My children and I have been reading through all their favorite Halloween picture books, which is a fun family tradition (we pack them up with the Halloween decorations, then bring them out once a year, which makes them extra special). This year I also read The Halloween Tree to them, as I had such fond memories of reading it when I was a child.
It is a story about a group of friends, all boys, who can't wait to go trick-or-treating on a cool, gusty Halloween night. They are each dressed up like a different classic Halloween character: a ghost, a witch, a mummy, a skeleton, a grim reaper, and so on. They're all gathered together when they realize one of them is missing - their dear, wonderful friend Pipkin, who is the sort of exuberant, full-of-great-ideas kid that makes everything seem much more fun when he's around. They hurry to his house - but horror upon horrors, Pipkin is sick. He looks awful, but he insists he will catch up to them. He tells them to go across the ravine, and he'll meet them.
Across the ravine, the boys encounter a creepy old house, the quintessential haunted house, complete with a Jacob Marley knocker and a dilapidated, creaky front porch. Around back, they discover a wondrous sight: an enormous tree with thousands of lit jack-o-lanterns hanging from it. They meet a tall, mysterious man who introduces himself as Mr. Moundshround. He takes them on a whirlwind journey into the past and across the world in search of their friend Pipkin, and on the way they discover truths about the deep dark past of Halloween.
This story is all about the telling. It evokes the spirit of autumn, of childhood and friendship, of the mystery and excitement that is Halloween night, creating images with words that are more poetry than prose. At first my children were a bit impatient with it, particularly the younger one, who is only seven; as usual, Bradbury pulls no punches with the vocabulary. I advised them to let the words wash over them, let them form pictures in their minds - and that seemed to work. The nine-year-old appeared to enjoy it a bit more - and in fact, I think they'll get a lot more out of it a few years from now. But still, the story has stayed with them, and as different aspects of Halloween present themselves to us, the girls often recall this scene or image that character or setting from the novel.
This is, however, definitely a boys' book. I have loved it for years, but, as with many of Bradbury's stories I read as a child, it always left me feeling a bit excluded, as though I were standing with my nose pressed against the glass of a marvelous world of baseball and spaceships and distant planets in which boys seemed to have most of the fun. My girls seemed a bit puzzled by the statement that one of the great things about Pipkin was that he "hated girls more than all the other boys in the gang combined." But still, we all enjoyed it. And who can evoke the spirit of Halloween better than Ray Bradbury?
Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallow's Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up from a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked.
The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (Knopf, 1972)
Also reviewed at:
Design with Spine: "It's pretty much mandatory for me to read Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree every October."
The Movieholic & Bibliophile's Blog: "This was a fabulous book (and movie) and should be shared with the entire family."