Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Haunted Brunch...I Mean, Dunch

Most things get easier with practice, but I’m not sure blogging is one of them. Every week it seems to take me longer and longer to post these Sunday entries. Sometimes “brunch” is posted so late in the day that it should more accurately be called “dunch” or “linner.” Today I’m going to make a concerted effort to get this thing online earlier than usual! (Of course I say that every week, but this time I really, really mean it.) Today’s random facts and opinions on children’s books include writers wearing costumes, walking houses, haunted houses, madapples -- and mad bloggers!


Did anyone see this picture in the newspaper this week?

Oh yeah, who reads newspapers anymore. I should have said: did anyone see this picture on the internet this week?

It’s the prototype for the first “walking house.” Powered by solar and wind energy, this home contains a living room, kitchen, restroom facilities, and a bed. It’s mounted on six legs that can move at a walking pace across any terrain. Ostensibly, it was created so that a home could move away from rising waters to avoid a flood -- though at least one article mentioned that it also provides a way to escape lousy neighbors.

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought of was Philip Reeve’s “Hungry City Chronicles” -- a four-book series (MORTAL ENGINES, PREDATOR’S GOLD, INFERNAL DEVICES, A DARKLING PLAIN) in which entire mobilized cities glide around the globe chowing down on smaller towns.

I used to think the concept of roving cities was silly...but now realize that Philip Reeve was onto something.

We used to laugh about The Thing That Ate Cleveland, never realizing that someday we’d have to worry about The Things That Cleveland Ate.

Watch out, they’re coming!


It’s easy to be one of the crowd. In fact, it’s downright fun to be among a group of like-minded folks who share the same opinions. You spend a lot of time nodding at other people’s remarks, chant “owe me a Coke!” whenever you and someone else happen to say the same thing at the same time, and do a lot of high-fiving when you agree with a comment that someone else has voiced -- secure in the knowledge that your shared feelings are all correct.

It’s so much harder to be the odd man out.

I realized that again this week when I read a new young-adult novel called MADAPPLE by Christina Meldrum.This dense, eccentric novel concerns a teenage girl, Aslaug, raised by a mad Danish immigrant who insists that her daughter was the product of a virgin birth. When her herb-gathering, abusive mother dies, Aslaug -- who has lived her life in near-isolation -- is taken in by an aunt and two cousins she has never known. Unfortunately, they turn out to be just as crazy as her mother. Eventually Aslaug herself becomes pregnant under mysterious circumstances and her aunt -- a charismatic minister with a drinking problem -- and cousin keep the teenager captive in her bedroom, even binding her mouth and hands so she cannot call for help or run away. The prose is intelligent and at times quite beautiful, and the author uses an intriguing device to keep the plot moving, as chapters describing the events of 2003, when Aslaug first went to live with her relatives, alternate with court transcripts from 2007 as Aslaug is being tried for a double murder. Although a promising debut, I found this surreal gothic novel overlong, overloaded with arcane information on plants, herbs, and religion (every time Aslaug’s cousin begins talking about pagan religions or Essene prayers, her dialogue devolves into lengthy Theology 101 lectures) and filled with over-the-top scenes and characters. And is there a single character in the book who isn’t either insane or downright nasty? (Even a policewoman with a soft spot for Aslaug ends up stealing money from her -- in an intriguing scene that isn’t mentioned again and adds nothing to the plot.) Some readers may have a modicum of sympathy for Aslaug herself (who endures so much with Job-like submission) but I found her pretty much a cypher. I closed the 400-plus page book with the feeling that it was an interesting failure that would probably be poorly-reviewed, wouldn’t have much appeal to kids, and was soon destined for the bins at Half-Price Books. Imagine my surprise when I looked online and discovered it had gotten starred reviews by every major journal and has also garnered a lot of young fans! It’s difficult to have a dissenting opinion on a book that everyone else seems to love (there’s no one for me to high-five with!) but my opinions on this one are pretty intractable so I guess I’d better get used to being “odd man out” when it comes to MADAPPLE.


I guess anyone who voices their opinions on a blog -- as I just did regarding MADAPPLE -- should have the courage and fortitude to accept the consequences. However, I recently had an unnerving experience when a reader (who perhaps found their way to “Collecting Children’s Books” when they were looking for their favorite blog “Committing Childish Behavior”) deliberately tried to stir up some trouble.

It all started when I made a comment -- and a fairly positive one, I thought -- about one of my favorite authors on this blog.

Practically as soon as my blog entry was posted, a reader ran (well, in this case I prefer the word “scurried” because rats scurry or “slithered” because snakes slither) to the author I’d mentioned and “tattled” on me. The problem was that they quoted me out of context, only reporting half of what I’d said and leaving out the good comments. Then this author -- an idol of mine -- turned around and reported my “waspish” (her word) comments on the internet and went on to supply a quote that used the phrase “weasilish, piggish, and buzzardly.”

As it turned out, a kind reader of this blog cleared up the matter by providing my FULL QUOTE IN CONTEXT to the author, who agreed that my original statement was "quite benign."

I have three comments to make:

1) To the kind reader who cleared this up: THANK YOU!

2) To the iconic author who thought she’d been dissed: I’M SORRY. I REALLY DO LOVE YOUR BOOKS!

3) To the person who tried to stir up the trouble: SHAME ON YOU!

And here’s a reading list for that third person:


Here is a dustjacket image I love:

YOUR BACKYARD CIRCUS by Dic Gardner presents a picture of this circus the way most kids would IMAGINE it -- with tents and ticket booths and refreshment stands and a million attractions (is that an ELEPHANT in the background?) plus tons of customers, including plenty of paying adults. Okay, in truth, most kids’ circuses end up a little less grandiose...but this is how they imagine it will be when they plan their circus. And this will be how they remember it thirty or forty years later.

When I was growing up, some kids down the block created a haunted house in their garage every year. They’d use blankets to partition off the building into long corridors and secret rooms made up as monsters’ dens and mad scientists’ laboratories. Ghosts popped out at every turn. Dead bodies arose from plywood caskets. You were forced to touch bowls containing human eyeballs (peeled grapes) and brains (cold, wet spaghetti) and it took hours and hours to get through the entire haunted house because it was so HUGE and there were HUNDREDS of attractions to see.

Of course the logical part of my brain now reminds me that my neighbors only had a one-car garage -- so how HUGE could that haunted house really be? And how many attractions did they really set up in the day or two it took them to create the haunted house? HUNDREDS? ...Dozens? ...Two or three?

But that is not how I remember it. I still contend there were innumerable rooms, endless corridors and uncountable attractions in that haunted house. That’s how it seemed to me then and that’s how it seems to me now. In fact, the older I get, the larger it seems in my memory.


In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d check out a few more haunted houses -- found within the pages of children’s books.

For picture book readers, there’s TUCK’S HAUNTED HOUSE by Martha Weston. The piggish (though not weaselish, buzzardly or waspish) protagonist puts on a haunted house to rival my neighbors’ garage, complete with fake coffins and “peeled grapes for ghouls’ eyes.”

It’s a fun book and just scary enough for its intended audience. What scared me the most were Tuck’s feet. Look at them:

How does he WALK on those things? Note to Tuck: Next Halloween ditch the pirate costume and go as a clothespin.

When I was a kid, I loved a pair of books about three siblings who solved mysteries: THE KEY TO THE TREASURE (1966) and CLUES IN THE WOODS (1968), which were written by Peggy Parish of “Amelia Bedelia” fame. I used to think those books were very long and involved. Then I ran across them again last week and -- in another case of “everything is big when you are little” -- discovered the volumes were rather slim and the text was sparse. Collecting children’s books may be about rediscovering old things, but it’s also about discovering new things. While I got older and and moved past these books, the author, unbeknownst to me, continued writing them. Now I’ve discovered three more books in this series: PIRATE ISLAND ADVENTURE (1975), HERMIT DAN (1977), and this 1971 book which will make perfect Halloween reading:

Peg Kehret is the contemporary successor to Peggy Parish, writing fun, unpretentious and moderately scary stories for young readers. And like Parish, she’s also written a mystery series about some young siblings. Ellen and Corey Streater are featured in DANGER AT THE FAIR, TERROR AT THE ZOO, and this volume, which has the pair working at haunted house to raise money for a community project:

Originally published in Great Britain under the title IT”S TOO FRIGHTENING FOR ME, Shirley Hughes’ novel HAUNTED HOUSE contains dialogue balloons in many of the illustrations -- something I’ve rarely seen:

William Sleator’s BLACKBRIAR isn’t a haunted house, but a haunted cottage. The author got the idea for the book while himself restoring an old cottage. Sleator said, “"The place was interesting…the whole thing was like a gothic novel. So there was my first novel, BLACKBRIAR, handed right to me"

Notice how the details of the cover illustration evoke a face:

And -- eek! -- here’s another cover illustration with a hidden face:

Though in this case the face is familiar. Does anyone remember these oversized volumes of scary stories for kids, ostensibly selected by Alfred Hitchcock? I say “ostensibly” because I’ve never learned whether “Hitch” was actually involved with these books, or merely lent them his name. The same goes for all the volumes of adult short stories with Hitchcock’s name attached that were published back in the day. All I know is that the books ceased when the filmmaker died and that was a real loss as these books were enjoyed by both grown-up and young readers. I wish some publisher could bring them back into print!

Finally, here’s an odd volume (no author listed and the publisher is the long-extinct Aladdin Books) with a haunted house on the cover. For some reason this one really gives me the creeps. Maybe it’s because the house isn’t ornately decorated and there are no bat-wings-in-front-of-a-full-moon or pumpkins or other Halloweeny accouterments to jazz up the jacket -- just lonely ghosts treading through a cold blue night.


Gregory Maguire has written some great children’s books, but may now be best known for writing WICKED, the novel that inspired the hit Broadway musical. I just found a wonderful quote attributed to this author in which he calls his books “novels of ideas dressed up in Halloween costumes.”



I was lucky enough to see a matinee of WICKED shortly after it opened. The theatre sold witch’s hats as souveniers and, from where I sat way up in the nose-bleed seats, I could see nothing but black triangle hats spread out below me. It was like being at a witch’s convention. They didn’t block the view at all, since our seats were raised quite high above the lower balcony, but that didn’t stop the lady sitting next to me from hailing an usher and asking him to make sure everyone took off their hats, “Because it’s very annoying.” After he walked away, this same lady spilled an entire giant-sized bag of Skittles on the floor where they rolled across the aisles willy-nilly and crunched under our feet for the rest of the show. Annoying is as annoying does.

Anyway, a few weeks later there was an article about Gregory Maguire in PEOPLE magazine and I was amused to see a photo of him and his family all wearing those same witch’s hats from WICKED.

So we know how he dresses for Halloween. But what about other children’s authors? I did a search on the internet today and found several examples -- many of them on the “Three Silly Chicks” blog (, which regularly asks their children’s book interviewees “What was your best Halloween costume ever?” I wanted to write them and ask permission to borrow some of these quotes, but couldn’t find an address on their site. Maybe if I mention that one of the Three Silly Chicks, Andrea Beaty, wrote one of this year’s VERY BEST new books, CICADA SUMMER, they won’t be mad at me. (And it really IS a great book! Check it out!)

Anyway, have any of the following famous authors ever come trick-or-treating at your door?

Jon Scieszka: “I was a pretty good witch. And a scary bunny rabbit. But I was an excellent bum -- I had the black marker whisker stubble, baggy suitcoat, and no mask. Beauty.”

Lisa Yee: “One year, in college, I wore one of my mom's old pink taffeta cocktail dresses, long gloves, and lots of (fake) pearls. I hardly ever dress up, so it felt very chic and irreverent at the same time. I suppose if I wore that today I'd look like Gwen Steffani, minus the blonde hair, musical abilities, and clothing line.”

Adam Rex: “Last year I shaved my head and wore a Charlie Brown t-shirt. Several years ago I made a full-body robot costume that weighed fifteen pounds and lit up. The year I was working on Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A- Comin'! by Jill Esbaum I went as Steamboat Head.”

Annette Curtis Klause, whose many scary books must make her an expert in this field, described her favorite way to spend Halloween: “I like to be dressed as a ghoul, standing by my front door, next to the Victorian Child's coffin I bought on eBay, holding a witches cauldron full of candy in my arms, a skeletal hand emerging from the pot. I whip open the the front door growling as soon as someone knocks and I count how many children fall backwards off my steps. Yah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

Kate and Sarah Klise said their mother helped them make papier mache costumes, adding “Sarah’s of course were always perfect; Kate’s turned out looking like lumpy oatmeal on a stick with eyes.”

During high school Mo Willems “arrived on Halloween in khakis, pressed oxford shirt, and letter jacket. Satire trumps Vampire, I say.”

My favorite writer M.E. Kerr was an aspiring writer even in her youth, constantly sending out stories to magazines. For a sorority costume party, she pinned all her rejection letters to a long black slip, then attended the event as a Rejection Slip.

Paul O. Zelinsky may have had the most inventive costume of all: “I was in third or fourth grade and made a traffic-light costume out of a big box. I went trick-or-treating holding a flashlight inside it with me. When I got to a house, I would point the flashlight at the inside of the top light, and the words ‘trick or treat!’ would show in the red translucent lens; then I would hold the flashlight up to my middle, yellow lamp until I received a treat, and then ‘Thank you!’ would show in the green, bottom lamp.

And poor Will Weaver reports that his most embarrassing moment was “In 8th grade I went to a costume party that was not a costume party.”

Ouch. Talk about a trick.


Does anyone remember IDEALS -- a kind of coffee-table magazine filled with beautiful pictures, stories, and poems? Our grade school teachers used to cut pictures out of this magazine and display them on bulletin boards. The magazine was usually published in conjunction with holidays or the seasons. There wasn’t a Halloween issue, but there were issues labeled “Autumn,” “Thanksgiving,” and sometimes just “Harvest.” I recall coming across a Halloween story in one of these issues, about a group of kids in a forest. The girls seemed to be on a nature walk with an older woman, while the boys were on their own. The boys taunted the girls by shouting something like,

Pins and needles, needles and pins,
When Halloween comes, the trouble begins!

and the girls would counter with:

Pins and needles, needles and pins,
When Halloween comes, the fun begins!

Does anyone know this story? Could it have been an excerpt from a full-length book?

Any ideas?


It’s been almost two weeks since my Big Birthday and I just got another gift -- this one from a bookstore buddy. It’s a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt canvas bag and it contained a few surprises inside, including the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly.

My friend suggested I bring the bag to the store each week to conserve on the plastic bags they normally put my purchases in. I hope I remember to do that. (Do you think I could also use it for trick-or-treating on Halloween night?)


I had hoped to get this blog posted in a timely fashion, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to happen. I’m a slow and error-prone typist. Plus, I got interrupted, in the middle of an otherwise warm and sunny autumn afternoon, by a freak hail storm!

At this time of year it’s cold one day, warm the next, and you never know what the hail to expect next.

Anyway, thanks for dropping by for brunch.

I mean linner.



Anonymous said...

Maybe walking houses will turn out to be more benign, like Howl's moving castle? One can dream. The Hungry City future is so cruddy.

Sarah Miller said...

All in a day's work. ;)

Anonymous said...

Permission granted! Enjoyed your post!!

The Three Silly Chicks

Lisa Yee said...

This year I'm going as my mother again. Only, I'm not going to wear a costume. Sigh.