Stirring the Pot for Halloween Treats

Do bookstores have to be so predictable in their Halloween displays, as yet again they promote ho-hum Clifford and Curious George and Scooby-Doo products? Families can save their money and their sanity by heading to the library instead, where an array of craft books, poetry, folktales, and novels await anyone with a library card.

One way to combat the oppressive commercialism that has crept into the holiday is to make it yoEd Emberley's Drawing Book of Halloweenurself — whether it’s costumes, decorations, puppets, or cupcakes. Look for craft books by Kathy Ross, such as All New Crafts for Halloween. And remember feeling proud of those monsters you drew with the help of the wonderful old Ed Emberley’s Halloween Drawing Book? Don’t let your children grow up without Emberley’s engrossing little books. An alternative for slightly older children is Ralph Masiello’s Halloween Drawing Book.

Ghosts, ghouls and humor show up in plenty of kid-pleasing poetry. Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and his follow-up, Frankenstein Takes the Cake will have children (and parents?) howling with laughter. The illustrations are as much fun as the punchy poems featuring various monsters.

Other titles to look for are compilations such as Jack Prelutsky’s It’s HalloweenLee Bennett Hopkins’ Halloween Howls: Holiday Poetry or Marc Brown’s Scared Silly: A Halloween Book for the Brave: Poems, Riddles, Jokes, Stories and More.

For some of the best seasonal stories, head over to 398.2 for folk literature from around the world. One of Short and Shivery Thirty Chilling Tales retold by Robert D. San Soucithe most dog-eared, beloved collections in my school library was Short & Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales retold by Robert D. San Souci. Ranging from diverse cultures, the stories are not uniformly scary, but they are all well-written and accessible to children ages 8 to 12. The volume includes such memorable tales as the Appalachian “Tailypo,” the Grimm Brothers’ “Robber Bridegroom,” and “Skeleton’s Dance,” from Japan. Audio- and e-book editions are also available. Another winner is any of the perpetually popular Alvin Schwartz collections, such as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated ghoulishly by Stephen Gammell.

The strange Scottish legend of Tam Lin has been around for centuries, and Jane Yolen’s beautiful, lyrical writing does justice to the thrilling tale of of a brave young woman who rescues a man kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies. Even young adults would enjoy this powerful love story set on All Hallows Eve.Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As for novels, many older children (ages 10+) will be drawn to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal, which unspools the bizarre adventures of a boy called Bod as he grows up being raised by ghosts in a cemetery. Gaiman reads his gripping novel aloud on his well-crafted web site.

For slightly younger ones (ages 8 to 12), it’s hard to top James Howe’s Bunnicula series, featuring an evil-looking bunny (found at a Dracula movie) that comes to live with the Monroes, Harold the dog and Chester the cat. When various vegetables show up with teeth marks and drained of all juice and color, the clever cat ascertains the toothy truth. Who knew a vampire story could be so much fun? Another witty one (for ages 6 to 8) is Kate DiCamillo’s Princess in Disguise, in which the pig Mercy Watson is persuaded to dress up in a pink gown and tiara. 

And for younger ones:

See my prior post on Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom, as well as any of the tales featured in the 2011 Scholastic DVD Teeny-Tiny Witch Woman and More Spooky Halloween Stories.

Rosie Can Do It!

What are the chances that a picture book told in rhyme would succeed in revealing the seldom-featured value of apparent failure and the need for perseverance? Not only that, the author and illustrator would show how females can overcome inner doubts and cultural biases by pursuing their own ideas. The unlikely and totally likable Rosie Revere, Engineer celebrates girl power in a big way.Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty and ill by David Roberts

The can-do spirit of this story, which echoes Peggy Seeger’s acerbic “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer” (1970), in which Seeger advocated for pay parity, respect, and equal opportunities for women, employs humor, rhyme, and bright, detailed watercolor, pencil, and pen-and-ink illustrations to reach impressionable children in need of positive themes.

Wide-eyed Rosie, shown with hair tucked into a red polka-dot kerchief, is a tinkerer at heart. She routinely scrounges in waste baskets for treasures she can use to build things in her room at night. David Roberts provides delightful two-page spreads highlighting the child’s various designs, tools, and original gadgets. These illustrations alone will have children poring over this picture book again and again.

While Rosie beams when her inventions such as helium pants (!) are a hit, she becomes discouraged after her zookeeper uncle laughs at the snake-repelling hat she created for him. “She stuck the cheese hat on the back of her shelf/ and after that day kept her designs to herself.”

What Rosie needs is a mentor, and fortunately, her great-great-aunt Rose, “who’d worked building airplanes a long time ago,” is a dynamo. When again Rosie’s inventions don’t work according to plan, her relative urges her on, stressing that “failed” attempts provide opportunities for learning and, in time, for succeeding.

Rosie regains her groove and goes on to inspire her classmates, who ultimately join in working, learning, and creating the gizmos of their dreams.

Adding value to the exuberant plot are Beaty’s notes about the women who entered the workforce during World War II and facts about women’s contributions to aeronautics. Don’t miss reading this book aloud to a group, or revelling in its encouraging message with your young ones, especially girls. Required reading for ages 5 to 9.

And check out these related posts, on Mordecai Gerstein’s The First Drawing, and on architects and builders.

Ashley Bryan’s Joyous Handiwork

In yet another celebration of creativity, acclaimed author/illustrator Ashley Bryan shares with readers his “family of hand puppets,” crafted with far-flung detritus. Peach pits become eyes … a coconut morphs into a head … a wishbone evokes whiskers. Oh, the random scraps that unfurl a panorama of puppets fit for the wildest tales!Ashley Bryan's Puppets

Ashley Bryan’s Puppets is not a craft book; rather, it’s an unusual poetry collection utilizing vibrant photos and a simple poem Bryan wrote for each of the 33 puppets showcased here. Clearly an act of love and joy, Bryan has bestowed every puppet with personality and a relevant name. Lubangi, meaning born in water, is a mermaid draped in netting studded with starfish and cockle shells. Jojo, the storyteller, has a head and hands made of gloves: “In every finger of my glove/ I tap tall tales of peace and love./ The fingers of my well-gloved hands/ Store stories told in foreign lands.”

In his note, the author/creator relates that as he walks the shores of his longtime home in the Cranberry Isles of Maine, he collects shells, bone, driftwood, nets, and sea glass. What child wouldn’t relate to this impulse? While readers won’t find instructions or photos of the author’s creative process (alas), they will find plenty of inspiration for their own puppets. Parents and young ones can use this book as a source for ideas, while teachers and librarians might select a few poems and photos to share as part of a puppet-making project based on folktales — perhaps using one of Bryan’s own vivid versions.

And see my prior post on Ashley Bryan.


Revelling in Rescued Parrots

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L Roth and Cindy TrumboreParrots Over Puerto Rico, winner of the 2014 Robert F. Sibert Medal, plunges readers into verdant forests where bright blue Puerto Rican parrots fluttered in ancient canopies for eons. This nonfiction picture book deftly tells the intertwined stories of the island’s history and of the birds’ near-extinction and subsequent recovery.

Known for her colorful collages, Susan Roth proves herself up to the challenge of creating vibrant, personality-filled images of the raucous flocks that once thronged the island that came to be called Puerto Rico. Using a pleasing range of textured paper and fabric and employing a vertical (rather than horizontal) layout, Roth depicts the lush natural environment filled with sierra palm trees, tiny tree frogs and crops of corn, yucca, and sweet potatoes.

Co-written with Cindy Trumbore, the book reveals the evolution of the island’s peoples and environment. The Tainos, who arrived around 800 CE, gave the parrots the name iguaca, echoing their harsh calls. In time, the Spanish came, as well as slaves brought from Africa. Predators such as black rats, thrashers, and swarms of honeybees invaded and attacked the parrots. By 1967, many forests had disappeared, and only 24 parrots lived in Puerto Rico.

Only a concerted effort by scientists, environmentalists, public officials, and citizens could save and protect the parrots. Scientists — and parrots — had to battle hurricanes, thunderstorms, wrecked buildings and trees. Thanks to decades of dedicated work, the parrots are still flying over their native isle.

Because of its somewhat detailed and abundant text, Parrots Over Puerto Rico lends itself best to one-on-one sharing or to independent reading by young nature lovers ages 8 to 10.

For more fine nonfiction picture books, see …

Moonbird by Phillip HooseMangrove Tree by Susan L Roth and Cindy TrumboreIsland Story of the Galapagos by Jason Chin

From Scraps to Treasure

Summertime, and creativity is easy. Are you and your children looking for inspiration for art projects? Just dip into acclaimed author/illustrator Lois Ehlert’s latest, The Scraps Book: Notes fromScraps Book Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert a Colorful Life, and you might not even finish the book until you’ll be itching to go for a nature walk to scavenge materials for little masterpieces.

Known for her bright collages, Ehlert has written and, of course, illustrated a brief, lively memoir that touches upon her early influences, her artistic process, and her many children’s books. She shows photographs of herself and her parents, whom she credits as being people “who made things with their hands.” She includes images of old scissors, paintbrushes, pumpkin seeds and crab apples, even the folding table her dad set up for her as a child and which she took with her to art school years later. We get to feast on colorful images from her popular titles such as Planting a Rainbow, Nuts to You! and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. In the process of revealing all this, she provides engaging and accessible ideas for young artists’ own work: a paper aquarium … a cat mask … a flower necklace.

Because of Ehlert’s vivid illustrations and her exuberant focus on the creative process, The Scraps Book promises to appeal to a wide range of children, from 5 to 10. I join the artist in wishing you a colorful life.

Ehlert’s other picture books are aimed at ages 5 to 8; recommended titles include …

Waiting for Wings by Lois EhlertPie in the Sky by Lois EhlertCuckoo Cucu A Mexican Folktale retold and illus by Lois Ehlert




An elephant lost and found

The endearing little elephant featured in the Pomelo the Garden Elephant series keeps right on growing and investigating life’s myriad mysteries in Pomelo’s Big Adventure. Pomelo's Big Adventure by Ramona Badescu
Pomelo has already learned about colors, opposites, and his own physical development. The cotton-candy pink pachyderm that started out being the size of a radish has now outlasted his favorite puffball (which first appeared in Pomelo Begins to Grow, 2011) and decides to travel afar.
With characteristic quirkiness, Ms. Bădescu reveals what Pomelo packs in his knapsack; he includes not only the practical (toothbrush, matches, a map) but also amusingly childish objects: a stone, crayons, and acorns. The elephant’s simple thinking process is demonstrated by his strategy of choosing his path by tossing a beribboned stone and then proceeding in that direction.
Throughout Pomelo’s Big Adventure, a gentle spirit of exploration leads the protagonist and the reader onward. Oversize pages filled with Mr. Chaud’s witty, bright drawings that pop amidst white pages reflect the elephant’s sense of curiosity and openness to possibilities.
Along the way, the author provides adults with fresh opportunities to discuss universal questions with children. For instance, consider the elephant’s approach to new experiences: “He takes the route such as it is: prickly, uphill, sticky, boring, surprising, lively, and … lost in the distance.” And later, when Pomelo encounters a shifty rat who dupes him into trading his valuable supplies for a wind-up car that promptly falls apart, the elephant feels the way anyone who’s been tricked might: rueful, uncertain, homesick. In the midst of a gray rain, though, he decides to march on, and the author points out, “We take many risks in life, of course, but Pomelo seems to have plunged into a world ruled by chance.”
Soon, Pomelo encounters a helpful old elephant who offers the determined explorer not only food but much-needed emotional guidance that will enable him to enjoy his journey. The mature mentor, called Papamelo, gathers wood and teaches the little one how to build a boat. And then, in his wisdom, he tells Pomelo, “It’s time to leave.”
When the pink elephant encounters danger, the memory of lessons learned from Papamelo, spur him on. A final double-page spread parades the unforeseen benefits of this hero’s courage and fortitude. In a glowing, cheerful scene, we see Pomelo on the beach at sunset with his new friend—a lively, freckled starfish eager to share joyous experiences. Young readers will no doubt anticipate further adventures celebrating this wildly unlikely pair.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also …

Cousins of Clouds Elephant Poems by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer Elephant Quest by Ted and Betsy LewinTarra and Bella The Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends


A Sister Accomplishes the Impossible

With its bracing plot featuring a valiant, strong-willed girl who breaks the spell that transformed her brothers into swans, the Brothers Grimm shaped a fairy tale strange and potent enough to lure aSix Swans illustrated by Gerda Raidt contemporary audience.
In fairy-tale fashion, The Six Swans plays out in the landscape of a widowed father and children cursed or left to their own devices. The narrative opens in a great forest, where the king, chasing a deer, strays from his companions and cannot find his way out. An old woman who approaches him turns out to be a witch. She will show him the way only if he will agree to marry her beautiful daughter.
Fear compels the king to agree to this condition, but troubles loom. When he meets the young woman, he does not fall in love with her, despite her beauty; in fact, he “could not look at her without a secret sense of horror.”
Readers, too, will distrust the new queen, depicted by illustrator Gerda Raidt as having a haughty posture, a callous expression, and ice-blue gowns. Some will likely agree with the king’s peculiar decision to shield his six sons and one daughter from the stepmother by taking them to live in a lonely castle hidden so deeply in a forest that the king must use a magic ball of string to find the path leading to it.
A cheerful double-page spread depicts a leafy, bucolic scene there, with the kinder scampering, fishing, or swinging on a tree. In the background, we see their secret home, a pale three-story abode with a slate-gray roof, resembling a grand chateau of the Loire Valley rather than a German schloss.
The illustrator’s other somewhat puzzling choices include her image of the children’s badminton rackets, which have been traced to British military officers serving in British India in the mid-1800s. And one cannot help but wonder why the daughter, in her high-waisted dress, and the sons in their sailor whites look so Edwardian.
Often, too, the colored-pencil drawings seem tame (in contrast to Anne Yvonne Gilbert’s glorious artwork for The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen), missing the intense drama of unfolding events. The moment when the wicked stepmother, who has discovered the hidden castle, turns the boys into swans should teem with a sense of disaster. Instead, we see an image of the sister, the lone child indoors on that unfortunate day, looking merely surprised as her brothers sprout feathers and rise in the sky.
Despite these incongruities, the illustrator offers a rich, symbolic rendering of the daughter’s heroic decision to reject her father’s decision to take her to his home in favor of setting out alone to search for her brothers. Here, we see the girl boldly abandoning the idyllic estate and entering a foreboding forest, drawn with gloomy gray strokes and dark shadows.
When at last the sister finds her siblings in a robbers’ den, they tell her they may shed their feathers for only a quarter of an hour every night, and then they become swans again. The curse can only be broken if she agrees to speak not a word for six years and to sew them six shirts made of starflowers.
Some might wonder what starflowers are (in his famous Grimms’ folktale anthology, Jack Zipes chose the word asters), but the translator has offered a pleasingly literal translation of the German word Sternenblumen, which the Brothers Grimm used, and so feels authentic. One of only a relatively few picture-book versions of “The Six Swans” published, this edition is smoothly translated by Anthea Bell, whose acclaimed work includes the French comic-book series Asterix, as well as the middle-school fantasies of Cornelia Funke (Inkworld trilogy).
Although she faithfully follows the fairy tale’s spirit and pacing, Ms. Bell has lightened up the story by omitting some of the gory details that unfurl. A handsome young king happens upon the girl in the forest, falls in love, and the two marry, even though she never speaks to him. This so displeases his mother that she steals the baby the queen bears—and the next two— until finally, the king agrees to let his wife be tried for murdering the children. She refuses to defend herself and is condemned to be burned at the stake.
While the Grimms’ version offers stark poetic justice for the wicked mother-in-law when the brothers’ spell is broken and the sister finally tells her husband she has been wrongly accused by the woman, this version relates that the wicked one is “taken away and locked up forever.”
The Six Swans will inspire many young readers and caring adults who crave tales highlighting heroines who do not resort to violence to save the day.

If you’re looking for a more engrossing reading experience, don’t miss the fabulous Naomi Lewis retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, a slightly altered version of the Grimm brothers’ tale.

The brave sister sleeps in the woods in this scene from THE WILD SWANS, illustrated by Anne Yvonne GilbertAlso see my posts on Pullman’s anthology of Grimm folktales and on the dazzling Taschen anthology.

Previous Older Entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 85 other followers

%d bloggers like this: