They’re the Great Pumpkins, Charlie Brown

I like Halloween just fine, but since our daughters stopped trick-or-treating ten or more years ago, I don’t go all out for it. I don’t care to wear a costume and haven’t carved a pumpkin in years (our front porch now sports a plastic plug-in jack-o-lantern from Target). But when I saw online posts about decorating pumpkins like story characters, well, my interest in Halloween became renewed.

Pongo, Fancy Nancy, Harry Potter, and Wesley the Owl. All very cute!
Pongo, Fancy Nancy, Harry Potter, and Wesley the Owl. All very cute!

So the flyers advertising our Inaugural Story Character Pumpkin Decorating Contest went home in early in October. I’d talk up the contest to my classes but didn’t get much feedback, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the first of three pumpkin turn-in days rolled around on October 21, but I was excited to get to school and meet my volunteers for the 7:30 a.m. drop-off.

Lots of Cat in the Hat, and a little Notebook of Doom.
Lots of Cat in the Hat, and a little Notebook of Doom.

We got four pumpkins. Four. I was feeling kinda Charlie-Brownish.

I was pretty sure it was going to be a flop. Four pumpkins. We didn’t even get enough to have one for each of the five categories. But then I had six classes that day and many of the students were very interested in the four pumpkins.

During Thursday’s drop-off, about 12 more pumpkins arrived. That day, six more classes had library and the feedback was very enthusiastic. By the end of Friday’s drop off frenzy, our total number of entries was 41. 41! That’s about 10% participation. For a first-time event, that was amazing.

Very Hungry Caterpillar and Imogene (from Imogene's Antlers) are from primary grade students; Timmy Failure (bottom left) is a family entry.
Very Hungry Caterpillar and Imogene (from Imogene’s Antlers) are from primary grade students; Timmy Failure (bottom left) is a family entry.

We had judging and prizes for first place in five categories (primary grades, intermediate grades, middle school grades, family, and teachers & staff), as well as runners-up. But receiving gift cards wasn’t the purpose of the event. The purpose was to have family fun, be creative, and celebrate reading. Everybody did that, so everybody won. I even discovered a couple of books that I want to get my hands on, thanks to some of the entries.

The remainder of this post features more pictures of the creative, fun, amazing entries. Enjoy and be inspired! Until next time, keep reading!

Our middle school entries. Some wonderful creativity!
Our middle school entries. Some wonderful creativity!
Top picture has entries from grades K, 1, and 2; bottom picture is from the family category.
Top picture has entries from grades K, 1, and 2; bottom picture is from the family category.
Top picture, primary grade category. Bottom, intermediate.
Top picture, primary grade category. Bottom, intermediate.
From students in grades pre-k through 2.
From students in grades pre-k through 2.
Some teachers and staff got in on the fun.
Some teachers and staff got in on the fun.
From students in grades 3 through 5.
From students in grades 3 through 5.
And the winners are... Primary -- Crumpet from Too Hot to Hug; Family -- The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Intermediate -- David from No, David! Middle School -- Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Teachers & Staff -- Charlotte and Wilbur from Charlotte's Web.
And the winners are…
Primary — Crumpet from Too Hot to Hug; Family — The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Intermediate — David from No, David!; Middle School — Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Teachers & Staff — Charlotte and Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.
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Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Read

Beware! Scary books are everywhere!
Beware! Scary books are everywhere!

Whether you prefer your Halloween creepy or cute, there are books out there for you and your children to enjoy this time of year. Here are some suggestions for a variety of readers. Not all are Halloween stories but they fit the theme. Any age ranges are guidelines. You know what your children can handle better than authors, publishers, or well-meaning bloggers.

For the Littlest Pumpkins (infant-age 3)

Discerning babies know the best books.
Discerning babies know the best books.

A new favorite I came across at our recent Scholastic Book Fair is a fun little board book entitled Boo! A Book of Spooky Surprises by Jonathan Litton and Fhinoa Galloway. It’s part of the My Little World board book series. The combination of colorful illustrations and rhyming text is perfect for little story lovers.

Mouse’s First Halloween by Lauren Thompson is a sweet little board book that takes Halloween symbols and turns them from frightful to delightful. Adorable illustrations in warm colors and text that rhymes and uses onomatopoeias make for a comforting story.

The Halloween title in Roger Priddy’s Bright Baby Touch & Feel books is the delightfully interactive Spooky. If you aren’t familiar with this series, think of this title as a sort of Pat the Bunny for Halloween. It has big, bright pictures of familiar Halloween symbols, a variety of textures to go along with each, and simple vocabulary.

Treats for Readers Aged 4-8

Counting down to Halloween has never been so much fun.
Counting down to Halloween has never been so much fun.

Gus Vasilovich’s The 13 Nights of Halloween is a favored read-aloud among our youngest library patrons. It’s a clever countdown to Halloween night (think The Twelve Days of Christmas). Even someone who can’t carry a tune with a handle (that’d be me) will sing along to the witty little ditty with a roomful of second-graders. The vibrant illustrations brilliantly combine cute and creepy. This book gets checked out of our library long past Halloween.

You know Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame would have a Halloween winner. Specifically, The Hallo-Wiener. It’s a super-fun read aloud that features a picked-on dachshund named Oscar who becomes a hero when he saves trick-or-treat for his doggy peers (the same ones who were picking on him!). The book’s positive message is delivered subtly and humorously. And it’s fun to do a Julia Child voice while reading as Oscar’s mother.

For the kid who wants facts with their Halloween fun, there’s J is for Jack-O’-Lantern: A Halloween Alphabet by Denise Brennan-Nelson. This is one of many alphabet books from Sleeping Bear Press that entertains as it educates. From autumn to zany, young readers learn about Halloween symbols, traditions, and facts. There are even recipes for hot apple cider, witch’s brew, and other treats that would be perfect for your Halloween party.

Tricks for Readers Aged 9-12

Originally published in 1968, The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase has a slightly different writing style and vocabulary than today’s middle-graders are accustomed to reading. Encourage them to read it anyway. It’s neither screamingly scary, nor gross-out gory. It’s subtly creepy, which is good for kids who want an itty bitty fright but don’t like to be terrified by their books. A nasty and mean girl named Maureen (now she’d be characterized as a bully) meets her match in the seven ghostly Messerman sisters who inhabit a dilapidated old mansion. But is it enough of a match to make the supremely stubborn Maureen change her ways? Read it and see.

Three books for middle-grade readers who love a slight fright.
Three books for middle-grade readers who love a slight fright.

Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, is a master of the fantasy genre. That expert touch is used perfectly in the light horror of The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns. This collection of six short stories will have you leaving all the lights on. Those not frightened by what lurks in the dark can turn them off and use a flashlight to get the full effect. Jacques, an Englishman, deftly employs British vernacular which may take some getting used to for middle-grade readers unfamiliar with that dialect. Parents (or grandparents) who have enjoyed years of Monty Python can shine during read aloud time.

Neil Gaiman can terrify and entertain readers of any age. In Coraline, the eponymous protagonist is a bored little girl who stumbles into a ghastly world. That’s frightening enough. But when that hair-raising realm invades Coraline’s real world, the creepiness factor increases exponentially. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations lend an even more sinister air to the story. Don’t make the mistake of passing up this book because your kids have seen the movie. The movie does not do this story justice. I know librarians always say that. As usual, it’s the truth.

Teen Screams (ages 12-15)

Eve Bunting’s many children’s books are well-known, but she also has an impressive list of Young Adult titles to her credit. Among them is The Presence: A Ghost Story. Though set during Christmastime, it’s a great YA ghost story. It has a lot of what readers this age are looking for – mystery, tragedy, the supernatural, romance, and suspense. Bunting’s ghost is that of a handsome young man who lures teenage girls to their doom, and he’s chosen a new victim. As an aside, Bunting’s latest YA suspense novel, Forbidden, will be published on December 1.

These books are great if you're ready for something a bit more frightening.
These books are great if you’re ready for something a bit more frightening.

Cirque du Freak #1: A Living Nightmare by Darren Shan was at the peak of its popularity during the recent vampire lit obsession. We’ve moved past vampires and this series has, unfortunately, gone by the wayside. This is a ghastly introduction to the 12-book Cirque du Freak series. At the height the series’ popularity, I asked an eighth-grader why he liked it. While he enjoyed the scary stuff, he said what he liked best was the good vs. evil theme. It’s a good bridge from Goosebumps to Stephen King for readers who like some gore with their fright.

You can’t be a Marylander recommending scary stories and not include Edgar Allan Poe. For this age group to get a taste of the great and disturbed genius that is Poe, try Stories for Young People: Edgar Allan Poe edited by Andrew Delbanco.  It features five of Poe’s most iconic tales – “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Oval Portrait.” The Stories for Young People series makes classic, unabridged literature accessible to students who might otherwise bypass it. With vocabulary and analysis provided for each tale, young readers can read and understand Poe’s genius. And have nightmares after the fact.

Here’s hoping you find something frighteningly fun to read this Halloween. Until next time, keep reading!

Author Crush Part 2 – Keeping Your Gidwitz About You

Book Nerd Truth
Book Nerd Truth
The only thing better than a long-awaited new book is a long-awaited new book by one of your favorite authors. Adam Gidwitz is the author. The book is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – So You Want to Be a Jedi? It’s part of a trilogy by three terrific authors (Gidwitz, Alexandra Bracken, and Tom Angleberger). I just finished the book yesterday (yes, I read it out of sequence). I read the book not as a Star Wars fan (I like the original Star Wars trilogy just fine, but I’m not an aficionado), but as an Adam Gidwitz fan. Now I want to read the other two books. The book was that good and the author is that talented.

I was introduced to Gidwitz’s debut novel, A Tale Dark & Grimm, in March 2011 when I read it for a freelance job I had writing teacher’s guides for audiobooks. Over about 18 years, I probably read somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 books for that job. This was one of my all-time favorites. It was as if I’d discovered gold. I told my then-seventh graders about it. They asked me to read it to them, which I did when they were in eighth grade. It was a hit, always in circulation, and had excellent word-of-mouth reviews by middle schoolers. There aren’t a lot of books that enjoy that kind of widespread popularity across that 11-14 age group.

If you aren’t familiar with it, A Tale Dark & Grimm features Hansel and Gretel wending their way through some of the Brothers Grimm lesser-known tales. And Gidwitz tells it like it was, with all the grim gore these stories originally possessed. Jacob and Wilhelm would be pleased. No one in these stories is whistling while they work. This book is gruesome and frightening, which kids kind of like (whether their parents like it or not). But you know what else it is? It’s funny. Something that sets this book (and Gidwitz’s subsequent novels, In a Glass Grimmly and The Grimm Conclusion) apart from scare-me books that kids enjoy is humor. Gidwitz’s narration interjects witty warnings and asides throughout the chapters, just when they’re needed to ease the tension.

Gidwitz has a quality that all children’s book authors need, but not all of them have. He understands kids. He knows what entertains and interests them. He can get them to think about right and wrong without being Mr. GrownUpPreachy. He speaks to them, not at them. He’s a traditional storyteller with a modern-day twist.

Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of about 100 middle schoolers.
Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of approximately 100 students.
We were fortunate enough to have Gidwitz visit our students not once, but twice. Both visits were successful beyond my expectations.There aren’t a lot of people who can hold 100 students in grades 5 through 8 in rapt attention for an hour, but he can and did. As part of his second visit, we were able to have 25 students attend an after-school writing workshop with him. It was an amazing opportunity and I still have parents and students asking when we’re going to do it again.

Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
It’s hard to pinpoint the best things to come out of those visits and the popularity of the Tale Dark & Grimm series among our students. The best I can do is narrow it down to two. The new interest in/appreciation for the fairy tale genre and the number of students who expressed an interest in someday being authors were possibly the greatest outcomes. A strictly personal third fantastic outcome was a job for my eldest daughter, but that’s a long story for a different type of blog.

In July 2014 I happened upon this YouTube video from Disney Publishing WorldWide announcing the upcoming Star Wars books. It was great to see Gidwitz included among a cadre of accomplished children’s book authors who would take on the project (note: the slate of authors changed from the time this video was produced). While, as stated earlier, I’m not a Star Wars mega-fan, the original Star Wars trilogy is iconic for my generation. I remember my workaholic dad taking the day off to take all five of us kids (ages 14 to 5) to see the first film, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, during the week that it opened. We kids knew it was a big deal. Not only did Dad take a day off, but he was taking us to the movies – he almost never went to the movies – and without Mom along to help him. So I eagerly awaited the publication of this new book. While the Star Wars franchise has many fairy tale elements, I was very interested in how Gidwitz would interpret Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I've read them?
My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I’ve read them? P.S. I love the cover art!
It’s terrific. In this novel, Adam Gidwitz does what he does best. He gets the reader immersed in the story. You are Luke Skywalker. You are training to be a Jedi. You have to save your dearest friends and battle your greatest foe. I thoroughly enjoyed it. What is really unique, really gives it an inimitable twist, are the 24 Jedi lessons interspersed throughout the book. As I read each one, I thought how much fun they would be as class activities and how much excitement they would add to the read aloud experience. Now I really want Gidwitz to come back to our school and teach our students how to be Jedi.

Until next time, keep reading!