August 28, 2014


World’s Scariest Prisons. By Emma Carlson Berne. Scholastic. $8.99.

Lulu and the Witch Baby. By Jane O’Connor. Illustrated by Bella Sinclair. Harper. $16.99.

I Am a Witch’s Cat. By Harriet Muncaster. Harper. $15.99.

Splat the Cat and the Pumpkin-Picking Plan. By Catherine Hapka. Illustrations by Loryn Brantz. HarperFestival. $4.99.

     A book about prisons for young readers is a bit strange, but Emma Carlson Berne’s is well-done for any family that wants to explore the topic. Filled with photographs and facts, World’s Scariest Prisons describes 20 places of incarceration, from the well-known Roman Coliseum and Tower of London to the less-familiar Livingston Sugar House and Squirrel Cage Jail. Packed with photos and with explanations of the way prisons are or have been used – for political opponents and debtors as well as those convicted of crimes in the modern sense – the book shows how prison life has changed over many years. At Fleet Prison in London, for example, which operated from 1197 to 1842, wealthier prisoners could pay for better food and accommodations or even to live outside the walls. At Carandiru Penitentiary in Brazil, which operated from 1956 to 2002 and was once the largest prison in South America, 10 men might be squeezed into a cell meant for one or two, and prisoners were not allowed sunlight or fresh air. World’s Scariest Prisons overdoes some of its narrative through overuse of words written entirely in capital letters, and not necessarily frightening ones: “Burlington County Prison was unique because it had ventilation, FIREPLACES in cells, a GARDEN, and COMMON ROOMS, all of which were installed for the prisoners’ benefit.” But the book is packed with interesting information – including the fact that the word “penitentiary” was used to indicate that prisoners were supposed to be penitent for their crimes, and “reformatory” was used to show that the institution’s purpose was to reform rather than just to punish. The book discusses prison escapes, prisons whose reputations were worse than the reality (the Bastille, Alcatraz), and some of the famous people who were held in various prisons: Nelson Mandela, Voltaire, John Donne, John McCain. World’s Scariest Prisons handles its unusual topic in an interesting and, despite the title, in a not-too-frightening way.

     Nor is there anything really scary about the Halloween-themed books that start to proliferate every summer in anticipation of October 31. Some elements of some of the books could be a little frightening, but authors for kids try hard to be sure that everything that happens is fun and, if a little unusual, never really chilling. Jane O’Connor’s 1986 story, Lulu and the Witch Baby, for instance, could be scary for showing a girl with magic powers trying to use them to make her baby sister disappear forever. But Lulu’s spell does not work, and when Lulu even thinks that it might have succeeded, she gets very upset – so even though Witch Baby gets in Lulu’s way all the time and is cutely irritating in the way that only a baby can manage, this becomes a story of family love overcoming temporary troubles. With its new, pleasantly rounded illustrations by Bella Sinclair, Lulu and the Witch Baby is offered in the “I Can Read!” series as a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), and kids ages 4-8 at its reading level will find it much more pleasant than frightening.

     I Am a Witch’s Cat is not scary at all – it is, in fact, delightful. Harriet Muncaster here creates an unusual picture book whose illustrations are made of paper, fabric and mixed media, which she combines with watercolors and turns into 3D-appearing scenes. The scenes are Halloween-ish, with the little girl narrator dressed as a black cat and talking about her mother the witch, but there is really nothing witchy at all going on here, and nothing magical beyond the special bond between mother and daughter. Everyday things become delights in this tale: the girl “knows” her mom is a witch because of all the strange potion bottles in the bathroom, and because of the “magical herbs” in their garden, and the “bubbling, hissing potions” that mother and daughter prepare together for meals. Again and again, the girl endearingly misinterprets what her mom does as being some form of witchiness, and again and again, the little “witch’s cat” says and shows how much she enjoys her particular role in the house. Granted, this is a tale intended for Halloween, but the love and joy it reflects make it a delight anytime, in any season.

     Splat the Cat is fun just about anytime, too. Rob Scotton’s creation, with his mischievous grin and good friend Seymour the mouse, appears seasonally in a Halloween-themed sticker book written by Catherine Hapka and illustrated by Loryn Brantz. As usual, Splat messes things up amusingly – helping rake leaves, for instance, but then being unable to resist jumping in them and messing everything up again. After that happens, Splat’s mom decides that Splat and Seymour can do more good somewhere else – by picking out a pumpkin at Farmer Patch’s place. Splat and Seymour have Halloween fun at the farm for a while, then start searching for just the right pumpkin – and then, when they find it, discover that it is much too big for them to carry home. So Splat decides to roll it, and thus begins the book’s final misadventure, as the giant pumpkin, with Splat perched precariously on top, rolls down the road, over a bridge and eventually into Splat’s front yard (shattering the gate in the process). Splat’s mom, obviously realizing that where Splat’s adventures are concerned, things could have been a lot worse, compliments Splat and pronounces the pumpkin “perfect.” There is really nothing scary here at all, even when the pumpkin starts rolling away with Splat yelling “help” – because readers will know that everything will work out just fine. The 31 self-adhesive stickers included in the book guarantee that the fun will extend beyond the story itself, and maybe even beyond Halloween.

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