Spooky tales, playful costumes, and copious amounts of candy make Halloween a favorite holiday for children and children’s book creators alike. We spoke with three authors and illustrators who have new Halloween-themed books this season, about drawing ideas from their personal love of the celebration.
Author-illustrator Tad Hills combines a lifelong love of Halloween with a passion for costumes. The creator of the Rocket and Duck & Goose series fondly recalled his childhood tradition of designing costumes with his mother. “When I was a kid, I would make a Halloween costume every year with my mom. They were never super complicated. In second grade, I was a little old lady.” Now the father of two children, Hills has established costume-making as a central part of his family’s annual celebration. “When I had my own kids, I was determined to make their costumes. Every year since they were born, I’d do two costumes, working nonstop in the two days before Halloween. I always made sure my schedule was clear.”
Hills’s designs started quite simply and have taken on more complex elements over the years. “The first costumes I made were mostly fabric or fake fur. Then I started making [their] costumes out of cardboard and a hot glue gun. Every year they seem to get more and more complicated,” he said. The designs were often tailored to his children’s interests. Memorable costumes have included a violin and accordion for his daughter, and a series of buildings—including the Empire State Building, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Eiffel Tower—for his son.
But Hills’s most ambitious costume to date was a giant monster, featuring two iPhones for eyes, which he created for his son in 2010. “There were wooden teeth and a mouth that moved when my son pulled a string. The iPhone eyes were playing video loops of my eyes blinking and looking around. It was pretty weird and disconcerting,” he said.
For the most part, Hills said, his elaborate costume designs remain separate from his picture book illustrations, though the processes for making both are similar. Hills said, “I compare my writing process to making anything, really. When I was making the Leaning Tower of Pisa costume, I started with simple shapes, small shapes cut out of cardboard. I equate those with words, sticking [the shapes] together in the same way I stick words together to make sentences. I’m building a costume the same way I’m building a story—layer upon layer.” He added that, regardless of the medium, he doesn’t adhere to a strict blueprint. “I don’t really know what I’m doing when I start. I don’t have a set plan. So I have to figure it out and make sure that it fits.”
Hills is currently on tour for his latest picture book, Honk! Quack! Boo! (Schwartz & Wade), in which fowl friends Duck and Goose get a Halloween scare from a supposed swamp monster. Discussing the book’s themes, Hills said, “A lot of my books have sort of touched on fear. Some kids send me letters, asking, ‘Were you brave when you were a kid?’ That’s definitely on kids’ minds.” When developing the new story for his characters, Hills began to reflect on these concerns, and ways of overcoming fear. “I thought it would be fun to explore that aspect of Halloween, being fearful, by putting Duck and Goose in interesting costumes—taking them out of themselves and allowing them to pretend to be someone else.”
Though both his kids are in college now and have outgrown wearing costumes, Hills has plans for bringing back one of their costumes this year, for a new addition to the family. “We have a 12-year-old boy moving in. He grew up in South Africa,” he said. Hills became acquainted with the boy through his involvement with ArtWorks for Youth, an organization that provides free academic support and art instruction to children in South Africa. Hills said, “If I have time to make a costume, I will do that. Or we’ll take one of the old ones out from storage.” And Hills has a special one in mind. “One year, my son dressed as our house in Brooklyn. So it would be sweet if this boy could be our house for Halloween. He’s never been to the States before; every day is new. This is his first Halloween and I want it to be fun.”
Margery Cuyler, author of Bonaparte Falls Apart (Crown) and several other eerie picture books, has plenty of material to pull from, having grown up in an allegedly haunted house in Princeton, N.J. “That house had a huge effect on my life,” Cuyler said. The house was built in 1685, predating both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Cuyler’s parents moved in shortly after WWII, and were initially skeptical of the rumors. “They had heard a legend that there was a Hessian soldier’s ghost that haunted the place. They didn’t believe it. Then once they moved in, they noticed lots of things happening—all of them friendly,” she explained.
The author, too, remembered a number of uncanny incidents around the house. “If we went out, say to a ball game, and came back, we’d find all the windows were opened. We’d also notice someone had been watering the plants—but it wasn’t any of us. There were happenings, but none of them malevolent.” Still, the young Cuyler was frightened by the notion of living with a ghost. “I was afraid every Christmas Eve. The legend was the ghost would appear then and go up the chimney. And my room was directly over the room where he was said to appear. I was certain that Santa would be trying to come down the chimney while the ghost was going up, and they would have a big collision!” People came from all over Princeton for a glimpse of the specter, but Cuyler never had a direct sighting.
As the youngest child in a large family, with seven brothers and one sister, Cuyler said, “In a way, I was raised by children. I feel like I was raised by my siblings and not my parents. We were always playing, and Halloween was always a big deal.” As if a haunted house weren’t festive enough, she recalled decorating with pumpkins and fake skeletons for the holiday. Cuyler went on to buy the house from her parents, later raising her own children there.
The author’s early exposure to supernatural lore continues to fuel her imagination. “When I grew up, I borrowed from those memories,” she said. “Several of my books have featured ghosts, skeletons, and witches. All of those characters are very familiar to me.” The legend of the Hessian mercenary directly inspired Cuyler’s 1999 chapter book, The Battlefield Ghost (Scholastic).
Since writing her picture books Skeleton Hiccups (McElderry, 2002) and A Skeleton Dinner (Albert Whitman, 2013), the author said she has received many letters from young readers expressing their interest in skeletons. Bonaparte Falls Apart, Cuyler’s latest picture book, also stars a bony hero. Bonaparte isn’t portrayed as a source of fear, but as a child afraid to embark on his first day of school. As his bones keep falling apart, it’s up to his friends—including Franky Stein, a Blacky Widow, and Mummicula—to devise a way to keep him intact.
As inspiring as Cuyler’s longtime home has been for generating Halloween-themed stories, the upkeep proved too difficult for the author. Three years ago, Cuyler and her husband moved to a new house, in nearby Lawrenceville, N.J. “We moved in after the previous owner had died,” she said. “I wonder if he’ll ever come back and visit—but no signs of a ghost so far!”
A Relatable Witch
Author Diana Murray sees a lot of herself in her character Grimelda, a disorganized witch who is prone to magical mishaps. “Grimelda is, in many ways, an exaggeration of myself. My tendency to be messy is often an obstacle. I find myself frantically searching for things and sometimes even resort to buying replacements, just because it’s easier,” she said. Murray mines the heroine’s messiness for what she sees as fairly universal comedy, in Grimelda: The Very Messy Witch and a, Grimelda and the Spooktacular Pet Show (both HarperCollins/Tegen). “I think these kinds of ‘Grimelda moments’ are pretty easy to relate to, for most kids and grownups alike.”
Murray brings her experience as a former art director for the Theory fashion label to her character-building. “As an art director, one of my main jobs was to make sure that the brand was consistent across all platforms. The brand had a certain look and feel and everything we created had to reflect that. In the same way, characters have defining traits. Grimelda is messy, stubborn, creative, and spunky; those traits are what drive her character and determine the situations she finds herself in,” she said.
But when it came to the design and illustration of her Grimelda books, Murray was happy to hand over the reins to illustrator Heather Ross. “My only comments were related to the general interaction of the text and art,” she said. “I had no involvement in Heather’s overall creative vision. She added lots of wonderful elements that I never would have thought of. I was ecstatic about how she brought Grimelda’s stories to life.”
Murray also puts a lighthearted spin on traditionally scary creatures in her picture book, Groggle’s Monster Valentine (Sky Pony, 2017), about a monster whose appetite gets the best of him while making a Valentine’s Day card for his friend. Murray explained the origins of Groggle, who is more endearing than terrifying. “My favorite holiday is Halloween. I dislike horror movies and gore, but I adore playful, spooky fun. And I enjoy playing with contrasting elements in my characters, so the idea of a nerdy, soft-hearted Groggle struggling with his inner monster was appealing to me.”
Not surprisingly, Halloween is a beloved holiday for the author. “It’s my favorite time of year! My office is full of Halloween props year-round. And every fall, my family makes some of our own decorations for the yard, such as hand-painted tombstones with creepy, rhyming epitaphs.” As for dressing up, Murray said, “I almost always go as a witch because my daily outfits are kind of witchy to begin with. I wear a lot of black. But I also have a big, goofy monster hat that I might wear—if my kids don’t steal it from me first.”