Modern Halloween Favorites

I realize that we are now squarely in the midst of the Christmas season, and I really am going to put all these backlogged blog ideas away. I promise. But after posting about four Halloween books I thought were okay, I really wanted to post about two Halloween books that I think are really great–worthy of taking a place on my actual bookshelf someday.  Surprisingly, despite my demonstrated proclivity for living a bit in the past, the two books I most enjoyed this Halloween were both written by popular modern authors: Chris Van Allsburg (of Polar Express and Jumangi fame), and Jon J Muth (famous for his Zen books, of which this Halloween book is one).

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I have seen Jon J Muth’s books around in libraries and bookstores and on people’s reading lists that I generally admire, but for some reason every time I’ve flipped through one of the books it seemed too…well…modern.  With a gigantic panda bear as the main character, and storylines based on Zen koans–it just seemed to represent everything I don’t like about popular new children’s books (adult themes, cartoonish drawings, kids acting spoiled and entitled, etc…).  This book somehow ended up in our library bag, however, and after I read the book aloud once–really taking the time to let the illustrations and story sink in–I was hooked.  And so were the kids.

This is a very special Halloween.  There is going to be a full moon and I know someone who will tell you a ghost story.

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The book is based on the Zen koan, “Senjo and Her Soul Are Separated”, which tells the story of a woman who runs away from her home and an arranged marriage to marry the man she loves.  Although she is happy with her new life, she remains homesick and wracked with guilt about dishonoring her family, and eventually convinces her husband to return.  Upon their return, however, they find her parents neither elated nor angry, but confused.  Senjo, they explain, had never run away.  She has been in their home all these years, sick in bed with grief from losing the man she loves.

The two Senjos, upon seeing each other, merged and became one.

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The storyteller paused, then he asked, “which Senjo is the true one?  Are they one or are they two?”

The story of Senjo is told as a (ghost) story within the story of a typical American Halloween, but the theme of duality–“our hearts pulling us in two different directions at once”–permeates throughout.

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“I haven’t decided what I’m going to be yet,” said Michael.  “Either an owl…or a pirate.”

“Perhaps you will be an Owl-Pirate,” said Stillwater.

“He can’t be an Owl-Pirate!” said Karl.  “There’s no such thing as an Owl-Pirate! He has to be one thing!”

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I laughed at this, because my children had similar differing reactions to the book.  When faced with the question–are they one or are they two?–Ophelia, without hesitation, answered “two.”  Then, pointing at the picture, she went from one Senjo to the other saying, matter-of-factly, “one, two.”  Emerson, on the other hand, stayed quiet, enthralled with the “ghost” part of the story, her wheels silently turning.

A panda who looked exactly like Stillwater came in and sat down.

“Is that Stillwater?” whispered Karl.

“Yes…no…I don’t know!” whispered Michael.

Addy, Michael and Karl looked at one another.  Then they turned and looked beside them.  Only a mask was sitting on the cushion.

Emerson has been fascinated with ghost stories lately. She must have made us tell hundreds around Halloween.  Of course our stories were of the mild variety–no violence or terror, mostly just dead people wandering around people’s houses looking for things they left behind.  The fact that Emerson was ready for a slight thrill of this variety was exciting to me, as I have always been a big fan of horror, and we all had a lot of fun with it. What never occurred to me (until I started really thinking about this book) is that these “ghost” stories serve a greater purpose than just scary fun.  They are an introduction, of sorts, to the separation of worlds–to the idea that there may be something more out there than meets the eye.

When children are very young–like Ophelia, ghost stories either don’t make sense, or are extremely frightening, because children of this age take the world quite literally.  They still believe in magic, gnomes, fairies, Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc…  There is no separation between the real world and the world of the imagination.  There is just one real world.  If young children see something in a movie or on TV, or are introduced to an idea from their parents, or see people in Halloween costumes, they have no way to distinguish these things as superficial, which is why they are easily–and truly–terrified.  However, somewhere around middle childhood (seven, eight, nine) something changes, and children are able to begin to differentiate between real and imagined. While some ideas disappear altogether (the belief in Santa, etc…), this idea of another world, another possibility, still lingers.  This, to me, is what Halloween is all about.  Dia de los Muertos.  All Hallow’s Eve. A celebration of the dead; an opening of the doors to the “Otherworld”; a recognition of something, someplace, beyond ourselves and a night when it is okay to reach for it.  A night when these two worlds unite and become one.

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Of course the implications of the Zen koan run much deeper for adults.  It can be a question of death and the separation of the physical body from the soul, or it can be a question of the separation of the dutiful part of us cohabitating with the passionate part.  I’m not sure if this is a time when children are able to grasp that duality within themselves.  Ophelia certainly is not.  (You have to be one thing!)  But maybe at seven, Emerson is beginning to understand the possibility of the Owl-Pirate…the depth behind superficiality.

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The second book I loved so much this year was The Widow’s Broom, by Chris Van Allsburg, copyright 1992.  This book was also a ghost story–although a different sort of ghost story–with a magic all its own.

Witches brooms don’t last forever…on very rare occasions a broom can lose its power without warning, and fall, with its passenger, to the earth below…which is just what happened one cold autumn night many years ago…

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And so begins the story of a witch and her broom who fall into the yard of the widow Minna Shaw.

The witch asked Minna Shaw to draw the curtains, then wrapped herself tightly in her black cape and fell soundly asleep.  She lay there, perfectly still, all day and all evening.  When she finally awoke at midnight, her wounds had completely healed.

The witch knelt and took one of the red-hot coals in her hand.  Outside she made a fire of leaves and twigs, then dropped a strand of her hair into the flame.  The fire hissed and crackled, burning with a brilliant blue light.

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Before long the witch could see a dark form flying overhead.  It was another witch, who circled slowly and landed beside the fire…then they sat side by side on the second witch’s broom and flew off, over the treetops.

When Minna Shaw woke up she wasn’t surprised to find that her guest had gone.  Witches, she knew, had unusual powers.

Emerson loves this last illustration so much that she could be found studying it all hours of the day and night.  And who can blame her?  All of the detailed illustrations of this book are wonderful (I especially like his sequential drawings), but this one… You can taste the power.  The freedom.  The possibility.

The witch comes and goes, silently in the night, but she does leave a bit of magic behind–perhaps inadvertently, perhaps  intentionally–for the widow Minna Shaw.

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The witch’s loyal and industrious broom immediately gets to work in Minna Shaw’s home, and at first the widow is so put off by its constant sweeping, that she locks it in her broom closet.  The broom must keep busy, however, and rather than listen to its constant banging on the closet door, Minna teaches it how to chop wood, feed the chickens, bring the cows in from the pasture, and play piano for her in the evenings.  What a lovely, dependable companion for a lonely widow…no?  But of course, the neighbors soon become curious…

Mr. Spivey was horrified.  “This is a wicked, wicked thing,” he said.  “This is the devil.”

“It’s evil and it’s dangerous,” he told everyone who would listen.  “We’ll all be sorry if this thing stays among us.”

Fear of the unknown escalates to hatred, and violence.

One afternoon two of the Spivey boys and their dog walked along the road where the broom was happy at work.  When they saw what it was doing, they kicked the small stones the broom had swept aside back into its path.  The broom ignored them and shuffled off to sweep another part of the road.  But the Spivey boys would not leave it alone.  They called the broom names.  When it continued to ignore them, they picked up a couple of sticks and started tapping the broom’s handle.

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…the broom turned to the two boys and knocked them both on the head so hard they fell to the ground in tears.

We can all see where this is going…

One of the farmers took it out and gently held it against the stake while the others wrapped it in yards of rope.  They carried the broom outside, drove the stake into the ground, and gathered straw around it.

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Mr. Spivey lit the fire.  In no time, flames turned the broom to ashes.

What a sadly recognizable human story.  What a sad display of the lower elements of human nature.  What an important example of the fact that we need not look to the alien for evil.  We carry it here, within ourselves.

But remember, this is a ghost story…of a sort.  It is also a book for children.  It is a book about fear, no doubt, but it is also a book about courage, about humans’ ability to override evil with good, and about strong women with tricks up their sleeves…

Did you underestimate that widow, Minna Shaw?  You shouldn’t have.  She (and her faithful broom) prevail in the end.

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