Some day I’ll do a post all about books, about books that I wanted to read to Teddy and books that I read to Dot and about how Dot loves books but also about how that took a bit of work because she’s a very active child and sitting still and listening wasn’t ever high on her list of favorite things to do.
That’s not this post. This post is about Halloween, and Halloween books, and about All Hallow’s Read, which is a project that I love but also one that stirs my panic reflexes. Here’s the All Hallow’s Read introductory video, starring the literary rock star Neil Gaiman:
If you haven’t been reading here long, you may not know that I’m a librarian. Being a librarian is not all about books, but a lot of why I ended up in this profession is because I think that books and reading and connecting people with information and ideas is hugely important. I love, love, love the idea of a tradition of giving someone a book. And I think the video is funny even though I’m less thrilled and amused by things like zombies and ghosts than I used to be. Before I was haunted. Before I wished to be haunted more than I was.
Our public library does some very good displays of holiday books, and we picked up one for Dot called Boo, Bunny! that she enjoys and I enjoy reading to her. It’s about my speed of scary these days – two bunnies help to give each other the courage to enjoy trick-or-treating on Halloween night. She likes the part where the bunnies giggle, and she enjoys saying “Boo!” If I were giving a Halloween book to another toddler her age, this is probably the one I’d pick right now.
We have other books with ghosts, witches, spooky (but not very) elements to them. We read Peek a Who? and on the page with the little green ghost, Dot points and says, “worm.” I pause. Do I tell her it’s a ghost? That would be more honest, wouldn’t it?
“Honey, that’s a little green ghost. Silly little ghost.”
She looks at me scornfully. “Worm.”
And I’m glad. Not that worms are an especially comforting thought, either, though I guess that is one worry that cremation mostly removes. I sit in the rocking chair with my girl snuggled on my lap and I think of how sweet and domestic a picture we must make and about how most people would probably be absolutely horrified by what’s going on in my head.
Halloween. We like to toy with the ideas of ghosts and rot and darkness. I think the society in which I live needs to play with those ideas, especially now. My mind is full of questions that I’d need teams of psychological and social science experts to answer. Are increasing levels of violence in film and popular culture linked to our increasing separation and denial of death? Is play death, mock death, serving some sort of necessary function in a world where talking about actual death makes people back away from you as though you’re conjuring it up instead of simply addressing something that is always there, waiting? My theory is that, one of Halloween’s purposes, besides offering a great excuse for parties and the consumption of ridiculous amounts of sugar (I’m all for both, by the way), is to bring some of our fears out into the open and to laugh at them. Kind of like the scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Remus Lupin has the students in his Defense Against the Dark Arts class use humor to defeat the boggart in the closet.
I think that facing our fears and laughing at them can be a very, very good thing. I think that Halloween can be a very, very fun time of year. This weekend I will be carving jack o’ lanterns and putting up orange lights and pulling out my witch hat to wear to work. But my ability to laugh isn’t what it used to be. Have I had too much exposure to death, or not enough? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can know, though I sometimes wonder if, if I lived in some medieval village where every other woman had held a dead or dying baby in her arms, I’d be better able to laugh at death.
As it is, I remember one of my old neighbors who turned her lights off on Halloween and stayed inside. She told me, very honestly, that she didn’t like the holiday, and I thought that was so strange at the time. Now, I think I understand.
If death were part of my community would I be less freaked out by things like baby pajamas with skeletons on them? Because right now I don’t like the skeleton pajamas that baby clothing companies keep trying to sell me. I don’t like the fact that there are, or ever have been, baby skeletons. Boo (or “boo!” even), I say, to baby skeletons.
I’m even a little leery of picture books with ghosts in them. “Silly ghosties,” Dot tells me when she sees them. “Silly ghosties,” I answer, grateful that she’s still to young to think of ghosts as anything but little white blobs who fly around on picture books.
And maybe my ideas of scary have changed. I used to read Dracula (I was somewhat obsessed with Dracula in junior high) over and over, until I jumped at every small nighttime noise until I fell asleep. I thought vampires were scary. Now that vampires have been all sexified and sparkled up, I have to admit I find them much less alarming, but even if I hadn’t, how scary is a fanged monster after you’ve held your dying child in your arms? My fears are now all tied up in car accidents, flu, pertussis, concussions, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, plane crashes, food poisoning, whether or not I can hear my child breathing at night.
I don’t really look for books to scare me. But maybe I should. Maybe a good scary book would help me approach fear differently, or to understand something about it that I don’t right now. That’s the beautiful thing about books, the way they can speak to you when you are ready to hear them and open chinks in your mind that help you see the world in new ways.
Still, baby steps.
So here are my All Hallow’s Read recommendations for this year. In keeping with my current ambivalence about ghosts and such, they aren’t really that scary, and most don’t involve ghosts, zombies, or baby skeletons.
- Boo, Bunny! by Kathryn Galbraith and Jeff Mack (mentioned above)
- Dark Night by Dorothée De Monfreid and Whitney Stahlberg (There’s a bunny in this one, too. I must have bunnies on the brain.)
For older kids:
- Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery by James Howe (Yep, clearly bunnies on the brain. You may remember reading this one when you were young. It’s worth reading again.)
- Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (There are many ghosts in this collection, and the stories can be legitimately scary, especially when read in a dark closet with a flashlight and a few close friends who like to make each other jump.)
For teens (or adults, really):
- The Monstrumologist by Richard Yancy (Gruesome, with lots of action and thoughtful writing.)
- Rot and Ruin (This is an exception on the list. It’s a zombie book and there are lots of zombies, action and adventure, but there’s much more to it. I don’t think you can really write well about something like zombies if you don’t address some of those difficult issues like how hard it would be for a zombie’s surviving family members to grapple with that kind of transformation and loss. I was able to read it and enjoy it, which is saying something, but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it even a year ago.)
- The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan. (The first in a series, but a complete story unto itself. And, okay, this one isn’t really scary even though there are demons, but Rees Brennan is my favorite “new discovery” author, not just because of the way she writes her women, though I love that, but because her characters are all funny and loveable, even the ones who probably shouldn’t be. And it’s a great book to take you out of yourself, if you need or want to do that for a while.)
For adults (Not that adults couldn’t read anything else on the list. I plan on re-reading Bunnicula, myself.):
- Sunshine by Robin McKinley (Mouth-watering descriptions of baked goods, magic, and family, plus a decidedly non-sparkly vampire. I love everything McKinley writes, but I’ve I’m ever in one of those Library READ! posters, this is the book I’ll be holding)
- Dracula by Bram Stoker (If you’ve never read it, none of the movies do it justice. It’s a very rare thing, a fast-paced classic, and it will always be the book that convinced me that keeping garlic on my bedside table was a good idea)
- Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (Okay, it’s a Christmas book, but it addresses Death and belief in very insightful and funny ways, and it contains such brilliant lines as “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on,” and “Hello, inner child, I’m the inner babysitter!”)
What do you think of scary books these days?