Friday, November 27, 2009

Update for the Masses

Alright, I admit it, this is a bit of a placeholder post. We've both been sortof busy, of late; other projects and whatnot, plus this humble blogger is also a full-time student. Don't give up on us, though, because we have a lot of directions we're going to be taking this thing in coming months. Here's a list of ideas and ongoing projects:

  • "Screaming Out Loud": the horror podcast series will continue in December
  • Guest Bloggers Welcome!: Got a story about your favorite spooky story, or moment of spookery from your childhood? If you would like to Guest Blog, or even join us as a regular contributor, contact us; we'd love to hear from you.
  • Broader subject matter: In addition to reviews, we'll be taking a look at what make horror so fascinating, why kids and teens are drawn to it, and how to deal with advanced readers and the question of age-appropriate content.
  • Fiction?: My personal inclination is to ask you, Dear Reader (to rip from Stephen King), should we include a section for original submissions?
  • Ideas?: What would you like to see here? If you have ideas for what you'd like to see on this blog, get in touch! This is the running theme, today, because we honestly want to know what you have to say, what you want us to say, and what we can do to make this a better space for childrens' horror.

Ultimately, this blog is a labor of love, and we're going to keep it going even if we only get to post once a month. The last few months have been amazing, and I for one look forward to many more.


Nick Hirsch

Monday, November 2, 2009

Just Before Nightfall

The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural
By Patricia McKissack
Knopf, 1992

Every now and then a timeless supernatural classic comes along, one that you have to read over and over again and share with as many people as you can. The Dark Thirty, winner of the 1993 Coretta Scott King Award with black and white illustrations by Brian Pinkney, is one such book. An anthology of nine short stories and one poem, this book is an engaging collection of tales.

The title comes from that time of day just before nightfall and the stories within are perfect yarns to spin at that eerie time of day. The stories within this book are haunting, in a horror story sense as well as in a social commentary sort of way. The stories evoke the African-American experience in the south with themes ranging from slavery, segregated communities, transport (trains and buses), and 60's activism, all with a supernatural twist. The stories are written in such a way that a wide audience can be reached and mesmerized. The narratives are smooth, steady, and subtle, despite the heavy and sometimes violent themes they depict. For instance, in the story "Justice" readers are introduced to a character whose ghost returns to avenge his wrongful and horrible lynching murder by a Klansman. Sometimes these elements of our history are hard to explore with youth, but using a short story as a way to break the ice, we can start a dialogue about the haunting parts of our past in a way that is accessible and appropriate for children of a certain age.

I remember my 6th grade teacher reading this book to us, one story at a time, and I remember this was the first time my class was quiet. Pin drop quiet. Every Friday we were allowed to bring pop and gum into class, so usually we were all wound up on sugar, but the Friday afternoons when Mr. B read from this book we were all quietly and thoughtfully absorbed in the tales. This is a book I enjoyed hearing and love to read over and over and I am happy to share it with you. I hope you find it to be a powerful reading experience.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Looking for a Good Halloween Costume?

The Gruesome Guide to World Monsters
by Judy Sierra; illustrated by Henrik Drescher
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2005

As encyclopedias go, The Gruesome Guide to World Monsters is one of the more interesting ones out there. The creatures in this book are enough to inspire madness in even the most rational of minds. Even more terrible - all of them are real!

This collection of dread fiends is inspired by actual folk-tales from around the world, with helpful pointers on how to avoid them (if you can). Every monster is rated on a scale from one to five skulls, from mere fright to inevitable death, and a description of where it makes its horrible, horrible home (so you can avoid there).

The author of this book, Judy Sierra, grew up in the DC area, and has been a children's librarian, puppeteer and folklorist for most of her life. She is also the author of another great spooky volume, Monster Goose. What's really great about the Gruesome Guide is that Sierra sticks to creatures you've probably never heard of, organized by the region they came from. You won't find vampires, werewolves or goblins in this book. No, instead it's Ahuizotl, Nkanyamba, or Bunyip . Great for that unique Halloween costume you've been trying to find...

The art in this book is equally great. Henrik Drescher's style (somewhere between Clive Barker and Dave McKean) is simultaneously fleshy and free-form; his monsters look like they were picked out of a madman's nightmares (not that this humble blogger would have any idea what a madman's nightmares look like... not at all...). So, if you're in the mood for something unusual to talk about at the party (or just like to look at scary monsters), find this book, and pay close attention. After all, you don't want one of these things to find you...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Classic Halloween

The Halloween Tree
by Ray Bradbury
Random House, 1972

As we approach the last week of October, I'm sure those Halloween preparations are in full swing. Putting finishing touches on scary and silly costumes, buying candy, choosing pumpkins and putting spooky decor around the home are just part of the tradition as we get ready for All Hallows Eve. I would like to personally suggest another activity that should be added to the holiday to-do list: find yourself a copy of The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury.

Ever since I discovered this book in junior hight I have read it each year around Halloween and each time I am never able to put it down. The magic and adventure in this book never cease to electrify my imagination. The book is about eight friends who set out on Halloween night to find some adventure. The ninth friend in the group, Pipkin, promises to meet up with the rest of the boys later on at a sinister looking house in the woods. But when the boys think they see him, the chase begins. From here on out the eight boys are led into the darkest depths of history as a mysterious character, named Moundshroud, guides them through the past to find their friend. The whole while, Moundshroud uses supernatural and mystical tactics to teach the children the meanings behind the celebration of Halloween. After spectacular lessons about history, other cultures, and celebrations are learned in ancient Egypt, the time of the Druids, and Mexico, to name a few, the boys endure the greatest personal journey of the evening as they are asked how far they would truly go to help their friend.

Fans of Bradbury know that his stories, particularly those about children, are typically accompanied by change, growing up, and the ache of loss. The Halloween Tree is no exception to this. Despite this being a children's chapter book, Bradbury still eloquently describes the realities of death's cold touch, and he does so as honestly and simply as a child might describe the misty and haunting twilight that comes after an autumn sunset. The book's lyrical nature and the youthful vibe from the characters make this book not only a moving story to listen to, but also a sheer delight to read for children and adults of all ages. Happy reading and Happy Halloween.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Screaming Out Loud - Halloween Edition

"The Tell-Tale Heart"
by Edgar Allan Poe
read by Nicholas Hirsch

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was one of the first horror stories I ever read. I was in sixth grade, perusing the shelves of my school's library, and there it was - a thick, dusty book, bound all in black, with a picture of a raven on the cover. Inside the cover was a picture of the man himself, Edgar Allan Poe, right out of a Tim Burton movie! (causality and linear time would come later in my education...) I opened to the table of contents, and started flipping through the book to find myself dazzled and thrilled by the illustrations; it was a dark, morbid affair, full of thunderclouds and autumn leaves whipped around by a cold wind. Someday, I will find the edition that had those illustrations, or I will discover that it was all in my mind...

In any case, the stories gripped me - "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Masque of the Red Death". The whole collection spoke to me; whispers of dread delight that appealed to my inner, laughing monster. These were stories to be read under a blanket with a flashlight (or behind your textbooks in class), they spoke a new language, full of brooding, steeple-fingered madmen and bouncing alliteration. They jangled the senses; they carried you into the shadows, just behind the narrator's bloodshot eyes, and pulled your mind into an unfathomable abyss. It was magic. I was in love.

It is with this memory in mind that I present here the first installment of Screaming Out Loud, a series of classic horror tales, read aloud for your enjoyment (and, let's be honest, for mine). To celebrate this, my favorite holiday, my Christmas, New Years and Thanksgiving, all rolled into one, here is my own rendition of that mad old story, "The Tell-Tale Heart", by Edgar Allan Poe:

Download the MP3 here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Not Your Parents' Monster Mash

Boogie Knights
by Lisa Wheeler; illustrated by Mark Siegel
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ©2008

Boogie Knights is a delightfully silly book, and more than a little deranged. A young prince wakes to find his castle of full of terrible monsters and creatures of the night... all of whom are dancing! One by one, the seven knights who guard the castle are drawn into the party, only to be swept up in the merriment themselves.

The best part of this book is its visual musicality. The imagery begins in gray scale, but as each knight succumbs to the urge to dance, the pages become splashed over with colors and laughter. In the end, everyone ends up dancing the night away; and the seven knights return to their posts drenched in color, while the little prince sleeps with a smile on his face.

Lisa Wheeler and Mark Siegel (who worked together before in Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta) explain the motivation behind the creation of this book far better than I ever could in this handy little video:

Enjoy the momentary tingle of fear, then go dancing!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lest That Your Heart's Blood Should Run Cold

Passion and Poison: Tales of Shape-Shifters, Ghosts, and Spirited Women by Janice M. Del Negro
Illustrations by Vince Natale
Marshall Cavendish Children's Books , 2007

Passion and Poison
is a splendid little anthology of original gothic tales and retellings of classic folk stories. This book is unique not only for the fact that it features only female protagonists, but also for the fact that the featured women are strong, logical, and matter of fact in their dealings with the supernatural, gore, and horror. This book is so refreshing for a reader who grew up watching 80’s slasher flicks where the female characters stumbled around, screamed, and mentally wilted or physically perished in the face of fear and danger.

The stories in this book tackle themes of revenge, loss, bravery, and redemption. The female characters, though diverse, share the common threads of strength and keen observation. These women are perceptive. These women are strong. They know how to fend for themselves. They know when to, how to, and who to fight for.

My favorite tale in this book is “The Severed Hand” which is a retelling of the English tale "Mr. Fox." A desirable young woman, hounded by many determined suitors, finally falls for a dashing stranger. They become engaged. However, a solo jaunt into the woods leads to the woman being stranded in the woods near dusk. Knowing her fiancé’s home is near she sees no harm calling upon him unannounced. After all, they are engaged to be wed. Realizing nobody is home she lets herself in to wait and upon entering, notices a strange motto above the door. Each door she enters in the home has an even stranger motto and curiosity gets the best of her as she continues to explore the house. While curiosity doesn’t kill the cat in this case, the young maid stumbles upon a horrifyingly gory scene and realizes a horrific truth. Her fate seems to be certain death until we see our protagonist’s problem solving skills, which were hidden so properly behind her demure nature and stunning beauty. Ah, how I love a young woman who can hold her own amongst a slithering snake, and how!

It is my supreme delight to recommend this book to all readers of short read aloud gothic stories. While the reading level of the book is proper for 5-6 graders, I think all of us can find a character to relate to in one, if not all, of these eight tales. My only complaint is that there were eight short stories in this book and not eighteen.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Beautiful Nonsense Saves the Night

What the Dickens
by Gregory Maguire
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2007

What-the-Dickens, as the subtitle suggests, is the story of a rogue tooth fairy. It is also the story of three children, Dinah, Zeke and Rebecca Ruth, trapped in their house with their elder cousin Gage; outside, a terrible storm rages, and their parents have gone missing.

To keep them in good spirits, Gage tells them a story about the skibbereen - what human beings would know as "tooth fairies", and a renegade fairy named What-the-Dickens. What-the-Dickens is born in an empty tuna can, unaware of who or what he is, or much of anything, really. The story catches young Dinah's imagination, and gets them all through the night.

This is not a particularly spooky book, but it is a beautiful and imaginative one. The childrens' fear of the storm and their parents' absence gives Gage's story a sense of urgency: Dinah's immersion in the tale reminded me pleasantly of "Neverending Story", or any number of times when I was a child, reading my way through rough weather. The story of What-the-Dickens is only half the tale, though. This book was also about the power of storytelling itself, and the potency of belief in magic and prayer. Best of all, though deeply philosophical and thought-provoking, the book places itself easily in the grasp of its intended ten-year-old audience.

Gregory Maguire is known for his reworked modern fables, notably his series of books starting with Wicked. His choice of the tooth fairy in this book is interesting, because the origin of this creature is already terribly obscure: to tell the tale of the skibbereen (ironically also the name of an Irish township) really does require making it up as you go along, which Maguire does with all the craft of a master storyteller. In fact, I suspect Gage is Maguire, folded into the story even as the character folds himself into the narrative of What-the-Dickens. Late in the book, Gage has a moment of discovery about himself, his love of stories and of telling them, which struck me as a deeply autobiographical moment. All in all, a valuable read for any child with a love of stories told to keep back the dark.

Monday, September 21, 2009

She's Tough. She's Brave. She's 75.

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything
by Linda Williams
Illustrations by Megan Lloyd
Harper Collins, 1986

The weather is cooling, which means fall is in our midst. This is my favorite time, with pumpkins on my balcony, gourds on my counter, walking my dog in the graveyard across the street to see the colors, and harvest stories and scary tales leading up to Halloween. For the little ones just getting into the spirit of the season and spooky tales, here is a friendly yarn about a gallant granny and a pumpkin head spook.

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything is a story that focuses around a brave little woman and a scary entity she meets in the woods on her way home from collecting seeds and herbs. Having walked a little too far to gather wild nuts and seeds, it is a dark and lonely walk back home for the little old woman. As often happens on these scary solo treks, she happens upon frightening figures. She first meets a suspicious pair of animated shoes, then pants, then a shaking shirt, on and on until she meets the frightening piece de resistance, a great and ghoulish pumpkin head. The culmination of the creepy clothing and the putrid pumpkin head put quite a fright in the once brave old woman and she runs home. When the being comes knocking on her door later that night readers will see how even a horrible scare can rejuvenate one’s bravery and even instill some creativity and ingenuity.

I chose this story for its simple style. It is just the right length for afternoon reading time at home or morning story time for preschoolers in class or at the library. This book focuses around the common motif of visibly constructing the story line as the plot rolls along. This is a useful tactic in picture books for pre-readers because it allows them to make predictions about what comes next. It reminds me of the story the Old Woman and Her Pig or the The Teeth in the way the events crescendo into the climax. The repetition of the events in the story help support a child’s ability to see how parts of a story relate together and it gets them excited about what will happen at the end. “Two shoes go clomp, clomp, and one pair of pants go wiggle, wiggle.” “Two shoes go clomp, clomp, and one pair of pants go wiggle, wiggle, and the shirt went shake, shake.” This type of storytelling allows children to remember the events more clearly and also to participate in the story telling with the “clomp, clomp” and the “wiggle, wiggle” type verse. The illustrations in this book are stylistically simple and as such, fit in very appropriately with the text. Despite the fact that mostly simple lines and primary colors are used, the artwork pops. The tone of the illustrations is not too frightening for a young audience. Overall this is a nice quick reading little picture book.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Taking the Sparkles Out of Your Gothic

Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales
edited by Deborah Noyes
Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2004

Gothic! is a fantastic collection of short stories by some of the best contemporary writers of YA and horror fiction, including Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Vivian Vande Velde. Like all good collections, the stories in Gothic! explore the theme from a number of angles, ranging from loving homage to wry satire (and sometimes both at once).

Hands down, my personal favorite is "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire", by Neil Gaiman; it's probably not as funny if you aren't familiar with old-school penny dreadfuls, but if you are it's a laugh riot. My other two favorites come right in the beginning of the book: "Lungewater", by the late Joan Aiken (who died the year this book was published), tells a modern story in the language of gothic horror, while "Watch and Wake", by M.T. Anderson, blends contemporary suburban fantasy with traditional (but terrifying) folk myths.

Some of the stories in this collection are more silly than scary, but all delight in the morbid and macabre. All of the authors are current or rising stars of their craft, so for the teen reader who's looking for something with all the aesthetic flavor of Edgar Allan Poe or HP Lovecraft (but have read the entire collected works of both, repeatedly), this is the place to start. The beauty of a short story collection is its ability to showcase new talent, and connect readers to the authors of the sort of story they are looking for. This is especially true for the YA set, who might not want to commit to a whole book without having a taste of the author's style first.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Brains at Every Single Meal, Why Can't We Have Some Guts?

Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich
by Adam Rex
Harcourt, Inc., 2006

It is most certainly impossible to not fall madly in love with monsters after reading Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich (byline: And other stories you’re sure to like, because they’re about monsters, and some of them are also about food. You like food don’t you? Well, alright then.). Author/illustrator Adam Rex, utilizing the literary art of poetry, presents a creative anthology of monster stories.

The title poem of the book sets the pace for rhymes that effortlessly roll off the page and off the tongue. The liquidity of the text throughout the book makes it quite a lyrical read-aloud as well as an enjoyable treat for solo reading. “When Frankenstein prepared to dine on ham-and-cheese on wheat, he found, instead, he had no bread, (or mustard, cheese, or meat).” Some other characters featured throughout the book include the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, the Yeti, and the Phantom of the Opera, to name a few. Some of the characters appear once, and some are featured a few times. For instance, the Phantom of the Opera has a few poems dedicated to him for his inability to get catchy tunes out of his head while he tries to compose his arias (my personal favorite when he can’t get “The Girl from Ipanema” out of his head). The poems in this book create silly scenarios, such as spinach remaining stuck in Dracula’s fangs because everyone is too afraid to tell him its there. Possibly better yet, these poems are a wealth of valuable information, such as suggesting one to make a hat out of carrots so zombies will abstain from your brain.

To complete a poetry collection as varied and bizarre as this, Rex created accompanying illustrations that are purely magical. Paying homage to famous illustrators of children’s literature throughout the book, such as Richard Scarry and Tony Diterlizzi, he showcases a diverse color and style palette. The variations of media to represent the different personalities of each creature was an act of simple beauty. Vibrant colors, detailed ink drawings, and shiny black and whites are a few of the impressive artistic techniques employed. Overall, this book is the perfect marriage of silliness, gentle gore, flowing text, and smooth illustrations. I think children will delight in this book and quite simply, gobble it up. Just like Frankenstein did with that molding heap of unsavory edibles. Bon appétit!

Monday, September 7, 2009

You've Been Laminated!

The Librarian From the Black Lagoon
by Mike Thaler
Pictures by Jared Lee
Scholastic Inc., 1997

Being young and curious about the world is a great thing. But sometimes, with that curiosity there is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the possibilities.

In a cautious and kooky picture book, The Librarian From the Black Lagoon, author Mike Thaler introduces young children to a new adventure; going to the library. There are rumors afoot. Horrible, cruel, and disturbing rumors of a monstrous librarian with a beastly personality who glues children to chairs, laminates them if they talk, and entices them with a “petting zoo” of porcupines and piranha fish. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. With such a wicked librarian loose in the stacks, all who enter must wonder, will they ever come back alive?

Exploring fear of the unknown and taking that concept to a silly extreme, Thaler produces a picture book that plays right into a child’s psyche. Children swap stories, funny and horrific alike, and utilizing this tool of the bubble gum set, the author creates a tale that exploits the stereotype of the shushing librarian and the vulnerability of a grade school age child. I think most of people can relate to this depiction. If not with a librarian as the central figure, at least some type of authority figure that was a mysterious and stern creature that gave us the willies before we realized what a helpful and gentle soul they were.

With it being national library card sign-up month and with all the wee ones heading back to school I thought it the perfect time to share a story such as this. It’s a little suspenseful, a little spooky, and overall, a little silly. What a great formula for a shared reading experience.

Personal Note: I used to be terrified of the librarian at my elementary school. She was tight-lipped with a thin penciled frown. It wasn’t until my sophomore year in school, when I was working as a student assistant in the library, that I realized this mean looking lady was just a shy woman who was more comfortable dealing with catalog cards than children. We warmed up to each other quickly and were great friends until she passed away to a terminal illness. I guess what I’m trying to say is, give things a chance, even if they seem scary or uncomfortable. You just never know what lies beneath the surface.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Internet Will Eat You

by Aaron Alexovich
New York, NY : Minx (DC Comics), 2007

Kimmie66 is a fantastic little graphic novel that blends elements of cyberpunk, goth and various internet cultures, narrated by Telly Kade, a fourteen year old girl from the 23rd Century.

Telly, like everyone else from her time, spends almost all of her time in a lair - one of the many immersive virtual worlds where people work, play and socialize in the future. The lairs are strangely familiar reflections of modern Internet subcultures, structured to their aesthetic tastes. Telly's own lair of choice is a vision of the collective modern Gothic id; a fusion of Victorian and industrial influences. (Full disclosure: I would probably live there, too.) Her story begins when her best friend, Kimmie66, sends her a suicide note - and then starts making appearances in all the lairs, haunting the virtual world.

Like all good cyberpunk (and all good YA fiction), Kimmie66 is loaded with social commentary and the exploration of identity in an age of technology-enabled anonymity. In searching for the truth about Kimmie, Telly is faced with the realization that she truly knows less than nothing about the girl she thinks of as her best friend. She also confronts a society rigidly divided into isolated cliques and clubs, when travel between social circles isn't simply frowned upon - it's forbidden. Telly herself is already a rebel in this sense; the first scene we see is her travelling between isolated groups, looking for her friend Nekokat ("cat cat") to share the grim news. Telly is an explorer at heart, which is really what the story is about, incidental to the plot.

Aaron Alexovich's art may seem familiar: this is because he worked on Invader Zim (one of the all-time best subversive cartoons) with Jhonen Vasques (that name again...) and, more recently, contributed character designs for Avatar: the Last Airbender. The blurb on the back of the book describes his hallmark style as "spookycute", which very much applies to Kimmie66, which sports the most adorable ghost-bleeding-from-her-eyes scene ever. Find it, read it, love it.

A note about the publisher - we'll probably see a lot of their work here on SB/SC. Minx is an imprint of geekery giant DC Comics, specializing in graphic novels for teenage girls. Many of these stories are simply amazing, and a good number of them are qualifiers for Spooky Books treatment.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What is Lurking Behind the Walls?

The Wolves in the Walls
by Neil Gaiman
Illustrations by Dave McKean
Harper Collins, 2003

The Wolves in the Walls, is a wild story with a level-headed heroine. The premise of the book plays on basic fears (home intrusion, fears of childhood fantasy) and takes the reader on a heart-thumping journey.

Lucy and her trusty pig puppet heard noises coming from inside the walls. While unsuccessfully trying to convince her family that the noises are coming from wolves in the walls, she is also introduced to an apparently well known axiom. A warning, if you were. “If the wolves come out of the walls, then it’s all over.” Her family doesn’t take her too seriously, even though Lucy is utterly convinced it is wolves inside the walls. Yet, despite her family’s flippant responses to her worries, there is an imminent sense of danger that they all seem to accept, either openly or subconsciously.

And then, one night, that danger awakens in a horrible way when the wolves finally do come out of the walls. The family flees the house and surrenders their home and possessions to the vicious, wily canines. Even though they are left to sleep in the garden, the entire family is safe, all except for Lucy’s puppet, the one entity that trusted her about the wolves. As her family is suggesting new, and wacky, places to live, Lucy decides she must get her puppet back. Upon stealthily re-entering the house and seeing the disrespectful actions of the four-legged fiends, Lucy resolves herself and convinces her family to take back what is theirs. Following is a brave conquest and a surprise twist ending.

This book is yet another amazing creation from author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Gaiman’s writing is skillful and flows well, despite the twisted tale he is weaving. McKean’s illustrations compliment the story perfectly. His mixed media artwork emphasizes the chaotic plotline of this book. On one page you might see a dynamic ink drawing, while the next is a mixed-material collage. This type of artistic style suits the characters and the storyline.

The main character in this story reminds me of some of the Greek heroes. Lucy is not a hero in this story because she is superhuman or is untouched by fear. Her heroism lies in the fact that she experiences fear, terror even, yet steadfastly rises above it. Just as I’m sure Theseus was terrified when he went to slay the Minotaur, Lucy was when she went to win back her home from the wolves. Taking the reigns of her family and acknowledging the importance of allegiance to ones home and ones family, Lucy swallows her fear and accepts the daunting task of winning her stomping grounds back, as well as her puppet.

This story is great, not only for its wonderful writing and ferocious illustrations, but also because it teaches a few important lessons. Children learn that they can be heroes and leaders in their own family units. It was Lucy who first noticed, believed in, and eventually defeated the wolves. This can show children that they too can take active roles in their own lives and in their own safety. Adults can learn to take stock in what their children say. Sometimes we are so swift to dismiss things that children say just because it seems like nonsense or we can’t make hide nor hair of it. Perhaps we need to listen more intently when little mouths speak. I would recommend this book as a read-aloud or read together book with adults and young readers or pre-readers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's All About the Hair

The Witch's Child
by Arthur Yorinks; illustrated by Jos A. Smith

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007

The Witch's Child is one of the most seriously creepy children's books I've come across in a good, long while. The illustrations are terrifying; the Witch Rosina's posture drips with menace. The story draws from the fairy tale tradition, a cross between Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio, and doesn't shy from the dark nature of the form; the result being a tale full of the kind of magic and terror of the true classics.

Rosina is a violent and cruel witch who, on a whim, decides to try creating a child for herself out of spare rags and straw, and bits of her own hair. However, she can't bring the little doll to life no matter how hard she tries, and in a fit of pique turns all the other children to bramble bushes. Finally, Rosina casts the doll aside, to be found later by a young girl named Lina, who rearranges her limbs and treats her with kindness. Rosina finds Lina with her forgotten child, and attacks her with knife in hand. The ending is happy, but it's paid for with a terrible price.

The Witch's Child is by turns stark and hopeful, with the occasional moment of truly off-putting humor thrown in - Rosina's smile is actually worse than her scowl, if you'd believe it. The "life" of the doll is also full of childhood fears, abandonment chief among them. However, the really wonderful part of this story is in the nature of her awakening - unlike Pinocchio, who requires an external conscience and is brought to life by someone else's love, the doll child wills herself into life to protect someone else from her own creator. The message of self-determination is subtle, but empowering.

Don't let the seemingly snuggly cover illustration fool you: this book is one of those really great scary stories that reminds me of why I love horror. Smith's illustrations are downright beautiful; from the first page, even Rosina's posture drips with malicious intent. The curse she lays on the children is captured mid-transformation, as is their eventual return. More sensitive children might be disturbed by the imagery and the content of the story, but, like The Spider and the Fly, and most fairy tales, for that matter, the object is to teach them to have a healthy respect for their own fears and (hopefully) to inspire them to rise above it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Too Much Strawberry Junky Business

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher
by Molly Bang
Aladdin Papberbacks, ©1996
Four Winds Press, ©1980

The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher is a suspenseful and delightful picture book. This Caldecott Honor winning wordless picture book follows the Grey Lady’s frightful trek home from the produce market with a pint of fresh, juicy strawberries. Upon leaving the market she is being relentlessly stalked by a greedy perpetrator known only as the “Strawberry Snatcher.”

As the book opens, the reader is instantly attracted to the pleasure upon the Grey Lady’s face as she purchases her strawberries and heads home. However, subtle shading techniques and figurative motifs in Bang’s illustrations foreshadow horrible events to come. For instance, as she is walking out of the door from the market, the shop behind her looks dark and foreboding. Subsequently, as she is heading down the sidewalk on the next page, we see a shocking and sinister face peering around the corner, intent on following her. This is the dark element or the evil figure that just might mean doom for the Grey Lady. He follows her by the shops in town, skateboards after her when she boards the bus, and he continues to follow her into an oddly beautiful swamp, an eerily daunting forest, and finally into a foggy grey clearing where the book reaches a startling climax.

For a wordless book, this story is an engaging page-turner. The rich and textured illustrations employ a vivid color palette which in turn creates a landscape that harnesses the driving energy of the story. The decision to illustrate the Grey Lady as a subtle, soft figure and the Strawberry Snatcher as a bizarre and freakish creature enhances the elements of the story. The Grey lady blends in with the landscape. You get the feeling she has lived in this area for a long time. It is her intimate knowledge of the environment which allows her to outwit her attacker again and again. The strange and colorful appearance of the Strawberry Snatcher illustrates he is an interloper on the local landscape. His fiendish features compared with the deep laugh lines and warm wrinkles of the Grey Lady further demonstrate the dichotomy which is the overall theme of the story: good vs. evil, the honest old lady vs. the devilish thief trying to wrest her most sacred treasure.

The wondrous artistry of this book makes it a triumphant yet spooky achievement. Readers are given the framework for constructing their own imaginative journey. Taking cues from facial expressions, environment, movement, and other illustrative devices, the reader can feel for themselves what emotions are conjured up and decide for themselves how to feel about the book's resolution. This is one of the great things about wordless picture books; there is so much more room for interpretation. The rise and fall of the plot of this book is one that can be appreciated by young and old alike and the pictures themselves can be appreciated for their detail and richness. Overall, I would recommend this book for readers of all ages.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Suspect Hospitality

The Spider and the Fly
by Mary Howitt, illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, ©2002

The Spider and the Fly
is Tony Diterlizzi's delightfully creepy modern reworking of the 1829 cautionary tale by early romantic poet Mary Howitt. "Will you walk into my parlor?" asks the Spider of the Fly; a now-classic opening salvo in a story meant to warn children to be careful and observant of seemingly well-meaning strangers.

Diterlizzi's illustrations are packed with wonderfully subtle, terrible details on every page. The visual narrative is intricate, which adds value to repeat readings - even the wallpaper and curtains are drawn with wry, sardonic humor and a gallows mentality, and grisly easter-eggs abound. Despite the parable quality of the original poem, the anthropomorphized characters re-enforce the depth of horror: this is a story of seduction and murder, and may not be suitable for children who don't already have a fairly morbid sense of humor and a decent conceptual grasp of death.

Reading this book aloud, I found myself drawn subconsciously into imitating the sonorous, gravelly voice of Christopher Lee - the softly glowing font demands as much. The Spider, with his dangerous, rolling eyes and oily smile, channels Vincent Price, one of the kings of silent horror, and the Fly is reminiscent of Greta Schröder and Louise Brooks. Naturally, these details will be lost on young readers, but it's never too late to introduce these classic gems to your burgeoning horror afficionado's repertoire.

If the name sounds familiar, that's because Tony Diterlizzi is the co-creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles with another author of gothic children's stories, Holly Black (whose work will inevitably be reviewed here as well). Geekery: Diterlizzi got his start with gaming company TSR, working on Dungeons & Dragons books, and moved on to Magic: the Gathering when TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast. There's also a fascinating picture of former First Lady Laura Bush reading The Spider and the Fly on the illustrator's wikipedia page.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Enter if You Dare

56 Water Street
by Melissa Strangway
iUniverse Inc., ©2007

56 Water Street is a startling and mysterious book. Designed for young mystery readers and ghost hunters, the book follows the events surrounding a spooky abandoned house and two ten year old friends, Derek and Ravine.

Nobody in town talks about the rambling, weather worn house at 56 Water Street. This is truly bizarre, because strange stuff is happening. The book opens with Derek and Ravine noticing the lights flickering on and off in the long abandoned house. Feeling frightened and concerned, the children rush home to tell their parents only to shockingly discover their parents say there is no house at that address. Eventually, the children find out they are the only ones who notice the house and the strange happenings inside. To the rest of the world, 56 Water Street is a vacant lot with a sordid past.

Derek and Ravine need to find out why they are the only ones able to see the house at 56 Water Street. What does it mean that they can see it and others can’t? They slowly take more chances to investigate and actually enter the house, learning that time stands still for them when they enter the premises. Even more bizarre then the house itself, there is a supernatural force compelling them to become involved with the house. This force enters their dreams and thoughts and compels them to return to the house again and again. It is as if somebody or something is trying to get their attention and trying to give them a message from the other side.

With the help of a fortune teller, who is actually a self proclaimed spirtit medium, Derek and Ravine come to acknowledge that they too have a special gift. Similar to Cole in the Sixth Sense, Derek and Ravine have a sensitivity to dead people who are trapped on earth. It is this sensitivity that allows them to see and enter 56 Water Street and to realize that the resident ghost on the premises needs their help before she can finally rest in peace. Accepting the spooky task the universe has laid at their feet, the children venture once again into the house to help the ghost solve the sorrowful mystery that is keeping her spirit form bound to the house. What follows is a spine-tingling and eerie adventure with an uplifting and hopeful ending.

This book is a sound example of a middle grade mystery. The protagonists are relatable and you are able to become attached to them, particularly Ravine. Her façade of strength and courage is obviously only a thin layer attempting to cover over a very tortured soul. Since she has suffered from her own recent tragedy, it makes sense why she is perhaps more in tune to other spiritual realms. Ravine’s tragedy and the ghost’s dilemma in 56 Water Street create a very melancholy undertone in addition to all the chills and surprises of the mystery in the book. The pain in this book is palpable and it strongly evokes the emotional sensibilities of the reader. I would recommend this book for those who are looking for a tingling paranormal mystery.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ew, Yuck, Repeat

by Scott Westerfeld
Razorbill, ©2005

Peeps is Scott Westerfeld's attempt to create a vampire book that is "new and interesting, while still being full of bitey goodness". Short answer: he succeeds. In all of his novels, Westerfeld weaves the culture into his storytelling, and this is no less true of Peeps.

Cal Thompson has spent the last year of his life hunting down every girl he's kissed for the last year, ever since he was infected with a disease that turns ninety-nine percent of those who catch it into crazed, cannibalistic recluses who fear the sun and everything they ever loved. Cal himself is one of the "lucky" ones, made stronger and faster by the disease, but at the cost of becoming a carrier - infecting everyone he comes into intimate contact with the disease.

To make his life even more difficult, the parasite causes carriers to become more intensely attractive and easily attracted to others in order to spread itself more effectively. Even worse, Cal is tasked with finding his progenitor, the girl who gave him the disease in the first place, before she can spread the disease to others. Unfortunately, there are things more terrible than vampires in the depths of the City, and his search seems to be taking him directly into their path.

By grounding his story in scientific realism and evolutionary theory, Westerfeld makes his story much richer than your average modern vampire fare. Rather than relying strictly on tired emotional stereotypes and vague, worn-out mythologies, he infuses the genre with warm, freshly oxygenated blood. Try not to groan too hard...

Westerfeld presents a unique twist on the vampire mythos, deeply grounded in our own reality, with its parasites and diseases infinitely more terrifying than anything the author could have made up himself. What's really great about this book is that Westerfeld recognizes this fact, and uses it to make his own story more interesting and icky. Told through the voice of Cal, every other chapter is actually a brief description of the life cycle of some horrible real-life invisible parasitic monster or other. The result? Believable, scary, dynamic vampires and a story grounded in thoroughly modern sensibilities: plus a readership left with a healthy terror of ants, rats, cats and tropical rivers. (ewww!)

Another great aspect of Scott Westerfeld's writing is his fluency with modern language; he has a knack for lending a sinister twist to the everyday vocabulary of the under-thirty set. Cal Thompson, the narrator, is a typical (if geeky) nineteen-year-old boy surrounded by other college-age characters, all living on their own in a real life city; you never doubt this, because all of Westerfeld's characters and places sound exactly like what they're supposed to be. Without crossing into gratuitous descriptiveness, the novel also doesn't flinch from real-world sexuality and emotional complexity. Written with wry humor and a mild obsession for the bizarre and terrible, Cal's pains, fears and attractions are accessible and real.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Dead Rose From Their Graves

Wake the Dead
by Monica A. Harris
Illustrations by Susan Estelle Kwas
Walker & Company, Inc.

In Wake the Dead, Henry is having a loud day. He is so loud in fact that his entire family warns him his rowdy, boisterous behavior will “wake the dead.” Ignoring their warning, he keeps up his wild ruckus throughout the house. Well, lo and behold, guess what? He wakes the dead! So rudely awakened, the reanimated corpses crawl out of their coffins and peel themselves from their graves to find the source of the racket.

In a delightfully disturbing slapdash adventure, the zombies, in drop dead gorgeous designer fashion, make their way across town tracing the noise to its source. With many stops along the way, such as at the library (“I expect dead silence in here!”), city hall (nothing but “skeletons in the closets”), and the community pool (“awesome dead man’s float!”), the formerly breathing set finally sense the noisemaker “dead ahead.”

When the zombie crew meets Henry face to face in the field, he is very eager to rectify the situation. After failed attempts to get things back to the status quo, i.e., corpses resting peacefully below ground or in their mausoleums and little boys playing with their dogs without fear of the zombie invasion, Henry finds the perfect solution to whisk the corpses off to dream land. In the end Henry learns his lesson and I bet he will be a bit more mindful when his folks ask him to keep it down.

The illustrations in this book are quite kooky, with an etching-like appearance, particularly on the darker hues. Given the subject matter of zombies raising from the grave, the author and illustrator make a quality synthesis of text and images to reflect the target audience of this book. The linguistic style of the book relies heavily on wordplay and the pun. The pun, despite your feelings about its use in conversation, when used in story, is a great way for children to experience different meanings in language and to experiment with the versatility of words. The silly scenarios in the book are bound to evoke a few giggle fits, in young and not so young alike. I really appreciated the fanciful and lighthearted approach the author took in this book and found it to be very effective in the creation of a quality picture book. Overall, this book is a delight and it is the perfect choice for a little one that is looking for something a bit more macabre than the standard fare.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Snicket Goes to the Orchestra

The Composer is Dead
by Lemony Snicket
HarperCollinsPublishers, ©2009

Lemony Snicket's newest masterpiece, The Composer is Dead, serves multiple purposes. Taking the format of a murder mystery (guess who the victim is!), the book serves first as a fantastic introduction to the parts of an orchestra, individually and as a whole. It is also an excellent primer in Snicket's signature brand of dry wit and macabre sensibilities.

The Composer (now decomposing) had died, and it is left to the Inspector (who is suspiciously autobiographical) to determine who was the culprit, and find them wherever they may be lurking. He then interrogates each section in turn, beginning with the violins and moving right through strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. Each instrument, though, gives an alibi, until the Inspector reaches the Conductor himself, and discovers to his horror that "dead composers litter the musical world...". The entire orchestra comes to the Composer's rescue, however, with a revelation both shocking and hilarious (depending on your constitution).

One of the neat parts of this book is the CD that comes with it. In the first half of this, Lemony Snicket reads the story aloud with orchestral accompaniment composed by (still living) Nathaniel Stookey. The second half is just the music, without Snicket. As each instrument is interrogated, it is heard in the background, so that the second half of the CD can be used to help children learn to identify each instrument by sound.

The artwork in this book is somber, and a little bit retro; the color palette is reminiscent of 70's "Sesame Street", all faded earth-tones which could be friendly or tiring, depending on your tastes. Of course, that's probably the point - the Snicket books have always challenged the sensibilities of the young, glowing and lively, and are best suited to the underage curmudgeon-in-training.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sanitary Friends

The Soap Lady
by Renee French
Top Shelf Productions, Inc., 2001.

The Soap Lady is an outlandish, heartwarming story of friendship, hope and sanitation, written and drawn by Renee French.

The story opens as the Soap Lady rises gently from the sea in a disconcerting parallel to the birth myth of Aphrodite. She is a lumpen, shambling horror; a bloated and dessicated body supported by skeletal legs, with a skull for a head. She meets Rollo, a young boy who can't seem to stay clean, and the two become instant friends. When the villager adults discover her presence, however, she is driven back into the sea, but not before leaving Rollo with a truly disturbing parting gift to remember her by.

Renee French's artwork consistently straddles the border between the uncomfortable and the charming, evoking the ticklish morbidity of Edward Gorey and the visual social criticism of Jhonen Vasques. However, French's imagery is much softer and more soothing than Gorey's, and far less frenetic than Vasques'. Moments that would be revolting if they were handled by any other artist become touching and somewhat sweet in this book... until you realize what exactly just happened. The beauty of The Soap Lady is in French's deft balancing of themes of loving friendship and rising horror.

According to a short blurb in the back of the book, the story was inspired by the real-life discovery of a corpse in a Philadelphia cemetery whose fat had turned to adipocere (aka grave wax) after burial. Adipocere derives from adipose - the multi-function substance found throughout the human body which builds up in excess in obese people.

For those of geek persuasion: you may also remember that the Tenth Doctor faced down an army of adorable Adipose aliens with Donna Noble in the first episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. Apparently, there's just something about this substance that makes us giggle (and wiggle), even as we're horrified by it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It says: “live people ignore the strange and unusual.”

I myself am…strange and unusual. My propensity for oddness and, some might say, questionable behavior, interests, and inclinations, began in the summer of 1984. I’m told I was a precious two year old, except one of my aunts was certainly frightened of me. You see, I used to growl at her. Nobody else. Just her, always her, never anything but...the growl. If she came within a certain range of where I was standing, sitting, or being held, I would emit a deep throaty growl. It is my theory that whatever caused this little quirk is also what is responsible for me blazing my trail through the darker side of the trees.

I was born and raised in a small town in the extreme northwestern part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan known as the Copper Country. I could do the ‘hands thing' if you ever bump into me face to face, but for now, you’ll have to wait with bated breath. An isolated rural life, particularly in an environment that has a rich and colorful history, tends to be fertile ground for the imagination. From a young age I’ve been a make believer. Trees that tell you where to find buried bones, secret portals to other worlds through the red security light on the lamppost at the end of my street, Freddy Krueger (complete with a red convertible!) living in the abandoned copper mill site beyond the cedar trees by my house, and the Devil’s brother jumping in my dad’s underwear on the clothesline are just a few of the yarns I used to spin for myself and others.

Along with ‘playing pretend’ and storytelling, I fell deeply madly in love with reading. The stranger the better. The more the scarier. The strict librarian at my school wouldn’t let me check out the scary books when I was in grade school without a permission slip from home. Thanks be to my hippie mom for happily signing the slip.

Years later, I still feel a lot like that same little girl. I still growl a little. I still walk on that dark side a smidge. As a children’s librarian with the DC Public Library system, I still have the same love of books, reading, and sharing stories. I hope to contribute to this blog by reviewing books you may have heard of and those that are easily borrowed from your local library. Beyond that, I hope to come up with some obscure titles that you may need to scour the used book shops, second-hand book sites, or your uncle’s basement (tell him its not good to keep his books there) to find. Despite the fact that this blog has a specific target audience, I think we can all benefit from it. Can’t all of us use a little dash of strangeness? Don’t we all get in the mood for a good scare?

Monday, August 3, 2009


---Enter if You Dare...

This is a blog for the strange at heart, children and adults, who share a love of books bizarre, scary, terrifying, odd and, well, spooky! We'll review books for children and young adults in a number of categories, including horror, science fiction and fantasy, and over time hope to develop a list of recommended reading for parents, children and teens. Of course there are a lot of things we'll figure out as we go along, and we welcome your suggestions!

---Why, Dear God Why?!

The idea for this site came as the result of a request from a good friend, who wanted help coming up with a reading list for three kids who share their mother's taste for (and pride in) the strange and unusual. I found it refreshing to see her sharing her passion for the bizarre with them, and realized that it would be great to see a resource for the next generation of horror enthusiasts; the ones not old enough to read hard-core scenes of evisceration but still get a rise from that tingling sensation that crawls up your spine when you enjoy a good scare, and the teens who come into the library, always asking for the latest books about vampires, ghosts and witches.

Essentially, younger versions of myself. Isn't that a terrifying thought?

---Who are You, and What are You Doing in My House?

I am a horror enthusiast and aspiring writer living in Washington, DC. I work in the public library system and am a full time student at the University of Maryland. I've written a number of short stories, two of which appeared in the 2006 edition of the TCC Channelmarker. Also, one of my plays has been performed onstage at the Alt Theater in Buffalo, NY. In my spare time... wait, I don't really have any spare time; nevermind!

---What's Around that Corner?

The future of this blog is a mystery. Over time, I hope to develop a regular posting schedule, and add a few helpers to get things moving. That said, your comments, critiques, arguments and suggestions are more than welcome. Comments will be moderately lightly for content (this is a blog about children's books, after all), but otherwise, please share feedback so I can improve the site in turn.

Thank you for visiting, and reading this, and I hope to see you all again... very soon.....