Halloween Picture Books: Wherefore the Style?
Lazy, Betsy. Truth be told I’d love to laze about allowing my serving boys to feed me peeled grapes as I recline on a divan composed entirely of rejected F&Gs. Instead, I’m going to do a very small Halloween round-up post. This is unusual. I know that real review journals like Kirkus like to round-up the Halloween books every year. Indeed, it’s a lot of fun. But until now I’ve never thought of doing it myself. If I ever do happen to do a Halloween post that includes books, it’s usually posted on Halloween Day, far too late for you to consider what I mention.
But this year is different. This year, for the first time, I started to notice that when it comes to holidays, authors and illustrators put a lot more effort into their Halloween fare than pretty much any other holiday you can name. To a large extent this is due to the visuals. It’s a lot more fun to draw a ghostie or goblin than it is to draw a sweet bunny delivering eggs (and when is your Halloween book coming out, Jan Brett?). Still and all, I feel as if picture books featuring Halloween haven’t won major awards until recently. Just last year Only a Witch Can Fly by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo appeared as one of the New York Times Top Ten Illustrated Books of 2009 while Ghosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara scooped up its own New York Times Best Illustrated Book nod. Didn’t hurt matters that they were cute as a button too.
So this year I started paying attention. All right then. Which illustrators were tapped by their publishers to make books with exceptional visuals THIS year? First and foremost, my attention was magnificently swiped by The Halloween Kid by Rode Monitjo. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a good retro-50s bit of bluster, and Montijo adds to that faux-worn look a text with a serious western twang. I’ve a soft spot in my heart for books that would allow me to read them aloud with an accent (see: Swamp Angel) so right there I was kinda hooked. Add in the purdy pictures and if I were a piece of Halloween candy right now, you would label me a sucker.
Other folks have tackled the notion of getting creative with Halloween texts in a variety of ways. Recently I discussed an Abrams presentation of their fall list, and amongst the offerings was one On a Windy Night by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by George Bates. I’ve already talked a bit about Bates’ technique on the book, so you can read my thoughts on this book elsewhere. Just the same, Mr. Bates was kind enough to agree to join my December Children’s Literary Salon on the first Saturday in December. The topic will be authors and illustrators of children’s literature who have come to it from a variety of different professions. FYI residents!
And the third artsy fartsy book I’ve seen this season is Ryan Heshka’s Welcome to Monster Town. Here’s the skinny on the Heshka man. Three years ago I reviewed this insane book. It was published by the tiny, not to say adorable, publisher Simply Read Books and I’d never seen the like. Ryan Heshka’s ABC Spookshow was gorgeous and took vintage 50s illustration to an extreme level. You could call it retro kidlit for hipster adults and not be too far off the mark (there were boobs) but I didn’t care. It was one of my happier finds. Fast forward three years and Mr. Heshka joins the mainstream . . . sorta. His newest book is certainly more kid-friendly than his previous spookshow, but I can’t help but feel a faint whiff of nostalgia for the book that dared to advertise “High-Voltage Fun”.
Halloween poetry picture books are a tricky proposition, but when done correctly they’re clever as all get out. I can hand sell Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake all year round, you know. It doesn’t have to be Halloween. But a book with a title like Hallowilloween is a trickier proposition. Dubbed “Nefarious Silliness” by its author/illustrator Calef Brown, it’s definitely tied into a single season. I’ve been a big time Brown fan ever since I read his Flamingos on the Roof back in the day, and this book doesn’t disappoint. Really, what it does brilliantly is tap into that creepy feeling you want to get during the season. The poem “Scarecrow’s Epitaph” alone will do it for you.
A fellow “Brown” has also come out with a Halloween book this year, but in a very different vein (no pun intended). Vampire Boy’s Good Night by Lisa Brown manages to slip in references to everything from Polidori to Saint-Saens to Eleanor Estes (and this is probably the only time in history that those three were mentioned in the same sentence). It’s a detail filled little number about a vampire and a witch who stumble upon kids trick or treating and get a sample of what Halloween’s about. Kinda like the plot of the film Hocus Pocus except . . . y’know . . . good. And with less Bette Midler and animatronic cats.
Finally, the book that I hold close to my heart and will purchase for my own children when I have them someday is not as showy as some of the titles I’ve mentioned here today. It came out last year without huge fanfare or attention. And Then Comes Halloween by Tom Brenner, illustrated by Holly Meade, however, is the most evocative picture book about the holiday that I think I’ve ever encountered. It’s the one that I hand sell like mad and if I had my way it would be the book people instantly think of when they mention Halloween picture books. Make sure you have it in your collection as it’s one of the best.
That’s all from my end, but if there’s something particularly marvelous this spookytime season, don’t hesitate to let me know about it. I’m all ears.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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