… when dead leaves fly like witches on switches across the sky …
In the center of our Wegman’s is all the stuff that is not food. Of course, I head there first. Browsing tea towels and sunflower coasters is my reward from having to shop in the too-big grocery store.
Recently I found a plate among the Halloween décor. I didn’t need a Halloween plate but this one made me stop. The design reminded me of the little treat bags people gave out on Halloween, filled with popcorn balls or homemade cookies (yes, the olden trick-or-treating days were better). Halloween was my favorite holiday when I was a kid. I pulled out my witch costume in August. I drew pictures of haunted houses. At nine, I wanted to be a witch living in a haunted house.
After I grew up, Halloween, slammed against Thanksgiving and Christmas, slid back. (Easter is now my favorite holiday, because you don’t have to do anything, because it’s spring, because the colors and bunnies are cheerful.)
As I stared at that orange and black plate, a door opened, just a sliver and just for an instant. I was nine again, flapping through our house in my purple (probably flammable) witch’s cape, eager for Halloween even though school hadn’t started yet. What a delicious feeling, all shivery and exciting at the same time. Then the door shut, and I had to think about lettuce and cat food and shower cleaner.
Although I’ve been writing children’s books for nearly forty years and have spent more years reading children’s books or writing about children’s literature, I have increasingly limited access to my own childhood. Memories fade due to age, medication, and Great Big World Problems. It’s harder to keep the door to childhood open when you’re worried about lab results, taxes, and fracking.
This past summer, I taught my last summer term at Hollins University. My final class in the Children’s Literature Graduate Program was the history of children’s book illustrators. My students, mostly young illustrators, settled into this course as if they’d come home.
They loved seeing the ground-breaking work of Wanda Gâg and Virginia Lee Burton. They loved the surprise of Leo Lionni and other modernists. They loved the versatility of Marcia Brown and the Dillons. In each class, a student would gasp or smile with recognition during the discussion of an artist or specific picture book. I could almost see the door swing open. “My mother read me that book!” Or, “My grandmother had that book! I forgot about it!”
Most of my students weren’t that far removed from their childhoods. But they were so tightly focused on learning craft and technique that they had lost track of why they chose this field. It’s not enough to “love children’s books” (though we do). As creators, we must stay connected to the child inside.
One of my students prefaced her final paper with this quote by Howard Pyle, illustrator and founder of the Brandywine School: “The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression, and their author always has a niche in the temple of memory from which the image is never cast out to be thrown on the rubbish heap of things that are outgrown and outlived.”
Those stories may be forgotten, buried at the bottom of memories that are more immediate, until the unexpected moment that single, indelible image rises to the top. For me, a $7 plate in a grocery store gave me a glimpse of past Octobers, and the memory of the books I read back then that let me experience shivery, exciting feelings any day of the year.
Yeah, I bought the plate I didn’t need, but somehow did. My old Halloween books keep it company, along with Harry Behn’s Halloween, illustrated by Greg Couch, a poem some of us remember from school …
…When elf and sprite flit through the night on a moony sheen.
It’s delightfully witchy—look the rest of it up for Halloween!