Halloween in February! It’s a Cover Reveal and Interview on The Most Haunted House in America with Jarrett Dapier
Seems to me that if folks can make such a big deal about “Christmas in July” then we should be allowed to extrapolate other holidays onto equally inappropriate months. St. Patrick’s Day in August. Diwali in April. You get the idea. And as far as I’m concerned Halloween in February fits right in to this structure. Good thing too since today it is my extreme pleasure to introduce to you the latest Jarrett Dapier book of 2022.
Jarret Dapier? Do I happen to mean the fellow behind that incredibly charming Mr. Watson’s Chickens? Why yes, my dear sweet darlings, that is precisely the man that I mean. Enamored of the picture book form, he is bringing us a new book that just happens to go by the name of The Most Haunted House in America. And take a gander at this publisher description:
“A rollicking, spooky-fun trip through the most haunted home in America: the White House!
It was late October, the moon was pale,
late in October when it came by mail:
a letter, a missive, a kind invitation
to drum at THE MOST HAUNTED HOUSE IN THE NATION!
When the Skeleton Drummers receive an invitation from the First Lady to perform at the biggest Halloween party of a lifetime—or afterlife—the band must pack their instruments, rise from the earth, and prepare to rock the White House. With gusto and bone-rattling beats, the skeletons BOOM! BANG! and CLANG! as the crowd of trick-or-treaters dance on the president’s lawn. But when the party moves inside, something’s not quite right: there’s a chill in the air and a prickle of fright. There’s one thing you might not know: The White House is haunted from top to toe!
With rhyming, rhythmic text from Jarret Dapier and wonderfully macabre illustrations from Lee Gatlin, this musical tour of America’s most famous home is full of spooky surprises at every turn.”
Admit it. You’re curious. Lucky for you, I had questions, and Jarrett had answers. And not to brag, but he also lives here in Evanston. Truly, my town overfloweth with talent.
Betsy Bird: Jarrett! Such a delight to host you today. It came to mind recently that one of your last books, Mr. Watson’s Chickens, was about men who own chickens. You are a man. You own chickens. Now you’ve written a book about skeletons in the White House. Would this, by any chance, have any autobiographical elements to it as well?
Jarrett Dapier: Yes! In 2009, I was invited with a now-defunct Chicago theater troupe called Redmoon Theater to play the drums at the White House during the Obamas’ first Halloween celebration. I was dressed up like a skeleton from head to toe and I pounded away with two other drummer buddies for over two hours straight on the North Lawn while over 2,500 children and their favorite grown-ups paraded up the drive and trick-or-treated at the White House’s front door. We performed on this strange, unwieldy drum cart that looked a little bit like a ramshackle steamroller hung with old oil cans, an enormous bass drum, some junky tom-toms, and one giant gong which we would toe-kick with our boots while we beat away on everything else. I remember looking around periodically and thinking “how did I get here?”
The President and First Lady were only about 500 feet away from us handing out treats, I could see the Washington Monument peeking over the roof of the White House, we were joined by all these other amazing performers (including some in gorgeous butterfly costumes encased inside giant bubbles who walked slowly back and forth across the lawn like dream creatures), Johnny Depp was there dressed as the Mad Hatter and being all Johnny Depp-y, and, best of all, an endless stream of families of all colors who danced to our beats as they exited the White House grounds. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Ever since then, I’d thought the story of that night would make an enchanting children’s book, but I never really threw anything together. Then I read First Lady Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, when it came out and I started hopping around like a sparrow when I read that she planned the whole thing. The whole Halloween celebration was her idea. She was driven to create this enchanting night for local children and military families to offset the misery of the recession, but had to fight tooth and nail against naysayers in the administration to make it happen. It inspired me. After writing Jazz For Lunch!, which felt like I was drumming while writing, I dove right into this story to tell a fictional account of that night from the point of view of the skeleton drummers who were there.
BB: Well, to be honest, I take one look at your latest book and I am surprised that more people don’t play with the idea of The White House as one of the most haunted houses in America. It’s such a delightful starting point! But how did the actual book itself come about?
JD: So, my visit in 2009 and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Becoming were the starting points for the book, but once I started playing with the idea of the skeletons being real skeleton drummers who the First Lady invites to perform at the White House, it sort of opened up the whole idea of the book being set in a world where creatures, ghouls, and ghosts are real. From there, I conducted some basic research about the White House and pretty quickly discovered information about the long history of reported ghost sightings there. It was really fun! I discovered that there is ghost lore about strange animals like a one-legged rooster and a shapeshifting cat that supposedly haunt Washington DC. This led me in my research to read more about the history of animals/pets that have lived at the White House, which is a pretty bizarre menagerie of critters, including bears and alligators. This is how I decided to include the ghosts of presidential pets of the past in the book like Calvin Coolidge’s raccoon, Rebecca, who haunts the place and startles our skeleton friends in the story.
BB: Truly any book with a ghost raccoon is worth knowing. When you were a kid, did you hanker for books with pseudo-scary elements?
I loved scary books, but also ridiculous books that played with imagination and language in exciting ways. So, I wolfed down every John Bellairs book I could find, read the Alvin Schwartz books to tatters and also this amazing book called Baleful Beasts & Eerie Creatures which is long out of print, while also feeding an insatiable appetite for Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, Dr. Seuss, and nonsense poetry. And Calvin & Hobbes. In a lot of ways, which I just realized, The Most Haunted House In America feels like one of Calvin’s extended flights of imagination wherein the hero gets a little too deep into a perilous, but silly situation and narrowly escapes.
BB: I remember once working in the children’s room and the World’s Most Adorable 3-Year-Old came to me asking for “scary books”. I was able to quickly suss that he was, instead, hoping for Halloween-esque books. On the eerie v. scary spectrum, where does THE MOST HAUNTED HOUSE IN AMERICA fall?
JD: I think I met that same 3-year old! I’ve always loved when young kids ask for spooky books during my hours working the library youth desks. And I got asked a lot (as I’m sure you have, too). My own kids definitely wanted scary/spooky picture books and early chapter books read to them no matter what season it was when they were little. It makes sense! Adults who love horror and suspense don’t limit themselves to only reading those kinds of books in October, but for some reason when it comes to kids, we tend to only haul out the spooky books around Halloween and figure the rest of the time is for other kinds of stories.
I hope that booksellers and parents and young readers will call The Most Haunted House In America something like spooky-historical-adorable. Is that a genre? It’s set at Halloween, so it works as a Halloween book, but it’s also a haunted house tale for all seasons that works in famous ghosts of presidents, first ladies and presidential pets of the past. It’s also a kind of adventure tale told in rhythm and rhyme about three skeleton drummers who get lost inside the haunted house!
BB: Lee Gatlin’s a new illustrator for you and a new one to me. Tell me a little bit about the final illustrations. Did Lee do anything unexpected that you particularly liked or were surprised by?
I absolutely love Lee’s work. What’s so fun about him is that he tends naturally towards drawing and illustrating goofy, yet macabre pictures all the time it seems. His Instagram feed is full of hilarius drawings of, like, the Wolfman in boxer shorts and a junior Frankenstein monster eating ice cream. They always make me giggle. Always. That’s how we knew he would be the ideal choice for this book. I was surprised, though, by just how well he captured the mood and tone of the book. He managed to make his pictures fun, zany, and really cute, achieved this old-school Mercer Mayer sort of vibe, and also captured the spooky fun of Halloween or just any time really when you get a chill thinking about ghosts and suddenly everything seems gray and creepy in the same moment you laugh. I just thought, “wow, he is SO in tune with what 3-7 year olds love to read and see when 3-7 year olds want “fun, but spooky” or “ghosty but silly.”
I also really love scenes of chaos in picture books (which Andrea Tsurumi captured so well in Mr. Watson’s Chickens), especially when the chaos leaves behind an endless amount of details in the drawings for kids and adults to pore over together. Lee did this beautifully. Just like with Mr. Watson’s Chickens and Richard Scarry’s books, I hope kids will spend lots of time with this book searching for new, silly, and strange details in the pictures they will always remember.
BB: Well, that really only leaves one question left then – what do you have coming out next?
JD: My next book is a YA graphic novel called Wake Now in the Fire. It’s based on the 2013 banning of the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi the Chicago Public Schools and the teens who battled back the censorship and won some good victories in their defense of the right to read. My characterizations of the teens and adults in the book are mostly (not totally) fictionalized, but the mechanics of how Persepolis was censored, why it happened, and how the banning came to light is all based on years and years of research and is represented pretty closely to exactly how it all went down. It’s illustrated by AJ Dungo, whose book In Waves is one of the most beautiful and moving graphic novel memoirs/histories I’ve ever read, so I’m beyond excited to see this one get out into the world. It comes out with Chronicle Books in 2023.
Doggone it, Jarrett. THAT is how you end an interview, people!
And now, it is my complete and utter pleasure to present to you . . . . the book!
Special thanks to Jarrett for answering all my silly questions so seriously. The Most Haunted House in America is out everywhere August 2nd. Look for it then!
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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