Written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
Written by Donna L. Washington
Illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler
THERE’S A GHOST IN THIS HOUSE
Written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers
Written by Eric Geron
Illustrated by Pete Oswald
When I was very young, I used to lie in bed at night staring at dust particles floating in the moonlight, contemplating that they might be tiny spirits who’d come to visit me. This was, perhaps, an eerie pastime for a child. But I didn’t feel frightened. I felt comforted because I imagined that the spirits were there to keep me company. I was lonely.
Childhood is all about imagination, but imagination is a two-way street. On the one hand, it can manufacture our deepest fears. On the other, it can grant us the skill set we need to confront our insecurities — including fear. It’s a tenuous balance that children’s literature has been exploring since its earliest days. The tales of the Brothers Grimm are a veritable smorgasbord of human atrocities. Alice walks twice through some of the greatest nightmare scenarios ever put to paper. “The Tin Woodman of Oz” contains one of the most nonchalantly horrific scenes in all literature: Its title character engages in a heated argument on the nature of love with his original head, which is on a shelf in a cupboard.
Pretty gruesome stuff, and yet all of it embraced by children for centuries. It’s not so much that children long to be frightened as that they yearn to confront what’s frightening, if only to develop the skills to cope.
Here we have four current works in which authors draw in young readers with ghosts, ghouls and vampires — not to scare them but to amuse them.
“Vampenguin,” written and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, and the gentlest of our selections, does something rare in picture books while also capitalizing on a feature only this format can achieve: It tells one story with its words while revealing something entirely different with its illustrations. The text alone tells a simple tale of the Dracula family taking in a day at the zoo. They visit the penguins, of course. They visit the tiger, sort of. And they visit the elephants, who are also hiding. Near the end, Dracula Junior insists on getting a black balloon before they all climb in the car and head home. The end.
Cummins’s uncomplicated, Ludwig Bemelmans-like illustrations tell a very different story. Readers will spot early on that Baby Dracula has loosened himself from the straps of his stroller and switched places with a similarly designed black and white baby penguin. For the rest of the day, the Draculas unwittingly chauffeur the baby penguin throughout the zoo while Dracula’s youngest endears himself to the penguins inside their enclosure. Other zoo animals try vainly to alert the easily distracted Dracula family of this switch, until the final resolution when everything falls back into place, the grown-ups never the wiser. This clever book is a paragon of dichotomous storytelling that will enthrall readers and, much like the zoo itself, reveal something new with every visit.
Like all fairy tales, “Boo Stew,” written by Donna L. Washington and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler, is best read out loud. Washington creates a timeless swamp community called Toadsuck that’s populated by both people and amorphous, shadowy creatures called “Scares.” “The Scares kept to themselves,” it’s explained to us early in the book, but problems arise when one “itty-bitty” Scare interrupts the mayor’s breakfast. The blacksmith and the chicken rancher take turns coming to the rescue, only to be driven off by larger and larger Scares, including one that practically fills the house. It’s up to a plucky child of color named Curly Locks to solve the problem. Her approach is novel. She decides to feed them. Curly Locks, you see, is an inventive chef of the sorts of recipes that would make even Guy Fieri choke on his tongue. Lizard skin lasagna, batwing brownies and cat hair cupcakes are just a few of her specialties. But Boo Stew is what she chooses to prepare for the Scares, with an outcome that’s satisfying for all involved.
Washington clearly knows how to write for children. An example of her luscious, folksy style of storytelling is the haunting chant of the Scares: “Gitchey Boo, Gitchey Bon! Gitchey Goo, Gitchey Gone!” Her words are complemented by Ebbeler’s spectacular illustrations, reminiscent of the works of David Catrow and Hayao Miyazaki.
Oliver Jeffers does something in his haunting “There’s a Ghost in This House” that hasn’t been seen since Bruno Munari’s classic “The Circus in the Mist,” wherein translucent sheets of vellum create a unique visual effect with each turn of the page. Here we have an unnamed protagonist who herself comes off as rather ghoulish, lamenting the fact that she supposedly lives in a haunted house but has yet to see an actual ghost. “Perhaps you could help me?” she asks the reader. There are indeed no ghosts to be seen in any of the photographs of barren Victorian-styled rooms until we turn the sheets of vellum and suddenly the spirits, depicted as cartoonish and nonthreatening bedsheet-style ghosts, appear inside. The effect works wonderfully.
Unquestionably eerie but still lighthearted, “There’s a Ghost in This House” is less a story than a hide-and-seek picture book, dedicating all its attention to the visuals. While a story might have been nice to include as the girl takes us on a tour of the mansion in search of ghosts, young readers are not likely to miss it as they pore through this book’s pages multiple times. Their guardians can rest assured that the vellum sheets are indeed sturdy and unlikely to tear even after being turned back and forth to make the ghosts appear and disappear over and over.
The honor of “Darkest Book” in this quartet belongs to “Poultrygeist,” by Eric Geron, illustrated by Pete Oswald. If Agent Mulder retired from the F.B.I. to write children’s books, this might be the result. “Poultrygeist” pulls no punches as, right at the start, we see the story’s protagonist, a chicken casually crossing the road, flattened by a trailer truck. “What happened?” asks the chicken, now ethereal and with tire tread marks across its body. It’s on “THE OTHER SIDE,” explain the other denizens of the roadside spirit world — a deer, a raccoon, an owl. These animals hover over our chicken and try to coax it to become as frightening as they are. But the chicken sees itself as simply “unlucky,” and is uninterested in haunting anyone. Regardless, the taunting continues, until the chicken becomes so agitated it frightens off the ghost animals themselves.
As the title denotes, “Poultrygeist” contains a lot of wordplay, which can require vocabulary and idiom explanations for young readers. This shouldn’t deter from the fun of the story, enhanced by Oswald’s luminescent digital illustrations.
Abandonment at the zoo. Shadow creatures invading a home. Invisible ghosts in the attic. Forest creatures haunting the roadside. Out of context, these can be pretty terrifying concepts. But in the right hands they are also the most cozy of bedtime reads.