It's that time of year again where we get to dress up in wacky costumes and celebrate all things scary. Unfortunately, when it comes to holiday-themed children's books, often times they tend to be sub-par at best. Take a well known character from TV, put them in a costume, add a pumpkin and throw it on the market - why worry about a story or good writing? There is nothing that makes us madder than bad books for children. So, we would like to offer up a few of our favourite spooky books for little children.
First up, for the toddler set is the new board book "I'm the Scariest Thing in the Castle" (Penguin Group, 2011) by Kevin Sherry. This is the follow up to the immensely popular "I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean" and is about a little bat that declares that he is scarier than all the various creepy things in the castle such as a skeleton, witch, and a werewolf. But when the lights go out and someone yells "Boo!" at him, he cries and is no longer the scariest thing in the castle. He soon discovers that while he may no longer be the scariest, he is now the cutest thing in the castle! Simple, bright, funny, and not at all scary, this is the perfect "creepy" book for toddlers.
Next is "We're Off to Find the Witch's House" (Penguin Group, 2007) by Mr. Krieb and R.W. Alley. Perfect for pre-school aged children, this cute picture book follows a group of trick-or-treaters as they make their way to a witch's house. With a narrative structure very similar to the classic "We're Going on a Bear Hunt", the text is full of sound-effects and repetition as the children pass all the spooky characters (other children in costumes) along the way to their destination. Very fun to read out loud and also not too scary for young children.
Also for younger children, but this time a little more gross, is "Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance" (Chronicle Books, 1999) by Keith Graves. This hilarious picture book follows Frankenstein's Monster as he lives out his dream of dancing on stage in front of an audience. Unfortunately for him (and the audience), as soon as he starts to boogie, he also starts to fall apart. Non-squeamish children are sure to laugh at the wonderful rhyming text as Frank's brain falls out of his head and his eyeball rolls out the door.
Finally, we have to mention one of our favourite books which is definitely more appropriate for elementary school aged children and older. While it is very funny, it can be a little gross and the realistic artwork might be a bit too creepy for younger children. It's the amazing picture book "Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (and Other Stories You're Sure to Like, Because They're All About Monsters and Some of Them are Also About Food - You Like Food Don't You? Well, All Right Then.)" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) by Adam Rex. This book is laugh out loud funny and is a collection of poems about various famous monsters. Our favourites include "Count Dracula Doesn't Know He's Been Walking Around All Night With Spinach in his Teeth", the five poems about The Phantom of the Opera where he can't get songs like "The Girl from Ipanema" and "It's a Small World" out of his head, and the gross-out "Godzilla Pooped on My Honda".
Also worth mentioning are two witch-related picture books, "Room on the Broom" by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and "Trixie" by Nick Butterworth.
Hope everyone has a safe and fun Halloween!
Now go read a book with your kids...
The great thing about the book biz is that each season brings brand new releases to the shelves. We live in an almost constant state of excitement in our store as we receive some wonderful new children's book every couple of weeks if not more frequently. These new books are almost entirely from current authors and illustrators with the occasional re-issue of a classic.
This last month or so has been especially interesting however, as we have seen two brand new books from two of the legends of children's literature. First was the long anticipated "Bumble-Ardy" by Marice Sendak (which we discussed in our last post) and the second was "The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories" (Random House 2011) by none other than Dr. Seuss.
This volume collects seven short stories by Seuss that were originally published in Redbook magazine in the early 1950s and were never released in book form until now. As they were originally for magazines, these short stories have more text and fewer illustrations than the usual Seuss books, but are classic Seuss through and through. His trademark rhythm and rhyme are here in full effect and all seven stories are wonderful. Our favourites are "The Rabbit, the Bear, and the Zinniga-Zanniga" which tells the story of a rabbit who uses his wits to outsmart a bear that is out to eat him, and "Gustav, the Goldfish" which tells the story of a boy who accidentally overfeeds his goldfish with hilarious results.
The other fascinating part of this collection is the wonderful introduction by Charles D. Cohen, a Seuss scholar who was responsible for tracking down these "lost" stories. His explanation of the history of these stories includes the themes they explore as well as what Seuss was experiencing in his career at the time is fascinating. This includes some of the events which led Seuss to become one of the most important figures in children's literature:
"These stories reflect a change in Ted's (Seuss') approach to writing for children. Before World War II, he did not consider his children's books particularly important. But after observing German and Japanese children reared on propaganda (which he called "the worst educational crime in the entire history of the world"), he began to take his work more seriously, developing a new philosophy about educating children through reading."
Ultimately, it is not only exciting to be able to experience brand new stories, but also incredibly interesting to gain insight into the mind and life of this true legend.
Now go read a book with your kids...
As we've spoken about before, sometimes context can alter the way you think of a piece of art, whether it be the context in which you are exposed to the art or knowing the context in which the art was created. This has recently been our experience with the brand new picture book, "Bumble-Ardy" (Harper Collins 2011), by Maurice "Where the Wild Things Are" Sendak.
This new release was heavily anticipated as it's the first picture book Sendak both wrote and illustrated in a few decades. It chronicles the story of a little orphaned pig who has never had a birthday party. When he is about to turn nine years old, his Aunt finally allows him to have one. While his Aunt is at work, he invites all his friends over for a costume party which quickly turns chaotic.
To be honest, when we first read this when it came into our store, we weren't sure what to make of it. The text, while unconventional, is certainly fun and entertaining. The illustrations however are, well, a bit odd. While they are done in a cartoon-y style, something is disconcerting about them. The illustrations are at times frantic and are more grotesque than they are funny.
Shortly after the book was released, NPR's Terry Gross interviewed Maurice Sendak (you can listen to it on the NPR website). It is a raw, sad, honest dialogue with someone who is nearing the end of his life and is surrounded by death. He has lost his long-time partner a couple of years ago and has just recently lost some close friends. He gives some context in terms of what he was personally experiencing while working on "Bumble-Ardy":
"When I did Bumble-Ardy I was so intensely aware of death. You see, my friend, my partner was dying here in the house while I did Bumble-Ardy. And I did Bumble-Ardy to save myself. I did not want to die with him, I wanted to live as any human being does. But there is no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house."
After hearing this interview and gaining an understanding of where his art was coming from, the book makes so much more sense. On one hand it is lively, childish, and playful - full of life. On the other hand, it is chaotic, bizarre, and out of control. Will it take its place as a classic picture book? We think so. But not because of what it is, but more for what it stands for. It is one of the last statements by a legend in the world of children's literature and a time-capsule for what his life was at the moment.
His final statement at the end of the NPR interview serves not only as a possible summary of the theme of "Bumble-Ardy", but also wise words that we should all remember: "Live your life, live your life, live your life."
Now go read a book with your kids...