Halloween Series: 3 Spooky Middle Grades

Nothing is ever quite the same once you grow up.  Holidays never fail to remind me of this.  As a child, I was can’t-sit-still excited for weeks leading up to any holiday, no matter how mundane.  Whether it was Christmas, Valentines Day, or even Labor Day weekend, I loved the decorations, the break from routine, the spirit of celebration.

But then I grew up.

Gradually holidays became less about merriment & more about an extra to-do list.

  • Gotta make pie for family Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Gotta Google how to make pie.
  • Gotta squeeze in a trip to 14 different seasonal parties full of people I barely know.
  • Gotta send out holiday cards to all the relatives I only talk to once per year because otherwise I’ll have to talk to them twice per year when they call to complain about not getting a card.
  • Various other adult miseries, etc, etc.

Heck, I don’t even really like Independence Day anymore because I hate being kept up late when I have to work the next day.

I am so old.

halloween, jackolanternsHalloween is different though.  It’s still my favorite time of year.  Halloween is so low-key compared to other holidays, at least for me.  I don’t have kids, so there’s no worry over getting the perfect costume or whether they’re going to rot their teeth with candy (note to parents: they won’t).  I don’t go to Halloween parties because, you know, there’s other people there, so I’m not concerned with crafting a costume of my own.

As a result, any Halloween activities I participate in are at my own discretion & purely for my own enjoyment.  Feeling lazy?  Put on some reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents & call it good.  Feeling ambitious?  Make a six-layer salted-caramel-pumpkin-spice cake masterpiece & post it on Pinterest!  I’m a festive overachiever!

Last week I discussed my reactions to reading Stephen King’s It, which falls under the “festive overachiever” category.  It contains 444,414 words; for comparison, the longest Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) has 257,045.  So this week, I had to focus on some quicker reads – for a change of pace as well as the necessity of not getting further behind in the reading challenge.  Also this week is Teen Read Week, so I’m totally doing this for the kids.

book cover, The Ribbajack & Other Haunting Yarns by Brian JacquesFirst up is The Ribbajack & Other Haunting Yarns by Brian Jacques (of Redwall fame).  Like most short story collections I’ve read, this book has some hits & some misses.  The titular story is about a spiteful boy who conjures a monster from his villainous imagination; there is also a sinister school library, an unfortunate encounter with water nymphs, a rather doggy werewolf, & a new classmate who is more than she seems.  They’re all entertaining to various degrees, but ultimately I found myself having to flip back through the book to remember what they were about.

The best story of the bunch is really the odd one out.  “Miggy Mags and the Malabar Sailor” is about a young girl who perseveres against the cruelties of her guardian uncle with the aid of a loyal mongoose.  It’s not supernatural or creepy or suspenseful, but rather a cute little story of friendship & family.  It’s the one story out of all of them that has stuck with me.

book cover, the robe of skulls by vivian frenchNext up is The Robe of Skulls by Vivian French, which is Book 1 in her Tales from the Five Kingdoms series (not to be confused with the Five Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull).  When the sorceress Lady Lamorna blackmails the Five Kingdoms to pay for her new skull-studded gown, it’s up to “Trueheart” Gracie Gillipot, along with some talking bats, a misunderstood troll, & a mischievous prince, to save the day.

This tone of this book reminded me a lot of other modern fairy tales, such as The School for Good and Evil. The tropes are familiar by now, of course – the beautiful girl who’s rotten on the inside & the ugly old crones who are really doting aunties, the friends who overcome all with bravery & kindness, the promise (or threat?) that everyone gets just what they deserve eventually.

While The Robe of Skulls was an entertaining read with a handful of lines that even made me laugh out loud, I ultimately felt like I’d already read it a hundred times before.

book cover, the halloween tree by ray bradburyLast but emphatically not least is The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury.  I loved this little book.  Like I want to gush about it to strangers & embarrass myself in public, I loved it so much.

The Halloween Tree is about nine friends who go out for a night of trick-or-treating, but when one of them is swept away, the rest join the mysterious Mr. Moundshroud on a journey through time to learn the origins of Halloween & save their friend.

Having read the summary on the back cover, I expected this to be like the glut of children’s books that comes out every Christmas wherein some kid learns a heartwarming lesson about the true meaning of the holiday.

I was completely caught off guard.

The ravine, filled with varieties of night sounds, lurkings of black-ink stream and creek, lingerings of autumns that rolled over in fire and bronze and died a thousand years ago.  From this deep place sprang mushroom and toadstool and cold stone frog and crawdad and spider.  There was a long tunnel down there under the earth in which poisoned waters dripped and the echoes never ceased calling Come Come Come and if you do you’ll stay forever, forever, drop, rustle, rush, whisper, and never go, never go go go…

This is a gorgeous book.  It took me probably three times as long to read as it should have because I kept going back to reread passages.  The language is so poetic, so beautiful, that I kept questioning whether it’s really for kids.

Ghosts called in their heads.  Memories, that’s what ghosts are, but apemen didn’t know that.  Behind their eyelids, late nights, the memory ghosts called, waved, danced, so apemen woke up, tossed twigs on the fire, shivered, wept.  They could drive away wolves but not memories, not ghosts.

And I finally concluded that it’s not for kids.

This book is for everyone.  Everyone who is now or ever has been a kid.  I spoke earlier about childhood wonder leeching away under adult responsibilities; Bradbury captures & preserves it in a dreamy whirlwind, familiar & real & beautiful.

They banged doors, they shouted Trick or Treat and their brown paper bags began to fill with incredible sweets. They galloped with their teeth glued shut with pink gum. They ran with red wax lips bedazzling their faces.

But all the people who met them at doors looked like candy factory duplicates of their own mothers and fathers. It was like never leaving home. Too much kindness flashed from every window and every portal. What they wanted was to hear dragons belch in basements and banged castle doors.

If you only have time in your Halloween season for one MG book, you should choose The Halloween Tree.  I wish I could transcribe the whole book here as one big quote, but I’ll settle for just one more.

And a last thought from Tom:

O Mr. Moundshroud, will we EVER stop being afraid of nights and death?

And the thought returned:

When you reach the stars, boy, yes, and live there forever, all the fears will go, and Death himself will die.

We may have to grow up, but we should never stop reaching for the stars.

P.S.  Do you love Halloween?  Do you love middle grade books?  Want to hear more from someone who also loves Halloween & middle grade books?  Subscribe to this blog and/or follow me on Instagram & Twitter!

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