Well, folks, although I know a lot of people start getting into the Halloween spirit as soon as the calendar page flips over, we’re nearly halfway into October already and it hasn’t really registered with me yet. Of course, this year time is mushy, and trick-or-treating seems unlikely—maybe we’ll still get around to carving some jack-o’-lanterns at least. And as far as scary stories go, it’s kind of hard to top the 2020 news cycle, right? Vampires and zombies and mummies don’t hold a candle to a global pandemic and the current battle over our nation’s future.
For today, I’ve got just two vampire books (for kids), and the rest is just a mix of books I’ve read recently—some picture books and comic books.
Blinsh is a lovely little village in Pinksylvania, famous for its vampire residents who are frequently misunderstood. This book hopes to set things straight, showing how they’re really just a lot like us. Sure, they might bite people on the neck from time to time or turn into bats, but there’s no reason to be frightened of them.
What makes this book so entertaining is that the illustrations don’t line up exactly with the words: the narrator tells a sort of deadpan story that comments a bit on some of the odd things that are happening, but mostly sounds like a description of any little town. Meanwhile, we start the story with one vampire biting a neighbor, and very quickly the entire town is being transformed. It reminds me a little of a story I read when I was a kid (I think in the Mathemagic volume of Childcraft, actually) about why it’s mathematically impossible for vampires to exist—at least, vampires that need to feed each night and turn their victims into vampires. It was about how doubling a number again and again quickly builds to enormous quantities, quickly adding up to the entire human population. So it doesn’t take long for a small village like Blinsh, especially if it starts with “51 percent” of its population as vampires. It’s quite entertaining.
Kid Dracula loves his fangs and is really proud of them—flossing and brushing them to make sure they stay clean and healthy. But then one of them comes loose and pops out, and what’s a vampire without fangs? This picture book shows Dracula trying to figure out how to put his fang back in, and even battling the tooth fairy, before learning that losing his baby fangs and growing in new fangs is a natural part of being a vampire. (I’ll warn you, though, kids may be jealous of how quickly Dracula’s new fangs come in.)
While this picture book isn’t exactly meant for Halloween, I thought it was a fun fit because it shows various letters of the alphabet looking like other letters. On each page, we see how a capital letter of the alphabet is actually a different letter seen in a particular way: “A B is a D with its belt on too tight.” The letters are all illustrated as cartoony characters, and there are plenty of lowercase “kid” letters hanging out as well, with lots of letter-related puns in the speech bubbles. It’s a fun way to look at letters, and show kids how different letters can seem “related” to each other, which can get them thinking about typography and fonts—which is a great subject.
Here’s another alphabet book—this time for things that you can’t see, like “air,” “hidden,” and “nothing.” It’s a fun collection of words, and Barrett does a great job of illustrating the invisible. There are a few drawings that involve a bus stop, where we never get to see the bus itself because it was “delayed,” or the passengers “just missed it,” or were “too late.” There are some neat connections between some of the illustrations as well—my favorite may be for U and V, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out why.
One more alphabet book for today’s stack: this one helps kids understand some tricky topics by explaining words that they may hear often in conversations or arguments, but may not always be spelled out for them. Each page has a big letter and its word—”I is for Immigration” but then there’s also a small paragraph on the facing page that goes into a little more detail, in kid-friendly language. The illustrations include a multicultural cast of people, including some wearing head scarves and some in wheelchairs, showing how to be kind to each other and how people experience the world differently. The book covers a broad range of topics in a simplified way, but each page could be a good conversation starter with your kids.
It’s another Breaking Cat News book! In case you’re new to the series, BCA is a comic strip series that features the adventures of several cats, dressed up as reporters, as they investigate and interview the humans they live with. It’s a very funny comic that frames their curiosity as investigative news, and also shows how weird human behavior can be. In this book, one of the major events is when Beatrix, a small kitten, is rescued from the cold by the family, throwing everything off balance. But she quickly grows on the BCA cats and becomes an intern, and eventually finds a permanent home at a local bookstore, becoming the bookstore correspondent. There’s also a side plot involving the robber mice, a screech owl, and a legend told by the mice that has some surprising origins.
Donut is a kid who just wants to be a hero: she’s got super strength and cares about people. Unfortunately, she comes from a family of villains, and the last name “Destroyer” isn’t looked upon fondly by the teachers and students of Lionheart School for Heroes. Plus, her best friend Ivy simply can’t figure out why Donut doesn’t want to join her in causing chaos. This comic book is a twist on heroes-and-villains stories, showing how hard it is for Donut to be good when the heroes won’t trust her, and how much pressure she gets from her parents and friend to be evil instead. It’s also very funny—the kids that Donut befriends at the hero school aren’t the most popular kids, but they stick with Donut and help her to achieve her dreams.
Sparrowhawk has been mentioned before on GeekMom, and I finally got around to reading it myself recently: it’s a fantasy comic set in the mid-1800s in London. Artemesia is the illegitimate daughter of a captain, and she’s never been entirely accepted by her family—not only because of her birth, but also because of her skin color and the fact that she’s not really interested in fitting into high society. But now she’s being married off to a rich duke and all she wants is to escape … which she gets, but at a cost. The Faerie Queen swaps places with her, taking her face and her place, and Artemesia finds herself lost in the faerie world with an untrustworthy jackalope as her guide. As she journeys to find a way back to her world, she is transformed more and more. It’s a creepy story, not simply for the various beasts and creatures that Artemesia encounters in this strange realm, but because of who she becomes along the way.
And here’s another comic book about somebody who changes and shifts after traveling to a new realm. Nills and Anaelle are a young couple, spending some time in a rustic cabin that belonged to her family. But then a portal opens in the fireplace, and some dragon-like beings take Anaelle. Nills leaps through to follow them, and finds himself in a different world, populated by strange creatures—and sees himself changing as well. As Nills battles his way to rescue Anaelle, we learn that the situation isn’t what it seemed at first: Anaelle isn’t just a damsel in distress, and Nills is no knight in shining armor, either. It’s a strange story with an unexpected ending, filled with lots of fighting in the middle.
Chen Weng is a Chinese-American mom, making cartoons about being a parent to two young kids. Although some of the jokes rely on stereotypes (about kids and parents, about husbands and wives), there’s still a lot that most parents will relate to in these pages. There are cartoons about life before and after kids, as well as overly optimistic plans that we make as parents that quickly fall by the wayside. Chen Weng’s googly-eyed people are simple but very expressive, and she uses manga-inspired exaggerated expressions to great effect. This book will make you laugh and cry at the same time.
I’ve written about a couple of these Ultimate Cartoon Books in the past: there’s one about book cartoons and one about critics. This one is about relationships: romance, weddings, divorce, therapy, affairs, and so on. You’ve got your couple talking to each other while sitting in bed, couples in bars and restaurants, couples in a car together. These collections aren’t published by the New Yorker, but they’re definitely New Yorker–style comics (and the cartoonists featured have all appeared in the New Yorker), so if you enjoy that style of humor, you’ll like these as well.
My Current Reads
I’ve been catching up on some older books recently. I finally got around to reading Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe and The Broken Universe, which Jim Kelly wrote about way back in 2012. I’d had the copies sitting on my shelf since around then, but just hadn’t gotten around to them myself. They’re about a device that lets a character hop between parallel (and not-so-parallel) universes, and his efforts to find a way back home. There are some really fun concepts, like when he and some friends introduce pinball to a world where it didn’t exist, and some clever uses of the technology. The downside is that I didn’t feel like Melko did well with the women in the story, and any of the more intimate scenes really fell flat.
I also finally got around to reading first two volumes of the Stumptown comics by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth. It turns out I’d read volume 2 a couple of years ago (I think I’d picked it up at the bookstore just to flip through it and ended up reading the whole thing), but the two volumes can almost be read independently from each other. It was made into a TV show starring Cobie Smulders last year, which reminded me that I had the books. They take place here in Portland, Oregon, so it was fun to see a lot of locations that looked familiar, and the main character Dex is a tough detective that reminds me a bit of Jessica Jones, except without the super strength. I’m going to have to look for the next couple volumes now.
My wife and I are fans of Allie Brosh, so we preordered her new book Solutions and Other Problems as soon as we heard about it. Powell’s Books had a virtual book talk with her on its release, which was absolutely delightful, especially when her mom joined in the call. We’ve read the book now, which has a mix of things that are funny and tragic: there are weird things she did as a kid, but also more recent stories about wrestling with despair. Definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of her first book Hyperbole & a Half.
I also just finished We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen, a superhero story that will be published in January. I’ll tell you more about it closer to the release date, but I enjoyed it for the most part. It centers around two characters—a hero and a villain, both with powers—who meet each other at a support group because they both have missing memories.
Well, that’s about it for now. This month I haven’t been reading quite as much because I’m up to my annual Etch-a-Sketch shenanigans, which you can follow along: just look for the hashtag #memeasketch on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hope you have a happy and safe Halloween, however you decide to celebrate, and don’t forget to vote!
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column.