Friday, October 8, 2010

Tales of the Unexpected: Halloween Surprises (FAMILY magazine reviews)

An unusual treat, these uncommon story books appeal to the curious and unconventional aspects of the Halloween season, disturbing readers expectations. Reading these intriguing tales will capture your imagination, a trick of skill and mastery. Enjoy!

Zen Ghosts

by Jon J. Muth

Scholastic, $17.99, Ages 4-9

Muth has based his third book about Stillwater, the giant panda, and his friends Karl, Addy, and Michael, on a Zen Buddhist question he treats as a ghost story. Using brilliant autumn watercolors, the book opens with Stillwater dressed as a ghost, and the children preparing their own costumes for a trick or treat outing. Instructing the children to meet him at the stone wall, Stillwater promises them a full moon Halloween tale.

Retelling a Chinese story about a girl and her friend who are together so much as they are growing up, that even the parents expect them to marry, Muth describes a change in the family fortunes, which causes the parents to promise to wed their beloved daughter, Senjo, to a nice wealthy man who can take care of the family. Both the girl and her friend, Ochu, now in love, are saddened by this alteration in the plan.

Muth’s flaming autumn watercolors shift to mostly grays and blacks to separate the ancient tale from the bright elements of the children’s Halloween adventures. And he uses blue and purple in Senjo’s white garment to give readers a sense of the split in Senjo’s heart.

The similarities between Senjo’s robe and Addy’s Moon Princess costume add to the spookiness, as does Karl’s comment that Michael must be one thing, either an owl or a pirate, “He can’t be an Owl-Pirate! There’s no such thing!” Yet, as the children travel their trick or treat route, readers see that Michael is, in fact, dressed as a pirate with wonderful, amazing owl wings.

Ochu, from the Chinese tale Stillwater tells, who cannot bear to live in the same village with Senjo married to someone else, packs up and leaves at midnight on the day he learns of the betrothal. The conclusion of both stories, the story and the story within the story, requires one to reflect on identity and self, and simultaneously shiver at this haunting tale, which despite its age is a fresh as today.

The Goblin and the Empty Chair

by Mem Fox

illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

Beach Lane, $17.99, Ages 6-8

An original folk tale, this story begins “In a time long past, in a country far away,” with a hairy green goblin, who is so frightened when he sees himself reflected in a pond, that he hides from the world, covering his face, and living a lonely life. His compassion is evident however, when he notices the farmer’s pain and, taking care not to be seen, digs, chops, and paints. Yet, the farmer, who is unable to sleep, sees. As does the farmer’s wife, the next night, when the goblin, again taking care not to be seen, responds to her pain by watering, planting, and pruning.

Even the daughter’s pain is noted by the goblin, who still thinking he’s not being seen in his efforts to soothe, is watched once again. When the fourth day brings the silent family to the breakfast table, a chair that has “been empty all winter” is filled at last by the goblin, whose face, although uncovered by the child, the reader never sees. What the reader does see are formerly grieving faces, wreathed in smiles, a transformation achieved by the same visage that so terrified its owner.

The softened watercolors in these stylized paintings demonstrate both the medieval period and the goblin’s wealth, while borders in colored pencil contribute narrative actions, preceding the text at the bottom of each page. Gargoyles, peeking around the borders of the illustrations, echo the changes in the characters experiences.

The unexpected concluding illustration, on the back cover, shows the goblin inviting the family to his home. Internationally recognized author Mem Fox, and award-winning team illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon combine their trademark styles and talents in this beautiful, mysterious, elegant picture book, that begs for multiple readings.

Ant and Honey Bee: A Pair of Friends at Halloween

by Megan McDonald

illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Candlewick Press, $14.99, Ages 7-10

Author McDonald has once again successfully crafted a new series, this time for early readers, inhabiting it with a pair of individuals as memorable, imaginative, and funny as her popular chapter books, whose title character, Judy Moody, names that series. Best friends, Honey Bee and Ant, view themselves as belonging together. It is their efforts to create Halloween costumes, reflecting this lasting friendship, that make for the comedy in this engaging holiday tale.

Tired of the boring Pilgrim outfits from past years, the insect friends spend the first chapter, trying to decide what to be as a pair (not pear, as they finally agree!). No salt and pepper shakers, no moth and bee costumes, not even pencil and eraser will work this year.

In Chapter Two they agree to be a washer and dryer, combining their talents, to complete the ensembles made from “two boxes . . . just the right size.” After all their work, they discover the difficulties of simply navigating the trip to trick or treat, wearing their new attire. Although neighbors comment about the clever and original costumes, it’s because they think the pair are a couple of ice cubes or dancing computers. Moreover, the few treats they do receive turn out to be both disappointing and undesirable.

And, adding insult to injury, it begins to rain, turning the cardboard into soggy blobs. However, when the pair decide to take shelter with friend Cricket, he greets them at the door holding their favorite treats, and in response to his question, “what are you?” they answer for each other that one is a beehive and the other an anthill, ending the book on a creative note by eliciting the perfect response from Cricket.

The Very Best Pumpkin

by Mark Kimball Moulton

illustrated by Karen Hillard Good

Simon & Schuster, $12.99, Ages 5-7

A sweet, unsentimental tale, this autumn picture book is a story of friendship. It is set in the countryside, where Peter lives on a pumpkin farm with his grandparents, and tends the pumpkin patch all summer long in preparation for fall pumpkin sales. One day he follows a long vine, trailing beyond the far edge of the pumpkin field, into the meadow where a tiny pumpkin is growing among the weeds, alone.

Day after day Peter weeds and waters all the pumpkins, giving special attention to the lonely pumpkin. And, a new family moves in next door, with a daughter, Meg. She watches Peter, caring for the pumpkin patch, and admires the most beautiful of all pumpkins in the meadow, alone. However, the two don’t meet until Meg and her parents come to choose their pumpkins.

Illustrator Good has chosen greens, browns, and golden orange tones to suggest late summer and early autumn, aging her watercolor paintings with instant coffee and bleach, muting the colors to reflect the season. A variety of page layouts support the movement of the story; sometimes a double page spread smoothly weaves words and images. Other pages frame the text, and still others feature the text below or beside the illustration.

The growth of the glowing, deep orange-red pumpkin becomes a luminous language mirror, for the growth of a friendship between Peter and Meg the next year, as they plan, plant and tend the new pumpkins, side by side. The book concludes with an easy guide page for growing your own pumpkins.

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