September 16, 2010


A Not Scary Story about Big Scary Things. By C.K. Williams. Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska. Harcourt. $16.99.

All Hallows’ Eve: 13 Stories. By Vivian Vande Velde. Graphia. $8.99.

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Leaves! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $5.99.

Flat Stanley: Stanley’s Christmas Adventure. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $4.99.

The Klutz Book of Inventions. By John Cassidy & Brendan Boyle. Klutz. $19.99.

     The approach of autumn heralds cooler, crisper weather, falling leaves and the frights of Halloween. Even scary books not specifically involving Halloween seem somehow more appropriate in fall. A Not Scary Story about Big Scary Things fits right in – and it also doesn’t fit right in, because this is a very unusual “scary” book about a little boy who simply refuses to be scared. He lives by a forest where there were “probably…bears who growled” and “might have been wolves who howled” and most likely “were big snakes that slithered through the underbrush” and, worst of all, “people said there was a monster in that forest.” No one can quite agree on what the monster is or looks like, but everyone knows it has terrifying teeth and fangs and claws and likes to scare children. Except the little boy, who knows that bears and wolves and snakes are not really anything to be afraid of and who, no matter what people say about a monster, simply walks on through the forest “as though there weren’t anybody there at all.” C.K. Williams makes this into something less and more than a book about confronting fears. He emphasizes the unreality of the monster while still having it talk to the boy, who keeps refusing to be scared: “I’m not afraid of you, because I don’t believe in you.” The monster crashes its fangs and rears up and shows long, sharp teeth, but the boy says, “You’re just not real,” and keeps walking. And the monster gets argumentative, saying he is supposed to scare boys and girls, and asking the boy to believe in him “just a teeny bit.” But the boy refuses, and the monster shrinks, and eventually boy and monster find a way they can both believe in each other, sort of – leading to an ending both offbeat and amusing. Gabi Swiatkowska’s very unusual illustrations, made from water-based paints on paper, are a big reason for the book’s success. She shows the different parts that supposedly make up the monster – without putting them together. She shows the scared faces of little children – but not what they are looking at. As the boy walks through the woods, the trees seem to sprout monster claws, but when the monster tries to prove its existence, the pictures shows it rearing up on hind legs – with trees clearly visible through its transparent body. At Halloween or in any season, A Not Scary Story about Big Scary Things teaches important lessons about fear and belief.

     All Hallows’ Eve, on the other hand, is genuinely scary. Originally published in 2006 and now available in paperback, Vivian Vande Velde’s 13-story collection shows the prolific author at her creepiest. The stories are unpredictable – one reason they are so frightening. In one, a girl trying to be helpful during a field trip to a cemetery confronts a group of ghosts – and a living person who is more to be feared than the dead. In another, a girl trying to be helpful in an old barn confronts a far less benevolent ghost. One story features a most unusual GPS system; another, the parallel narratives of two friends that converge in a frightening way. There is a tale in which Halloween vampire costumes turn out to conceal something worse, and one in which discovering one’s vampire family is the least of a girl’s worries. And there are tales with twists, one involving a visit by ghostly parents who turn out not to be the only specters around, and one in which there is a frightening vision – but whose vision is it? There is nothing light in this All Hallows’ Eve – darkness is everywhere.

     But autumn is more than Halloween, and the lighter side of fall is the focus of Lucille Colandro’s latest variant on the rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly and many other things: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Leaves! The whole concept of swallowing larger and more ridiculous things is a little strained here – the book gets a (+++) rating – but the amusing focus on autumnal fun will please young readers. The lady swallows leaves, a shirt, a pumpkin, a pole and more, the refrain being “perhaps she’ll sneeze” (which sort of rhymes with “leaves”). Eventually she swallows all the ingredients for a scarecrow, and kids will probably realize what is going on before the lady does sneeze out the fully formed character. No matter – the silliness of the whole proceeding, and the amusing illustrations by Jared Lee, will be entertaining enough to keep children amused for a while.

     And lest families forget what fall brings: it brings winter, eventually, and winter is the setting for the latest easy-to-read Flat Stanley adventure, in which Stanley Lambchop’s family has only two days to save Christmas. This is an old plot, twisted a bit to accommodate Stanley’s flatness. The story involves Sarah Christmas, Santa’s daughter, who is upset because her father plans not to deliver any presents this year. But Stanley’s flatness interests him, so Sarah thinks maybe Stanley can help save Christmas, and she brings Stanley (with his family) to Snow City. The most amusing part of the book, which gets a (+++) rating, is the description of Santa, who wears a blue zip jacket and fuzzy brown slippers, sports a beard with crumbs in it, and watches TV channels that show “buildings burning, people begging for food, people hitting each other,” and other bad things. “Been wasting my time” trying to arrange peace on Earth, he says, so this year Christmas is off. Of course, everything works out just fine – but kids who know Flat Stanley may be disappointed that he is round, not flat, in this book: his brother, Arthur, has blown him up with a bicycle pump. So Stanley’s Christmas Adventure may be about Christmas, but it’s not about Flat Stanley except incidentally. Still, kids who already know and like the character will enjoy this seasonal extension of his doings.

     For something far more inventive – and delightful in any season, autumn and Christmas included – The Klutz Book of Inventions lets you open your very own Santa’s workshop. Or at least think about it. This (++++) book starts by explaining “How to Think Like an Inventor” (a big part of it is playing with ideas, including ridiculous ones, before you come back to ones that might actually work). And then – speaking of ridiculous – there are such concepts here as the PogoPlunger (pogo stick with “plumber’s helper” at the bottom, to make cleaning out stuffed toilets fun); Squeeze-Me Silverware (utensils with condiments inside: add ketchup or mustard right at the point of consumption); Chocolate Chip Checkers (bake them, play with them, eat them); Bug Zapper Earrings (battery-powered, earring-size bug killers); Soup-Testing Spoon (with built-in thermometer); Socks by the Foot (a 100-foot-long sock in a box – cut off as much as you need); Combo Cans (for small kitchens – whipped cream on one side, a fire extinguisher on the other); Snack Shirts (with pockets customized to hold bananas, ice-cream cones or whatever you like); and much more. Yes, the inventions are put-ons – the fun is in the wonderful pictures and the descriptions of what these oddball items might do – but given the fact that autumn inevitably leads to winter, and winter inevitably means Christmas, and every Christmas season produces weird new products “for the person who has everything,” who knows? One or more of these 162 Klutz inventions just might show up on store shelves sooner than you think!

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