With Halloween nigh, I hereby dedicate this week to Halloween-related postings. Reviews, news items, the whole kerschmozzle. It’s a spooky time of year, so let’s get a couple good spooky books on the shelves. Here’s today’s contribution.
I bet you could have a lot of fun if you gathered a group of children’s librarians together and asked them which requests they get the most from kids. You’d have the standard boring answers like, "mysteries" or "books like ‘Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ ". There would also be the weird answers like, "samurais" and "anything that takes place in Barbados". I’d bet good money that some of the answers would be a mix of both, though. For example, it couldn’t have been a month ago when a kid came up to me asking for a book involving aliens. "Do you want real aliens or stories about them?" I asked. The kid wavered a bit, and that was when I knew what book I could have recommended right then and there (had it been on my shelf and available). "The Scary States of America" by Michael Teitelbaum is the title to hand to any kid who wonders where on earth they can find some good old-fashioned scary stories. There’s only so many times you can hand someone a copy of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" before they start getting bored. Teitelbaum’s book is certainly bereft of creepy pictures, but the images that pop up in this bit of kiddie horror will undoubtedly stay in your mind much longer than you initially anticipated. Hand this out to kids looking for tales of the strange, wild, and weird, but be sure they can handle the spooks (not to mention gore). There’s something for everyone in this book.
Here’s the concept: There are fifty states in America and for each one our hero, Jason Specter, has collected a spooky tale. Jason is the creator of a very popular blog chronicling every possible supernatural event he can get his hands on. Jason used to be just your average kid, until a close encounter with someone sad and incredibly dead brought the wider weirder world out there to his personal attention. Thanks to his friends in all fifty states, this is a compilation of one story per state. Sometimes these stories involve creatures native only to certain areas. The Skunk Ape of Florida or the Jersey Devil of… well, New Jersey. For other states you’ll just hear about ghosts, alien encounters, and other paranormal phenomena of varying levels of danger. Some stories end happily. Some most definitely do not. In the end, Jason encourages his readers to contribute their own scary tales to his website. In the meantime, he asks that people keep their eyes and minds wide open.
First of all, Mr. Teitelbaum has done his research. I was unaware of the existence of such fiends as that moth creature some people believe in or the shadow people. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been stories about them before, of course. I just hadn’t been aware of some of the regional rumors out there. Of the creatures I acutally had heard of, Teitelbaum knows the rules. For example, when you come across a night marcher in Oahu, it is best to close your eyes and never look at them. That’s a given. Having to find 50 regional creepy critters for each and every state can be a bit daunting though, so the author dips into alien abduction tales as well as other mysterious goings on. Basically everything from your classic ghosts, werewolves, and witches meld with the less common bleeding houses and lizard men.
Each section begins with a real world fact under the heading, "What I learned in history class". Following that is a piece of information on the state being discussed. Things like, "The rocket used by Apollo 13 was designed, built, and tested at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama." I was disappointed to find that the scary story following this fact under the heading "A story you won’t find in your textbook" didn’t relate to this fact in the least. If the Alabama fact was about space travel, I figured the story would be about aliens or interplanetary connections. Instead it was that old Hitchhiker urban legend. It would have been neat to link the two together, I think. Ditto the Massachusetts history mention of the Salem Witch Trials. No witches to be seen in that little section and this is a pity. It would have made for a nice tie-in.
And of course, the difficulty that comes with taking regional mysteries is that they can sometimes sound familiar. In chronicling an escape from a Skunk Ape in Florida, it’s difficult not to see parallels with someone else’s encounter with Bigfoot in Alaska. Or how one ghost story mirrors another, in spite of changes in place and name. Almost all the stories are compelling in some way, though. Considering how short they are (rarely longer than ten pages), it’s impressive that Teitelbaum is able to work in as much as he can within such limited space.
Urban legends never die. They just morph into children’s books. Consider pairing this book with the compelling title "Tales of the Cryptids: Mysterious Creatures That May or May Not Exist". Both books deal with otherworldly creatures. One just has the benefits of fiction on its side. Plus, with the sheer length of this book on hand, you can bet that this will keep any kid satisfied and terrified for many long car rides to come. A book that fulfills a need.
Misc: Go here to see Jason Specter’s blog.