Last summer I had the good fortune to attend a talk by Jack Gantos. Gantos has been writing for children and teens since the mid-’70s and has won much acclaim, including a Newbery Honor (for Joey Pigza Loses Control) and a Sibert Honor (for A Hole in My Life). His newest book, Dead End in Norvelt, has received rave reviews from just about everybody, including us.
Read 5 fantastic picture books for Halloween.
But Gantos wasn't talking about these books. No, his talk was an extended musing on what one might find in a cemetery for dead books. (His description of his own mausoleum had the audience howling. If you ever have the opportunity to see Gantos, leap at it—just make sure you use the restroom first.) He touched on both books that had lived long and upstanding lives and those that had perished prematurely. One of the latter was a twisted confection of Gantos’ own called The Werewolf Family, illustrated by Nicole Rubel.
I already knew that The Werewolf Family had gone out of print. It is, after all, an older book, and the characters did not catch on the way Gantos and Rubel’s other, more famous creation, Rotten Ralph did. ("Born" in 1976, the thoroughly awful cat had his most recent outing this past spring, in Three Strikes for Rotten Ralph.) But I was sad to see that my own local library had de-accessioned its copy, as my daughter and I had spent many happy bedtimes reading it.
It is not, I hasten to add, typical bedtime reading. It opens as the prim and proper Werewolf family (mother, father, Harry and Mary, as well as their dog) glumly head out to what they anticipate will be a "boring" family reunion. It is an evening affair, and Mr. Werewolf notices that the moon is full. Neither he nor anyone else in the family seems to notice, however, that they are becoming "very hairy."
The family reunion turns out to be a blast for the Werewolf family, if something of a trial for their more ordinary relations. They present their wee nieces and nephews with snakes and spiders ("I just adore the sound of howling," says Mrs. Werewolf), nosh on the family pets and close the evening by stringing up the rels in Aunt Charlotte's basement torture chamber/recreation room. They accomplish all of this dressed to the nines in formal Edwardian togs and speaking perfectly polite dialogue (well, except for the growls).
I don't really know what made this such a favorite. What goes on in the mind of a preschooler is, ultimately, a mystery. I'm pretty sure my daughter had no idea what a werewolf was, and I am certain she'd never been exposed to instruments of torture in a picture book before.
I'm confident that she understood that the Werewolf family was behaving very, very badly, and therein, I think, lay the appeal. There are very few things small children enjoy more than seeing other people misbehave and get away with it. Watching the Werewolves, big and little, make merry mayhem must have been a catharsis of sorts after spending the day trying to follow all the adult rules imposed on her. Every kid needs that.
So, as Halloween approaches, see if you can get your hands on a copy. Trick-or-treating has mischief in its roots, after all, and, as we wrote in our review, "kids in the Halloween mood will pounce on this where paler spooks will leave them cold."
Gantos and Rubel offer some catharsis for adults, too. When Uncle Igo "decide[s] to show home movies," Mrs. Werewolf "crawl[s] across the floor and bit[es] him on the ankle."
"Maybe she doesn't like home movies," wonders Aunt Charlotte.
All together, now: "HOWLLL!"
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.