Happy Columbus Day everyone! And happy Day of Indigenous Resistance to everyone else! Just a quick reminder though, before you go racing off to your protest or tailgate party or soccer tournament or History Channel marathon or cannoli eating contest – only twenty more days till Halloween! I know: every year we have all of October to hopefully apply the lessons of last year’s fiasco - “and then I thought, why not just sew pillows onto him and he can go as a soccer ball?” – though we are ever more likely to associate the first of October with the authentic beginning of the school year (once all of the name tags have been collected), the changing of the leaves (though you’d need to be living in Saskatchewan these days), Oscar rollouts, political clowning, the flu, oh just about anything rather than have to consider the relative merits of dressing like Spiderman or his wicked alter ego, pop star or fairy princess. Why do we ever wait so long? Really, such drama!
At my son’s elementary school there are about twelve basic costumes (with a couple of notable outliers). All of this distilling, and yet I do not notice any less enthusiasm for Halloween than when I was growing up, which maybe speaks to the resilient – even atavistic – spirit of the occasion. Because if you can survive these plastic facsimiles (they’re not so much costumes anymore as wraps) then you are surely a holiday worth celebrating.
October in my neighborhood likewise heralds the regular pileup of books about misfit pumpkins and bashful witches, as well many mistakable catalogs of symbolically gory vampires and zombies with eyes hanging out of their heads. Wink, wink: they’re supposed to be funny! This is putting the joke before the horse, it says here, though anyway symptomatic of a medium that is increasingly unlikely to ever risk freaking you out.
I thought about all of this recently trying to avert my eyes, and not succeeding, through the seasonal front tables of my local superstore, which is fated to close after two more holiday cycles (half-hearted turkeys and pilgrims, followed by Santa, some dreidels, plus Jesus looking neglected), and which I will unequivocally miss, despite its many character flaws and bad habits. These are institutional, goes the logic, and it’s crazy for anyone to argue with millions of dollars of market research, so here goes.
In hoping to put my finger on what it was exactly distinguishing most of the featured New Arrivals, I tried many florid adjectives, but kept coming back to familiar. We tend to think of the fall season as ripe with experimentation, and maybe it is – in dance and fine arts and graphic novels and many other places I am unlikely to be dropping my money – but children’s books in particular have the appearance of already drowsily hunkering down for the winter. Who knows – maybe they’ll get a whiff of something and stick their snouts in the air before December, still for now there are everywhere celebrity hobbyists hogging the daylight (Kathie Lee Gifford, Steve Martin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Julianne Moore, Jeff Foxworthy, Shakira (!) and a special guest appearance by Tori Spelling as the ghost of 90210 past) in addition to many other faces who sort of ring a bell. Dora, yes, like a perky refugee from Japanese Manga, but also mischievous Labradors, and polka dot divas, and unforgettable otters who may or may not already have their own series.
And there are sequels, not too promising among them the latest in the Knuffle Bunny franchise – but check it out. This book is significantly subtitled An Unexpected Diversion, and it might just sneak up on you, because that diversion amounts to The End. And because it is soulful (where I thought it’s predecessors were cute), and it is clever (this author can pull clever out of a hat), and suspenseful (come on, you always knew how those others were going to turn out). For the uninitiated, Trixie is a rudimentary sketch of a girl with the bad habit of losing her favorite comfort item in black and white photographs of Park Slope. Here she travels to Holland, and Knuffle Bunny even further, but their final destinations feel anything but predetermined. Trixie grows up. Suddenly. Fearlessly. You get the sense that Willems is even a little surprised to let her go.
Really, Knuffle Bunny of all things, saving the day! High five Mo Willems! And high five Eve Bunting and David Wiesner and Tony Johnston and S.D. Schindler and Jules Feiffer and Florence Parry Heide and Roald Dahl and Patrick Benson and all of the other writers and illustrators not afraid to introduce some genuine foreboding in this, our season of rituals and surprise.