Before I get into my discussion of Jack Prelutsky’s The Wizard, I want to tell you about a fantastic Halloween reading tradition that’s sprung up over the past few years called All Hallow’s Read, which apparently originated with a blog post by Neil Gaiman in 2010. It’s all about… well, I’ll let Gaiman explain it himself:
That’s it. On the week of Halloween (or on the day itself), give someone you know – adult, kid, or in between – a scary book to read.
Simple yet elegant. I love the concept for many reasons. First of all, if you can actually find a book that really, truly scares you, it’s an amazing sensation. Finding out that reading words on a printed page can actually chill you to the core of your being is a staggering, unrivaled experience, and it often gets dismissed by people who look down their nose at “genre” fiction. Personally, if a book can actually scare me, I find the experience way more affecting than a book that can make me cry. I cry all the time (ask my wife – it’s a sickness), but scaring me while I’m sitting on the couch reading in the middle of the day? That’s a hard act to pull off.
Secondly, I love that there’s this aspect of All Hallow’s Read that’s all about figuring out your audience. It’s not just finding a book that YOU might find scary. You’re trying to find a book that will scare your mother, your daughter, your pal, your co-worker – some real thought has to go into that selection. The book has to have the APPROPRIATE scare level for the person you have in mind. Your nephew might be a little tame and timid, but can’t get enough of campfire ghost stories. Your best friend might despise gore, but might love the existential dread of a Lovecraft novel. Psychological suspense might bore your sister to tears, but she ADORES blood and guts. It’s like choosing the perfect holiday gift for your friends and family, only with marginally more viscera and tentacled gods.
I decided to get in on the All Hallow’s Read fun this year and find a scary book to share with my daughter, which… was a challenge. She’s almost five and is a bit of a scaredy-cat. And it’s hard to predict what will or won’t resonate as scary with her. She can’t get enough of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal – both of which have some decidedly weird and dark moments – but curls up in anxiety whenever she sees a picture of a gun or whenever there’s an especially creepy background shadow in a picture book spread. (I’m 95% certain that she never even realized that she was supposed to be afraid of the dark until I read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, so, thanks a lot, Stan and Jan.)
So I had to stay away from murder, death, weapons, unfriendly monsters, situations that couldn’t be explained away as fairy tales, overt threats towards children, and particularly spooky illustrations. In other words, I didn’t have a ton to work with. But I eventually found the perfect All Hallow’s Read book for my daughter in the 2007 picture book adaptation of Jack Prelutsky’s poem The Wizard, illustrated by Brandon Dorman – a book that I think is a PERFECT Halloween read for nervous young readers looking for a slight dose of spookiness before bed.
If you don’t already know, Jack Prelutsky was named the first Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006 and, for decades, he’s been a major force in children’s poetry. When asked to name great poets for young readers, I normally rattle off the names “Silverstein, Seuss, and Prelutsky” on instinct before my brain has time to start thinking of other options. If you have third graders or older – or younger kids with particularly strong constitutions – who would revel in tales of monsters and mutilation, you can’t go wrong with Prelutsky’s perfect-for-Halloween poetry collections, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep or The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. Both are way fun and are accompanied by a series of Edward Gorey-esque illustrations created by the great Arnold Lobel.
The Wizard was originally included as a poem in Nightmares, but, in 2007, Greenwillow Books teamed with Prelutsky and artist Brandon Dorman to turn the short verse into a picture book. And the result was something very cool.
The Wizard is a relatively short poem, where we’re mostly just asked to consider a ponderous, vaguely sinister wizard sitting aloft in his high tower. But Prelutsky’s verse, which reads like an Edgar Allan Poe primer for five-year-olds, takes his simple subject and turns him into an elemental force of nature. The Wizard isn’t one of Prelutsky’s most memorable poems – I’ve always had a soft spot for “Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens” – but it’s a wonderful spook story that just begs to be read aloud. I wouldn’t be surprised if middle schools had children performing double-bills of “The Wizard” and “The Raven” at Halloween pageants.
Prelutsky introduces us to his sorcerer as such:
The wizard, watchful, waits alone
within his tower of cold gray stone
and ponders in his wicked way
what evil deeds he’ll do this day.
So, from the start, we’re told that this wizard is both wicked AND evil and, although we never get to see the pointy-hatted magician unleash Voldemort-style on an unsuspecting populace – we mostly just watch him transform a bullfrog into various shapes with his “elemental sorcery” – there’s this pervading sense of barely restrained menace throughout the whole book. “Menace” might be the best word for it. There’s nothing really overtly frightening in the book, but, while reading it, I could feel my daughter tense up in anticipation of something bad on the horizon. Even though Brandon Dorman’s wizard, in many ways, resembles some of the most classically cuddly wizards of all time (part Merlin, part Dumbledore), there’s this dark, smug spark in his eyes that just reeks with the potential for danger.
And that sense of menace made it a great “scary” choice for my kid who can’t really handle scary books. All the wizard does is show off some tricks, transforming a frog into a flea, mice, a cockatoo, a piece of chalk, a bell, etc. And all of that seems innocent enough – if you forget that there’s a living creature being violently transformed into chalk, which will chill your bones if you think about it too much. But, throughout, Prelutsky keeps reminding us of the wizard’s nature and how EASY these tricks are for him. There are VOLUMES in Prelutsky’s silences about the wizard and it’s really fun watching a young reader slowly fill in those silences themselves. This is a bad, bad man who can do whatever he wants, particularly to us Muggles, and, when kids start thinking about that, they can find it legitimately unnerving.
The book ends on a nicely dangerous note, telling us:
The wizard smirks a fiendish smirk,
reflecting on the woes he’ll work,
as he consults a dusty text
and checks which hex he’ll conjure next.
He may pluck someone off the spot
and turn him into… who knows what?
And, as the poem ends with Prelutsky warning us to be on the lookout for the future works of the wizard, this is where I really started appreciating Brandon Dorman’s contributions to the book.
Now, some kid lit purists might take one look at The Wizard picture book and wrinkle their noses. Dorman couldn’t have gone further away from the cross-hatched, black-and-white, graveyard ghoulishness of Lobel’s original illustrations in Nightmares. His big, digitally-enhanced oil paintings are lush and colorful, and the book looks more like concept art for an upcoming Pixar movie than a creepy ode to Edward Gorey. But I think that was a really brave choice on Dorman’s part.
Instead of embracing a black-and-white, skull and bones vibe, Dorman went for a creepily plastic, modern aesthetic that seems inspired by artists like Tim Burton or Blue Velvet-era David Lynch. Dorman’s wizard sits in a tower of “cold gray stone” that has, inexplicably, been dropped into the middle of a milquetoast suburban neighborhood, and that juxtaposition works on many levels. It plays with the sinister side of middle-class suburbia in the same way that Burton did with Edward Scissorhands – the average, Midwestern neighborhood is transformed into the village on the edge of the dark and spooky woods in a fairy tale. And, again, it adds this whole sense of potential menace for young readers with the idea that an amoral magician like the wizard could be hanging out at the end of their block, waving his hand in boredom as he decides whether or not he’s going to turn the kid from down the street into a chameleon. The wizard might look like Merlin or the mentor from Mickey Mouse’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but the pervading message in Prelutsky’s poem is almost something out of a Lovecraft novel – there are dark shadowy things, hiding just out of plain sight, and the best thing you can hope for is that they never notice you exist.
Which… OK, the Lovecraft comparisons are totally overselling the terror of The Wizard – it’s more “The Raven” than At the Mountains of Madness – but I just think it’s a really smart, fun poem that delivers mild scares in a very interesting way. My scaredy-cat daughter really dug the book. When we finished, I literally watched her shiver as she turned to me and said, “That is spooky.” I asked her why it was spooky and she couldn’t articulate why. Instead she told me, “I just think he’s a really bad guy and could do bad things if I ran into him.” And the fact that this big, bright, lush picture book, set on a small town street, about a magic man in a pointy hat, could fill my daughter will such tension and foreboding – that’s a great Halloween treat.
If you’ve got other scaredy-kid appropriate suggestions for All Hallow’s Read, send them my way, but, if you’ve got your own “sleep with the bathroom light on” child at home, I think The Wizard is a wonderful way to deliver some scares without keeping them up all night.
THE DETAILS ON THE WIZARD:
AGE RANGE: Preschool to second grade. But, again, since the scares are so subjective, you’ve got to make sure that your audience will either a). not be too frightened or b). not be too bored with Prelutsky’s verse.
PAGE COUNT: 32 pages
AUTHOR WEB SITE: Jack Prelutsky’s website is a good source of information on the author and his works, but I’m not a fan of the design. It’s really Flash-heavy. When you click on links, it opens new windows without the navigation toolbar. It has this sense of kid-friendly whimsy, but, some of their design choices make the site a pain to use.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: We borrowed The Wizard from the library and I’m glad we did. Piloting this book through your library is a solid way to see if it’s either way too dark or way too lame for your kid, depending on what they find scary. (But is it good enough to buy? Oh yeah.) I also like borrowing The Wizard from the library because it makes it an event in our house. “We’re doing spooky stories tonight!”
IF YOU LIKED THE WIZARD, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- The Witches’ Supermarket by Susan Meddaugh – This picture book isn’t nearly as tense or spooky as The Wizard, but, like Dorman’s illustrations, it has a lot of fun with placing the weird and macabre right smack in the middle of small-town America. Helen and her dog Martha – whom you’ll recognize from Meddaugh’s previous books or the PBS Kids show, Martha Speaks – follow a mysterious old woman into a strange supermarket on Halloween night. Readers will quickly realize that the market caters to a strictly witchy clientele, but Meddaugh gets many laughs by delaying Helen’s realization of what’s going on. It’s a great Halloween title – more like a funny episode of The Twilight Zone than a scary one.
- Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex – Rex is an amazing illustrator and this poetic ode to monsters has a wonderfully eerie sense of humor. His poems revel in the gross, gory, and sometimes mundane details of the lives of Frankenstein, Dracula, and other creatures of the night, and Rex deftly changes up his art style to fit each verse. This would make a great primer for introducing kids to spooky poems before eventually moving them onto something like Prelutsky’s Nightmares.