August 13, 2015
(++++) HOLIDAY HIJINKS
Happy Halloween, Witch’s Cat! By Harriet Muncaster. Harper. $15.99.
Scaredy-Cat, Splat! By Rob Scotton. Harper. $9.99.
Otter Loves Halloween. By Sam Garton. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $9.99.
Pete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins. By James Dean. Harper. $9.99.
Fancy Nancy: Candy Bonanza. By Jane O’Connor. Cover illustration by Robin Preiss Glasser. Interior illustrations by Carolyn Bracken. HarperFestival. $4.99.
Halloween is an especially enjoyable time for children to show off, fantasize and let their imaginations roam. The same opportunities go to the authors of children’s books, as several new releases show. Harriet Muncaster’s I Am a Witch’s Cat delightfully introduced a little girl who is convinced that her mother is a good witch – based on all the witchlike things her mom does all the time. Those things are really just mundane chores, such as shopping and cooking, but the imaginative little girl sees them as evidence of witchiness. And that leads to the fun in Happy Halloween, Witch’s Cat! It is not necessary to know the earlier book to enjoy this one (although it helps): here, the standard search-for-just-the-right-costume that occurs in so many books (and so many families) before Halloween gets its own enjoyable slant because of the little girl’s conviction that her mom is a witch already, so what should the “witch’s cat” be? The usual possibilities – skeleton, ballerina, vampire – just won’t do; also, a frog would be too slimy, a pumpkin too smiley, a ghost too spooky. But the little girl eventually comes up with a just-right idea for both herself and her mom – and readers will instantly see that nothing else would work as well. What also works exceptionally well here is the art: Muncaster not only weaves a charming tale but also illustrates it in unique style by photographing three-dimensional scenes she creates from paper, foil, fabric and other materials. The result is a book that reads wonderfully while looking wonderful – seasonal, yes, but a treat anytime.
Splat the Cat’s Halloween adventure is a “witch’s cat” treat, too. Or it starts out to be: Splat plans to be a witch’s cat and win the class prize for the scariest costume. But he breaks his broom, and his mom has to figure out something else in a hurry. The answer: Splat has found a scary spider (not too scary, really, with a big, toothy smile), and he wants to take it to school for Halloween, and that gives his mom the idea of making Splat a spider costume using socks stuffed with newspaper to make four extra legs to go with the four Splat already has. So Splat, best friend Seymour the mouse, and the spider head to school, meeting friends Spike (dressed as a mummy) and Plank (a skeleton) on the way. Splat tries to scare them – after all, he wants to win the “scariest cat” award – but he himself gets frightened when each of them loudly says “BOO!” to him. So it goes in Scaredy-Cat, Splat! – originally published in 2010 and now offered in a new paper-over-board edition. Well, things may initially be pointing toward disappointment for Splat, but at school, things go awry in just the right way for him to win the “scariest” award after all – thanks to an accident that combines Splat’s spider costume with his not-very-scary carved pumpkin with the darkness of a room in which the lights have been turned off so the teacher can tell a scary story. The slapstick of the tale fits well with Splat’s personality and his other adventures and misadventures, and Rob Scotton’s art is as perfectly complementary to his text as usual: the characters’ expressions are just right in reflecting their personalities and their reactions to events.
The humor is more homespun and less frantic in Sam Garton’s Otter Loves Halloween, another book with a bit of witchiness: Otter dresses up as one as part of getting himself and his friends (Teddy and Giraffe, both stuffed toys) ready for the big day. Otter, who refers to the boy with whom he lives as Otter Keeper, helps out with Halloween preparations by choosing a huge pumpkin and then decorating the house a touch too enthusiastically and messily: “We did decorate a few things we shouldn’t have, but overall we did a great job.” Well, that sort of self-confidence and lack of self-awareness is all part of Otter’s adorableness. So is the way he dresses Teddy as a mummy – in toilet paper – and the way he “allows” Giraffe to dress up as a pink-winged fairy wearing unmatching socks and sporting vampire teeth. Unfortunately for sweet, timid Otter, the trick-or-treaters’ costumes frighten him and he decides he has “lots of important things to do under the bed upstairs,” along with Pig (another stuffed toy). Otter Keeper comes to the rescue with some costume modifications that make Otter feel better, and all goes well until it is almost bedtime, when Otter does even more costume redesign and finally, worn out by all the activity, falls asleep. Garton manages to make Otter look almost real-world-otter-like while making his behavior patterns thoroughly human, along with his abilities (one delightful illustration shows him standing on his hind legs, looking through binoculars). At Halloween or anytime, Otter is a warm, pleasant and thoroughly engaging character.
Things are less consistently enjoyable in James Dean’s books about Pete the Cat, which always involve musical matters and sometimes try a little too hard to be liked. Happily, Pete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins flows with apparent effortlessness and works very well as a result. Using an old Halloween pumpkin song as the book’s basis, Dean creates five carved pumpkins that look very strange indeed – and funny rather than scary. Then he has Pete interact with everything the pumpkins say in the song: Pete looks at his wristwatch when told it’s getting late, rides a flying motorbike to the words “there are witches in the air,” dons four red high-top sneakers for “let’s run and run and run” (when Pete is followed by a small yellow bird wearing its own pair of high-tops), and so forth. By the end of the book, Pete is dressed in a robot costume, for no particular reason, and when the song says the pumpkins “rolled out of sight,” they do not roll the way pumpkins normally do and the way the song suggests – no, they head along the sidewalk on skateboards, with Pete joining one pumpkin on the last board. The silliness of the story and Dean’s usual juvenile-style art meld particularly well here, making the book a fine example of seasonal fun even though it somehow manages never to mention the candy that is, for many children, the whole point of Halloween.
A Fancy Nancy Halloween sticker book, on the other hand, is entirely candy-focused. Fancy Nancy: Candy Bonanza has the big-word-loving, French-language-favoring five-or-six-year-old dressed (indeed, as usual, overdressed) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and entranced by all manner of sweets – even though her mom warns her not to overdo things while trick-or-treating. Nancy tries, she really does, but somehow the extra-big cookie at one house disappears even though she only means to take a little bite, and the candy bar she samples at the next house is soon gone as well, and there is a tree with bags of oh-so-yummy jelly beans hanging from the branches, and everything is just so tempting that Nancy, well, overdoes things. Soon she has indigestion (“that means my tummy hurts”) and needs to go home and lie down, letting her little sister, JoJo, keep going on the trick-or-treat rounds. JoJo brings home plenty of candy and offers to share it with Nancy when Nancy feels better, so everything ends happily in a story that Fancy Nancy’s fans will surely enjoy – and one that gives them 35 stickers to use to dress up the pages or create their own Halloween scenes. And thus a good, if somewhat sugary and sticky, time can be had by all.