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.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.

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A Haunting Tale of a Tail

Tailypo A Ghost Story by Joanna C. GaldoneEven if Halloween didn’t occur in October, there’s something about the longer nights, the bright moons, the musty smell and crackle of decayed leaves that makes a scary story ever so appealing — at least to some children. Some of the choicest hail from the world of well-honed folktales.

One of the most memorable ghost stories from folklore might well be the odd little story Tailypo, as retold by Joanna Galdone. We hear of an old man living in a hut deep in the woods. The hungry man goes hunting with his three dogs but captures just one scrawny rabbit. Still hungry, he’s thrilled when he spies some animal scurrying around his shack. Surely, the reader thinks, he’ll be able to catch it. Yet, we discover, somewhat uncomfortably, he comes up with only its tail. Without further ado, the woodsman cleans it, cooks it and gobbles it up.

Then things get really strange. In bed, the old hunter hears an eerie voice: “Tailypo, Tailypo, where is my Tailypo?”

Twice, we hear that haunting refrain, and twice the hounds chase off the ghostly creature, but the third time, the creature bursts in before the dogs return from their futile chase. Galdone’s simple yet energetic paintings show the stubborn spirit in a whirlwind of vengeance. Warning: This story sounds simple, but if read with the drama it deserves, it has the power to scare many a child, so don’t share this with younger, impressionable ones. For those, consider Creepy Carrots or Room on the Broom or The Gruffalo.

For more scary folktales:

Dark-Thirty Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia McKissackEchoes of the Elders by Chief LelooskaScary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Thanksgiving knocks at the door

After burning dinner, an elderly couple, Ann and Ed, decide to go to the New World Cafe for Thanksgiving. Finding the door open when they arrive, they see tables decorated not just with Pilgrims and Native Americans but also with figurines of what appear to be Russian dancers. Readers should suspect at this point that the restaurant is not, in fact, open for business.

The cafe owners, who are Russian immigrants, are wondering who has crashed their family party. Grandmother, though, generously welcomes the strangers, and they all go on to share songs, dances, and stories, along with the big dinner. As Ann and Ed leave, Papa tries to close the door, but finds a potato propping it open: “In old country,” Grandmother says, “Thanksgiving door is like happy heart, opened up big and wide. Potato good for that.”

Debby Atwell’s bright, folkloric illustrations add to the fun of this unusual Thanksgiving story, as she spices it with such details as iconic Russian onion domes in a picture in the restaurant, the starched-clean scarves on the women, and the telling cover image of Grandmother pushing the potato under the door. For ages 6 to 8, The Thanksgiving Door is a quiet treat to savor.

For rousing nonfiction, turn to Melissa Sweet’s fascinating Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade.
Tony Sarg was already famous for his mechanical marionettes that attracted hordes of shoppers who came to gaze at Macy’s “Wondertown” windows. What more could the department store do to highlight the holiday?

The author points out that many of Macy’s workers were, like Tony, immigrants, who “missed their own holiday traditions of music and dancing in the streets.” Why shouldn’t Macy’s put on a parade for their employees? And who would be more perfect for the job than Tony Sarg?

The first parade was a dazzler: a procession winding its way from Harlem to Herald Square, resembling a European street carnival, with horse-drawn floats and even real bears, elephants, and camels from Central Park Zoo. That first parade was so successful, the store decided this was the beginning of a new Thanksgiving Day ritual.

The wild animals, though, caused concerns, and for the 1928 parade, Macy’s asked Tony to come up with a better alternative. Mulling over a vast range of puppets, Sarg fixed on the idea of an Indonesian rod puppet from his own toy collection. Voila! The parade would never be the same. “Part puppet, part balloon, the air-filled rubber bags wobbled down the avenues, propped up by wooden sticks.”

Melissa Sweet has infused every page of her award-winning picture book with her own inventive illustrations that show off her clever snipping and flipping and sketching. Beginning with end papers featuring vintage pages of The Tony Sarg Marionette Book and finishing with a dramatic 1933 New York Times ad (“HERE COMES THE PARADE!! IT’S IMMENSE! IT’S COLOSSAL! COME A-RUNNING!!), the author/illustrator has created a brief biography that soars with color and energy. Highly recommended for ages 7 to 10. 

Another exceptional nonfiction book, this one for ages 9 to 12, is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving, by Catherine O’Neill Grace in cooperation with the living-history museum Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. Sharp, full-color photos of re-enactors in period costumes help children understand some of the roots of the holiday. You’ll find no pumpkin pie, no silver buckles in this Thanksgiving account. You will, however, discover both sides of the story of how 52 English colonists came to celebrate their first harvest with 90 men of the Wampanoag tribe, in the town we now call Plymouth.

Heed the Power of Small Ones

Weslandia, a small but powerful masterpiece
by acclaimed author Paul Fleischman, can win the hearts of both bullies and victims. In this wondrous story, enlivened by Kevin Hawkes’ fabulous paintings, Wesley is an inventive boy whom the neighborhood kids torture for being different. Yet, as we older ones know, nothing stays the same. In time, the bullies give in to their curiosity about the unique civilization Wesley is busy creating and grow to admire his ingenuity. Wesley, in turn, discovers his games are more fun when they involve others. Recommended read-aloud for ages 7 to 10.

Steven Kellogg, beloved for his humorous Pinkerton picture books, reached a new, more nuanced height when he created Island of the Skog. This fabulous, must-read picture book lends itself to important discussions of multiple themes, on a range of development levels. A group of mice, tired of living in fear, sail off to find a peaceful home. They land on an island inhabited by one “skog.” Noone knows what a skog is, but the immediate reaction of one aggressive mouse is to destroy the creature before it conquers them. In time, they discover how wrong they were to follow such a plan. Discuss the qualities of a good leader and identify which mouse exemplifies these qualities. How did Jenny’s approach differ from that of the loud-mouthed bully? Why should we refrain from making hasty assumptions? Discuss the importance of making good choices and effecting positive change.

The Boy Who Drew Cats: A Japanese Folktale, retold by Arthur A. Levine, is an unforgettable tale featuring a creative, misunderstood protagonist. The child, taunted even by his own siblings, does not seem to belong anywhere. After his mother takes him to a monastery, he angers a monk who resents the boy for wasting time with drawing. The other monk, though, gives him a special farewell gift and a message that will help the boy survive a frightening night and even reclaim a village from a monster. Clement’s haunting illustrations include calligraphy that relates to the dramatic unfolding events. The folktale serves to remind us to value each person’s unique gifts, and to imagine how those gifts can transform the world. Recommended for ages 8 to 10 — and chilling enough for a Halloween read.

Also see prior posts on anti-bullying
and on Halloween recommendations.

Leafing through Colorful Poems

Leave it to poets to show us the seasons in new hues. Joyce Sidman’s pleasing Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors  reveals fresh perspectives on the year’s changing colors. Of autumn, she writes: “Brown gleams in my hand: a tiny round house, dolloped with roof”; in the accompanying illustration, the reader sees a woman holding an acorn. It’s no wonder this beautiful collection won the 2010 Caldecott Honor award.  Purple smells of “old leaves, crushed berries, squishy plums with worms in them.” And there’s Halloween orange next to the black “resting in dark branches.”

Some colors dip in and out of seasons, with varying effects. Red, for instance, first appears as a small bird in the spring. The book closes in winter with this image: “Red hops from the treetops, fluffs its feathers against the cold. Cheer, Cheer, Cheer, it begins to sing: and each note drops like a cherry into my ear.”

What a perfect resource for teaching the power of metaphorical language and of words that appeal to the senses. Art and science teachers can reap ideas for projects here, too. Children ages 8 to 10 will enjoy this, as well as Sidman’s other fine collections, including Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night.

For light fall fare, pick up Douglas Florian’s Autumnblings: Poems & Paintings. Florian’s quirky little poems, enlivened by his humorous paintings, aim to please a broad range of readers. Florian revels in word play and in creative arrangements of words, such as the downward slope of the words “falls” and “tumbled” in the title poem. When we reach the curled-up bear atop the poem “Hi-Bear-Nation,” Florian asks, “Do brown bears slum-bear when it’s fall?” And in “A Falling Out,” we follow the swirling words and images of maple seeds descending like “fallicopters to the ground.”

The woodpecker and the beaver, the badger and the woodchuck, the toad and the coyote all show up for this spunky, sometimes skunky, romp through the seasons in A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk: A Forest of Poems. Deborah Ruddell employs clever images, sly humor, skillful rhyme, and a multitude of poetic forms in her energetic expose of woodland creatures.

Of the wide range of perspectives Ruddell selects, one of the most appealing appears in “A Wild Turkey Comments on His Portrait.” Many of us recall tracing the fingers of one hand and then drawing a turkey, right? Have you ever thought about how a turkey would feel about that project? Ruddell has: “I find it most insulting/ that you traced around your hand/ and colored all my feathers/ either plain old brown or tan.”

This collection is bound to get those “mature” seven and eight-year-olds cackling. What are you waiting for? Follow this poet into the woods for fresh scents, furry sights, and the sound of … laughter.

More seasonal poetry:

The Sublime Symmetry of Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Katherine Paterson, acclaimed author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has infused her version of St. Francis’s hymn of praise with the same joyous reverence as the original “Canticle of the Creatures,” written in 1224. In Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the sensitive combination of polished poetic text and glorious illustrations result in a sublime feat.

Bold, giant sunflowers towering over a small squirrel and rabbit greet readers as they enter a series of playful, meticulously framed medieval scenes spanning the seasons and the phases of life. We see peasants plowing, planting, and harvesting, as well as children running, playing with dolls, and embracing each other. Humans mingle harmoniously with farm and woodland animals in the double-spread illustrations framed by elements of nature: peachy lilies, ripe persimmons, oak leaves studded with plump acorns.

Pamela Dalton, in her first children’s book, displays remarkable talent in her scherenschnitte (“scissor cuts”), a technique practiced in 16th century Germany and Switzerland and brought to Pennsylvania by German settlers in the 18th century. She has cut each illustration from a single piece of paper, painted it with watercolors, and set it all upon a black background. (Check out this YouTube if you’d like to see the illustrator demonstrate her methods.) The result is that both illustrations and text have beautifully crafted spaces in which to shine.

“We praise you for our Brother Sun,/ who in his radiant dawning/ every day reminds us that it was/ you who brought forth light.” Ms. Paterson’s words are bordered by sheaves of golden wheat and topped by a rich Old World scene of children holding hands, of reapers in the fields, and of hives, hungry bees, and fluttering butterflies.

The only distracting aspect of Ms. Dalton’s illustrations depicting images of plants and animals that inhabit the central Italian countryside, is that the children, with their kerchiefs and their straw or ash-brown hair, look Germanic rather than Italian. This is especially ironic since Francis felt so attached to his homeland and his people that he chose to write in his local Umbrian dialect rather than in the Latin spoken in the church. Despite this incongruity, one would hate to imagine this picture book without these illustrations. The symmetry, the intricate details, the intelligent selection of activities, and the obvious reverence for the natural world all beautifully evoke the spirit of Paterson’s poem based on St. Francis’s hymn.

Katherine Paterson shows she is up to the daunting task of transforming the text of a saint beloved for his gentle, peaceable spirit. The daughter of missionaries, she spent four years in Japan as a missionary, studied the Bible in graduate school, and married a Presbyterian minister. In addition to her thought-provoking young-adult and middle-grades novels such as Bridge to Terabithia, she has explored Christian faith in her nonfiction books.

The stellar accomplishment of Brother Sun, Sister Moon is that people of all faiths—or of none at all—can appreciate the life-affirming spirit of her poem: “For all your gifts – for this wondrous universe in which we live, for family, for friends, for work and play,/ for this life and the life to come — / we sing our praise to you,” she writes, buoyed by images of children jumping rope and sharing fresh bread.

In Paterson’s prayer to “the Father and Mother of all creation,” she offers readers a simple, beautiful gift worthy of its roots. Rounding out this picture book is the translated text of “The Canticle of the Creatures,” as well as interesting notes from the illustrator and the author, the latter who says she grew to understand what Francis meant when he wrote: “I have come to learn God adores His creation.”

Reprinted with permission of New York Journal of Books.

Use Brother Sun, Sister Moon with either Demi’s beautiful, recently published picture-book biography Saint Francis of Assisi

or with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s fine Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy.

Bringing in the Folktales

Turn your story time upside down with Janet Stevens’s bodacious Tops and Bottoms. This perfectly paced version of an African-American folktale begs to be read aloud. Children delight in hearing how the trickster Hare outwits lazy old Bear, who sleeps all day on his front porch and expects others to do the work.

Hungry Hare offers Bear a deal he can’t resist: Hare will work Bear’s land in exchange for half of the crops. In a wink, Bear accepts. Hare even offers to let Bear choose which half he wants — tops or bottoms. Adults, of course, can predict where this arrangement will lead. Hare and his family plant, water, weed, and harvest the carrots, radishes and beets. Since Bear chose the top halves, the hares get to keep what happens to be the better part in this case — the bottoms.

Bear insists on another chance. This time, he chooses the bottoms. Again, Hare does all the work, but the crops are different: lettuce, broccoli, and celery. Of course, Hare manages to get the tasty portion himself.

Even when the angry bear insists on having both tops and bottoms, Hare is able to trick him, as he plants corn and then gives Bear just the tassels and roots. Finally, Bear wises up and realizes if he’s ever to get a good harvest, he’ll need to do his own farming.

Beyond the rollicking plot, this Caldecott Honor book excels with bright watercolor illustrations bursting with energy and personality. Stevens notes “the original artwork was created on paper made by hand from carrots, corn, potatoes, beans, radishes, tomatoes, and even a pair of gardening pants and shirt.” Another surprising technique she employs is the orientation of particular pages from top to bottom instead of side by side. When the storyteller turns that book vertically, children will, for instance, see Bear on the top page as he waits for the top halves of the crops, which we know to be root crops. Then, we see Bear on the bottom as he anticipates getting the bottom halves. What an ingenious way to reflect the sly humor of a crowd-pleasing folktale! Just perfect for ages 7 to 9.

Friendship matters more than gold, as Baba Wague Diakite reveals in his lively retelling  of a West African folktale set in his native Mali. In The Magic Gourd, the rabbit Dogo Zan rescues a chameleon and is rewarded with a magic gourd that fills with whatever its owner wishes. Eventually, the greedy king learns about the gourd’s magic powers and steals it. Using another gift from his friend the chameleon, Dogo Zan is able to recover his treasure. Just as important, the scrawny critter manages to teach the king a lesson in generosity. The bold ceramic paintings provide humor, as well as lovely images of traditional motifs of Mali. Pick this heirloom-quality story if you’re looking for appealing and “heart-healthy” fare for a rousing read-aloud for ages 7 to 9.

Here’s a hilarious tale about a small girl with a big talent. Sweet little Isabelle, the youngest in the family, comes up with a special way to help with the planting and harvesting.

With visions of all the good stuff to come — carrot juice, carrot stew, carrot relish, and carrot pudding — each family member nurtures a carrot seedling. Papa tends the plant, Mama weeds around it, brother Abel waters it, and Isabelle … sings. And that’s what makes the plant grow and grow and grow.

At last, it’s as tall as Papa Joe, but it seems impossible to pull out of the ground. Only when they all work together can they harvest the carrot that will supply a bounty of tasty treats.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s a riff on the Russian big turnip folktale, but I prefer this charming version for children ages 5 to 8. The Giant Carrot illustrates the value of cooperation, while it also implies we should respect everyone, no matter how tiny. And that’s not all; it offers opportunities for multiple curricular uses. Science teachers can use this title in a unit on plant life, and reading teachers might employ it to teach the skill of predicting, or cause and effect. No matter the intention, you’ll reap plenty of fun with this good-natured story.

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