Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thinking about Ghosts

Some discussions on Child_Lit and Facebook got me thinking about the question of when friendly ghosts appeared in children's books. Ghosts have always been around in tales told to children. In the Greek myths which were told to both adults and children, people went to the gates of Hades and offered fresh blood to draw the shades (ghosts) out of Hades so they could talk to them and get advice. The ancient Celts believed that the dead walked on Samhain and could be dangerous to the living. Samhain became All Hallows' Eve, today's Halloween. Costumes and masks were often worn during the celebrations of these holy days in order to imitate or placate the spirits. Children wore costumes and participated in these festivals long before today's Halloween-mania. Ghost stories were certainly part of the early modern childhood experience. For evidence, see John Locke's warning in his 1693 book Some Thoughts Concerning Education that nursemaids were wont to frighten children with tales of "goblins, spectres, and apparitions," causing them to become superstitious (see p. 291 of the 1712 edition). He advised that children should be reared by their parents and tutors and kept away from the servants to train them to be logical and non-superstitious. Popular chapbooks from the 1600s onwards were full of ghostly apparitions bemoaning their dire fates and warning the reader not to follow their doomed paths. However none of these ghosts seem to have been friendly ghosts. Some eighteeenth-century authors stripped ghosts from their tales or used them to show the folly of superstition, as in Goody Two-Shoes (1766), where Goody shows the frightened populace that ghosts in the church were actually people making noises (see chapter VI, pp. 45-56). Later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stories told of fake ghosts and how they were disproved.

Among the most popular ghost tales of the nineteenth-century was Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820). On GoogleBooks are various full view versions of Irving's tale. I like a collection of three of Irving's stories, Little Britain, Together with The Spectre Bridegroom & A Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1880). If you click on the last clickable page (90) of the table of contents and scroll down a few pages you come to the beginning of the Legend and can read it at your leisure. The illustrations are perfect for the story. The Headless Horseman when he comes along is very scary, although in the epilogue there is a subtle hint that he may have been a fake ghost. There was a long tradition of ghost stories being told around the fireside at Christmastime, and Charles Dickens did a series of small gift books to be sold at Christmas. The first was A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Story of Christmas (1843), which was an immediate bestseller, popular with both adults and children. The ghosts in this tale perform a by now traditional function of reforming both Scrooge and the reader. Robina F. Hardy's The Ghost of Greythorn Manor (1887) tells the tale of a nursemaid at an English country house who with her timid young charge bravely investigates mysterious ghostly noises and finds they are caused by natural things. These tales are fairly typical of the ghost stories nineteenth-century children encountered. But no friendly ghosts, or even the expectation of a friendly ghost. Ghosts were definitely scary.

Thinking about it, the only nineteenth-century story with a relatively friendly ghost is Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost of 1887. This ghost story was published in a collection of tales for adults, not children, but children did read it. Wikipedia points out that it was a satire of the popular gothic ghost tales of the day. It has a ghost trying to terrify the very practical American Otis family, but only a young girl, Virginia, pays any attention to the ghost who she ends up befriending. Here is an unstereotypical ghost with human cares and worries. In the end Virginia helps him resolve his situation and depart for heaven. The 1944 film of this story changes the ghost's background story and makes him a bumbler but the movie is very funny and the relationship between the ghost and young Jessica (Margaret O'Brian) is sweet.

Various juvenile series of the early twentieth century had young detectives investigating ghosts, always to find that they were fake.

It doesn't seem to have been until 1936 when William Pène du Bois came out with his first book, Elisabeth the Cow Ghost, that there appeared a children's book with a funny ghost. Elisabeth was a sweet, gentle cow who came back as a ghost and tried to be a scary ghost, even wearing a sheet to inspire terror. Pène du Bois rewrote and reillustrated the book in 1964 and that edition is generally available through libraries. The text of the 1936 edition is to be found in Philippa Pearce's compilation, Dread and Delight: A Century of Ghost Stories (1995). Pearce commented that when she searched for ghost stories written specifically for children for this anthology, she did not find any before 1900. The stories from 1900 to 1936 are quite scary, save for one by Eleanor Farjeon, "Elsie Piddock Skips In Her Sleep" (1928), that I personally do not see as a ghost story. Thus my conclusion is that friendly ghost stories are an American invention that spread first to England and then to Europe. American authors such as Thorne Smith, with Topper (1926) and Elswyth Thane, with Tryst (1939) had introduced the concept of funny and romantic ghosts to adult fiction and to the movies. The influence of movies such as The Canterville Ghost and the Casper cartoons seem to have spurred the development of children's stories with friendly ghosts. This was a remarkable development because in 500 years of English hauntings and investigations of hauntings there appears to have been no concept of friendly ghosts with their own afterlives, only of murdered ghosts who needed to be avenged, or were themselves ghosts of murderers and suicides, or of spirits summoned by mediums to assuage their loved ones' grief, according to the very interesting and scholarly book by Owen Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (2007).

The author Robert Bright did a thirteen-book series about a friendly ghost named Georgie, starting with the first book, Georgie, in 1944. Georgie was a shy, gentle ghost who haunted the Whittakers' house. He did appropriate creaky noises around the house, and frightened away robbers, but the humans never knew he was there.

I remembered the Casper the Friendly Ghost comics from my childhood, and Wikipedia stated that Casper started as a concept for a children's picture book in 1939, conceived by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo. Oriolo sold the concept to an animation studio and Casper first appeared in a 1945 film. Here was a ghost who made friends with humans and interacted with them. Casper became the hero of a comic book series in 1952 which was published until the 1990s. He still appears in TV series and feature films.

The name Seymour Reit caught my eye because one of my favorite childhood books was The Worried Ghost (1976) by Reit! This tale of a ghostly clerk who needed a human to listen to him and get a long-overdue letter delivered is wonderful, and Quentin Blake's illustrations perfectly fit the book. What fun to find that Reit was at the beginning of this tradition of friendly ghosts back in the 1930s.

In 1948 appeared The Witch of Scrapfaggot Green, by Patricia Gordon, which was illustrated by William Pène du Bois. This story was set during WWII in England. American soldiers stationed near Scrapfaggot Green widened the road for their trucks, and unleashed a witch's ghost. Two young locals befriended the ghost, who turned out to be a mischievous prankster as well as their ancestress. I was fascinated to discover it was based on newspaper articles about a 1944 hoax in England, but in the book the witch was a real ghost. The author, Patricia Gordon, also wrote as Joan Howard, who wrote two of my favorite childhood books, and both names were pseudonyms for a husband-and-wife team, Rene and Patricia Prud'Hommeaux. This Witch book seems to have been the first to have an ancestral friendly ghost.

By 1954 the British author L.M. Boston had written The Children of Green Knowe, the first of a classic 7-book series, where an old house's ghosts interacted with the children who lived there in the mid-twentieth century. This, with its deeper sense of history, not the Witch book, seemed to be the real beginning of another thread in the tradition of friendly ghosts, i.e the concept of bringing history to life through the communication of ghosts and the living. These children interacted with ancestral ghosts and learned about the history of the house and their country. The author based Green Knowe on her own home, the Manor at Hemmingford Grey, which was originally built in the 1130s. It's on my very long list of children's literature-related sites to visit someday.

By 1958 the American author, Elizabeth Marie Pope, had written The Sherwood Ring, where a young girl encountered ancestral ghosts at her family home in New York. It was actually what today would be called a YA novel and quite different from the English Green Knowe books. But that sense of ancestry and history and getting a modern young person interested in the past was similar. There's a substantial section of it readable over on GoogleBooks. Just skip past the dreadful 2001 cover and enjoy reading it! (The cover shown is a library binding from 1958).

By the 1960s there were more children's books with ghosts in them who brought history to life for their young readers. These humanized ghosts were also usually shown in illustrations and the authors' descriptions as looking like people, not ghost shapes wearing sheets. I note that ghosts wearing sheets still appear in picture books for young children, but not usually in middle-grade and YA books. I wonder if their amorphous shapelessness is perceived as less frightening and thus safer for the very young? I also wondered when ghosts began to be portrayed as wearing sheets. I found a 1592 poem by Thomas Churchyard, "Strange farlies," which talks of ghosts walking in sheets. My brother suggested that the image of ghosts in sheets might be inspired by the very old custom of burying people in shrouds, also known as winding sheets. Davies in The Haunted confirmed this idea and gave information on ghosts' appearances dating back to the Middle Ages.

May Nickerson Wallace's Ghost of Dibble Hollow (1965) had a young boy moving to an ancestral New England farm and becoming friends with his ghostly boy great-uncle Miles Dibble who needed him to solve a family mystery and a feud with another family. Through his efforts at resolving the mystery, Pug also made friends and settled down to a country life.

Librarian Judith Spearing's The Ghosts Who Went To School (1966) was another Scholastic paperback staple for many years. I still have my childhood paperback copies of this as well as the Reit and Wallace books. This was about a whole ghost family who had been pioneers in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. It's very funny and the pageant where they retell the true history of the founding of the town is hysterical. I just discovered that Spearing did a sequel, The Museum House Ghosts (1969). I hope to get my hands on it.

The British author Antonia Barber wrote The Ghosts (1969). Charlotte's Library has a very good review of it here, so I won't try to summarize it. I show here an image of the cover of my childhood copy from 1977. I do observe that a theme of many of these books from the 1960s and 1970s is how humans can help the ghosts so they can be released from their ghostly existence and move on to heaven whereas the earlier books from the 1950s are more about the ghosts helping humans. Another point about this book is that it is both a ghost story and a time-travel story. Time-travel stories from E. Nesbit's The House of Arden (1908) onwards may have paved the path for the development of ghost stories for children. Many stories incorporate elements of both themes and emphasize the importance of learning about history.

The British author Eva Ibbotson's first book was The Great Ghost Rescue (1975) which is still in print. A young boy became friends with some ghosts and discovered that ghosts all over England were being driven out of their homes. He set out to rescue them and find them a permanent home. Ibbotson's ghosts have all kinds of idiosyncracies and the book is delightfully funny. She wrote some other ghost books, and any of them, indeed, any at all of her books are worth reading. Interestingly Wikipedia claimed that she stated that she disliked the supernatural and wrote her books to lessen her readers' fears of such things. However I found a 2005 interview with her where she stated that "I think ghosts generally get a bad press. My ghosts are very nice and often to be pitied".

During the 1960s and 1970s there was a vogue for collections of ghostly stories, some of which were truly creepy, or which purported to be stories of real ghosts. I avoided them as a child, but I did love the tales of Sorche Nic Leodhas, who collected Gaelic ghost stories, and presented them in books such as Ghosts Go Haunting (1965). These gentler ghost stories showed ghosts such as the mother who worried about her baby and needed reassurance that he would be taken care of. I do wonder if the creepier story collections may have sown the ground for the vogue for juvenile horror in the 1980s and 1990s such as the books by Christopher Pike and P.L. Stine.

There were a number of stories during the 1970s and 1980s that repeated the theme of teaching about history through these ghostly encounters. British authors such as Eileen Dunlop, Mollie Hunter, Penelope Lively, and William Mayne, drew on Britain's very deep history and their ghosts tended to be from earlier periods and less likely to be friendly. American authors drew from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War for inspiration, but you also find authors such as Mary Downing Hahn and Betty Ren Wright who had recent ghosts, often direct relatives, helping the children out of dangerous situations and helping them deal with the fact of their loved ones' deaths.

The 1980s also saw the appearance of some books that combined helpful and scary ghosts, such as E.W. Hildick's six-book Ghost Squad series, published from 1984 to 1988. The cover for The Ghost Squad Flies Concorde (1986) still frightens me when I see it among my books. The concept of the Ghost Squad was that of four teenage ghosts working with two human boys to solve crimes. One of the ghosts was Hispanic and a computer genius and found a way to communicate with his best friend, an African-American through a computer they had been working on before his death. The ghosts wanted to solve the mysteries of their deaths and found themselves solving other mysteries as well. They also encountered some truly scary and evil ghosts along the way.

1982 saw the publication of Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, which appears to be the first African-American ghost book and it remains distinct from other such books. I'm still investigating if there were earlier books with African-American ghosts. There aren't very many even today and they tend to have slave ghosts. This book has the ghost of the main characters' uncle who helps Tree and Dab understand their family history and why their mother is the way she is. I wonder if the current push to get African-Americans interested in their history and genealogy will inspire writers to produce relevant books with ghosts that are not associated with the Civil War.

There were also gentler books, such as Bruce Coville's The Ghost in the Third Row (1987) and its two sequels. I still wish he had written more books in that series. I loved the two friends Nine and Chris and their adventures. I do note that in the second book, The Ghost Wore Gray (1988), as well as a ghost of a Confederate soldier, at the end there is the ghost of a former slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

In the 1990s there were a number of books with ghosts and humans working together to solve historical mysteries.

Elaine Marie Alphin's Ghost Cadet (1991) portrayed the ghost of a real boy who was a Civil War soldier fighting on the Confederate side. Many Civil War ghost books focus on the Northern side or slavery so this is rather different. It was very moving in its final reunion scene. I was surprised to find that Virginia Military Institute (VMI), where this book was set, had a web page devoted to the young cadet William Hugh McDowell due to the many inquiries made by readers of this book.

I've found some books printed in the 2000s that have ethnic Chinese and Hispanic ghosts. In Meg Cabot's delightful Mediator series, Suze, a teenage psychic, can see ghosts and falls in love with Jesse, a Hispanic ghost. Much of the six-book series is taken up with trying to solve his nineteenth-century murder along with other ghostly encounters. Check Cabot's website for excerpts from the books and a free short story. Ethnic ghosts in children's books seem to be still uncommon, though that may be changing.

Today's books run the gamut with friendly and scary ghosts all over the place, from picture books to YA fiction. In the 2008 Newbery Medal winner, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book ghosts are key to the story. The hero is brought up in a graveyard by ghosts, and when he grows up, he must go out into the world of humans, never to see his ghost family again. This is unlike many earlier books, where ghosts are expected to go on to heaven after having their problems solved, leaving their human friends behind.

Over the last two hundred years children's books have shifted from showing ghosts as frightening images used to teach morals to ghosts as a common theme in all kinds of books for children, whether they be scary or friendly. The roots of this shift may well go back to 1887 but it really sprang to life in the 1930s and 1940s through picture books, comics and cartoons. I will hope to hear in the comments if my readers can identify earlier books with friendly ghosts and also that they will share their favorite children's books with ghosts in them.