin Cat enjoys the library, especially the chance to interact with the children present during the day, but finds the evenings a bit lonely as she explores the empty building. Eventually someone leaves another stray kitten in a basket on the library steps (the librarians have publicly sealed their reputations as suckers for such strays, after all), and Pumpkin Cat has a young companion to show around the library and look out for. The story ends as Pumpkin Cat curls up beside the new arrival at night and realizes that the library finally feels like a real home. Having a companion to share her affection and knowledge with was the piece that had been missing. This is a sweet story of friendship brought to life by Bates's warm watercolors, complete with round cuddly cats. (I've written a more complete review of this on Epinions, if you're interested.)

Excuse Me... Are You a Witch? by Emily Horn tells the story of another stray cat who finds companionship at the local library. Herbert is a little black cat who lives alone on the streets. On cold days, he spends time inside the warm library, reading books. When he discovers a book about witches, he learns that witches love black cats. He reasons that if he can find a witch, maybe he wouldn't have to be cold and lonely anymore. However, he mistakes non-witches for witches repeatedly based on some of the other characteristics listed in the book about witches, such as wearing striped socks, stirring cauldrons, and carrying brooms. Disheartened, he returns to the library, and happens to run into a group of young witches visiting the library with their teacher. The girls all love Herbert, so the teacher offers for Herbert to become their witch-school cat, and Herbert flies away with his new friends. Pawel Pawlak's cartoon-like drawings add charm to this cute story about finding your place in the world. This isn't a very exciting story, but my own very young children found it interesting and thought Herbert's search was amusing.

The ABC's of Halloween is written and illustrated by Patricia Reeder Eubank. I enjoy reading alphabet books with my beginning readers, and when I picked this up at the bookstore last October, it seemed like something they would enjoy. Both of my kids do enjoy this book a lot, particularly because of Eubank's richly detailed, colorful drawings. Be forewarned, however, that in some places the rhyming text gets a little goofy and may grate on your nerves as you read the book multiple times with your little ones. For example, the rhyme for "U" is "U is for umpteen, unseen unicorns undulating far across centuries of time." Honestly. I promise you that most of the book is better than that, but there are a few of those moments where the writing can only be described as quirky. What's the cat connection, you're wondering? The story begins by showing two cats reading an ABC book. "When Halloween comes near/Two black cats read and peer/At the ABCs of treats and fun/That make Halloween loved/by everyone." The cats are featured in all the illustrations, and fall asleep at the end of the book. Besides a few odd choices for wording, there is a recipe inserted in the middle of the text which interrupts the flow when you're reading aloud (under "X" for "X is for noodle x's floating in soup tasting just right."). Even so, my kids love this book because the pictures are so much fun to explore. Be on the look out for a little mouse dressed like a witch that appears in many of the illustrations and the endpapers. (Again, I have a more complete review of this book posted on Epinions.)

Finally, my kids and I recently discovered Hoodwinked, written and illustrated by Arthur Howard (not to be confused with the animated twist on the story of Little Red Riding Hood released a few years ago). This is a really cute story of a little witch named Mitzi who wants a pet, but is determined to have a really creepy pet--anything else just wouldn't be very witch-like, would it? She visits Cackle & Co., the local pet store for witches, and at first takes home a toad, but he is boring. He only eats flies all the time and doesn't participate in her favorite pastimes. So she returns the toad and gets a pair of bats (my daughter loved their names--Toothache and Earwax). The bats only hang out with themselves (literally), however, and don't give her any attention. A third trip to the pet store has the blue-toothed witch proprietor offering her a warthog, but this doesn't appeal to Mitzi. Back at home, a kitten appears at the door one evening. It's revoltingly cute, but feeling sorry for it, Mitzi allows it to come in out of the cold for just one night. The cat goes along with Mitzi when she hunts for ghosts, watches the creature feature with her, and listens to her secrets (she's afraid of the dark). Cute or not, the kitten seems like a great companion, just like a good pet should be. Mitzi keeps the cat and names it Hoodwink. This is a funny story and the illustrations have cute little details to watch for (like the name on Mitzi's cereal box). Mitzi is a recognizable child, with set ideas about exactly what she wants that turn out to be a bit misguided. Also, the lesson of learning not to judge a book by its cover is presented in a non-preachy way (though ironically, I picked up this book at the library completely based on the charm of its cover). This story has become a real favorite at my house.

If you know of other Halloween picture books focusing on cats, I'd love to hear about them in the "comments" section.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Well, let's see...

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who didn't quite fit in. I was the youngest of five children, all of whom were quite a bit older than me, and there weren't any other little kids in the neighborhood for me to play with. I had friends at school and was well-liked, but was still a bit of an outcast because I was the "smart kid." I was older than my years and surrounded by people (family mostly) who were older than me. This all lead to my feeling isolated much of the time.

Before you pull out your baby violins, let me say that this bit of background isn't provided to pull your heartstrings, but to help me illustrate just how important books and imagination were to me as a kid. I learned to read by the time I was three, thanks to my mom and siblings who were always willing to read to me. I learned to tell stories at a young age because one of my dear uncles made a habit of sitting me on his knee and asking me to tell him a story, never doubting that I would be able to do so. Since he was confident in my creativity, I was too, and I never hesitated to make up a new story for him every time. One of my sisters says I began each story by looking up thoughtfully and saying, "Well, let's see..." I was a voracious reader, and I developed a love for writing as well. In books and stories I found adventure, companionship, knowledge, advice, wisdom, acceptance, wonder and experiences I might never have had otherwise.

Until high school, I always thought I would be a writer when I grew up. Logic eventually whispered doubts into my ear, however, and I decided to study the natural sciences in college, believing that writing could never provide a substantial living, and that I would never be able to make the positive impact on society that I wished to through writing alone. (I have since changed my mind, but that's beside the current point.) I never stopped reading and writing, though, in both my work and for fun. And I certainly never forgot how important books were in shaping the person I became, or in supporting the child that I was. I always told myself that if I became a mother, I would do everything I could to teach my own children about the power of the written word. I have two toddlers now, a daughter and a son, and I do strive to open the door for them into the magical realm built of book bricks held together with the mortar of imagination. We read, we sing, we make up stories, we draw and participate in the discovery of childhood. Reading with them has allowed me to rediscover my appreciation for children's books. A good writer can produce a work to move adults. It takes a real magician to enchant a child, and the adults that care for that child, and to leave a mark on that child's mental landscape which will be remembered even after the child has children of her own.

My purposes for writing this blog are to share information with fellow parents and any adult who cares for a child, that might help those adults encourage a love of reading, learning and imagining in our children. I am also exercising those old writing muscles as I attempt to make writing a more prominent part of the way I earn my living.

The blog is named for the children who dominate my attention and rule my heart. My daughter's name means "light," and my son's name means "little seal." So, my research into quality material for children will involve my Little Light and my Little Seal, and it is for their sake and for that of the children in your life that I share what I find.