Kirkus has called him the “modern master of nonsense verse” and a “nabob of nonsense,” and now Calef Brown (Soup for Breakfast, 2008, etc.) is back with a book devoted to silliness of the nefarious kind just in time for Halloween. Don’t expect to find your typical ghouls, goblins and ghosts haunting the pages of Hallowilloween. Tales of two-stepping Texan witches, a goat-eating Oompachupa Loompacabra and a shrunken head named Duncan, all told in Brown’s characteristic zany style and accompanied by equally zany artwork, will have young readers shrieking with delight instead of with terror.
You’ve written several children’s books. What made you decide to write one about Halloween?
I had done some poems in my other books that had a type of spooky and funny quality that I really liked. I try to have a slight edge to my work. I shy away from being too cute even though I want my stuff to be whimsical.
Then I did a Halloween podcast for School Library Journal and recorded myself reading some stuff that I wrote specifically for it and some poems from my other books like Polkabats. My editor, Margaret Raymo, heard it and said, “Wow, we should do a little collection.” So it was her suggestion that we do a Halloween book.
There are some really wacky words in your book like Oompachupa Loompacabra and Poltergeyser. How did you come up with them?
I think one of the themes of my work is combining things that really shouldn’t be together. There’s a specific term called “portmanteau,” which my sister taught me. It’s what the poltergeyser is, two words that link up together. Geyser and poltergeist making poltergeyser. Or the Oompa-Loompas from Willy Wonka, and the chupacabra, a mythical kind of urban-legend creature that lives in Mexico and attacks goats.
The theme of combining things goes beyond the titles. I have a bit of dyslexia I think, never diagnosed, but growing up I had trouble with math and transposed letters. An example is the first poem in my book Flamingos on the Roof (2006) called “Alphabet Sherbet.” Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw a carton in the freezer at the supermarket that said “Alphabet Sherbet,” and I thought for a second that, wow, that sounds so supergood. Like little letters, like alphabet soup, in ice cream.
That actually sounds really good.
I know! And then I looked, and I think it said “assorted sherbet.” This idea of linking things to create something new and out of context and silly is something I think is woven throughout the way I approach my work.
You both write and illustrate many of your books. Which usually comes first, the poem or the illustration?
I’m a constant sketchbook drawer, doodler and writer, so my sketchbooks are combinations of pages of writing and pages of drawing. There’s a poem called “Sally” from Flamingos on the Roof about Medusa’s sister. I had done this little doodle of a woman with a snake draped over her head, and it looked like she had a flip hairdo on like Mary Tyler Moore. The association that came with the snake obviously led to Medusa, so that was Medusa’s sister Sally, and “Sally” is now one of my poems. Other times, like “Poltergeyser,” it’s the language that inspires the poem, and I’ll do a drawing in response. It’s definitely 50/50. Sometimes it’s a word that spurs a poem, or a phrase, or sometimes it’s the act of continually drawing, and I’ll create a character.
Are you dressing up for Halloween this year?
I’m not going to be Lady Gaga…I think I’ll go as an Oompachupa Loompacabra.
For a round-up of 2010 Halloween picture books, click here.
Hallowilloween: Nefarious Silliness from Calef Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / September / 9780547215402 / $16.99