Friday, October 27, 2017

The Masks We Wear

Halloween is not my holiday.  Scary and, to me, morbid, I could happily skip the whole thing.  But most kids love it and so I decided to find non-scary Halloween books to read to my students this year.

Illustration by Louis Darling
The first book - or rather, chapter of a book - that came to mind - was the one in Ramona the Pest where she dresses up as "the baddest witch in the world" and participates for the first time in the school Halloween parade.  Reading it to classes over and over, I was struck each and every time by how perfectly Beverly Cleary describes the terror that can come with the anonymity that a costume can bring.  Cleary writes, "Nobody knew who Ramona was, and if nobody knew who she was, she wasn't anybody."  Desperate to assert her identity, Ramona runs back to her classroom and writes herself a nametag, which she proudly holds in front of her costume.

Cleary also describes with emotional clarity the satisfaction children (and adults) can have in scaring themselves - in controlling the amount of fear they experience.  Ramona finds her own mask terrifying and hides it under a couch cushion so she doesn't have to look at it.  But then she periodically "would lift the cushion for a quick glimpse of her scary mask before she clapped the pillow over it again.  Scaring herself was such fun." And while Ramona finds looking at her mask scary, when she wears it - and therefore can't see it herself - she feels brave.  That is, until she feels lost and alone.

Illustrations by Kurt Werth

Written five years before Ramona the Pest, A Tiger Called Thomas by Charlotte Zolotow also uses Halloween and costumes to tackle issues of identity, but from a very different perspective.  Thomas, who has just moved to a new neighborhood, is too shy to approach any of his neighbors.  (And why should he?!?  Shouldn't they come over and greet the new arrivees?  But that is neither here nor there.)  But safely inside his tiger costume, Thomas is brave enough to trick-or-treat, feeling secure that no one will recognize him.  Much to his surprise, everyone knows who he is!  (A Tiger Called Thomas wass reissued with new illustrations in 1988 and again in  2003 and will be published again next year with yet another set of illustrations.  There was an article in the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book about the different versions, but unfortunately it is not online.) 

Masks - literal and figurative - can embolden us, change us, or render us invisible or anonymous.

But I still don't like Halloween.