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Written by e.e. cummings
Illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1989
If all-hallow's-eve could be summed up in two syllables, it would be e.e. cumming’s hist whist. Accompanied by taut illlustrations from Deborah Kogan Ray, this reinterpretation delivers a mouthful that we’ll be chewing on for some time.
The book is one of the most sensory works of art that I’ve come across in a while, and it’s also the most simplistic. It takes us through a cast of some of Halloween’s greatest: ghosts, witches with warts, toads, mice, and, to top it all off, devils. In that sense, it’s traditional in its subject, but there is nothing traditional about e.e. cumming’s approach. The writing is quick and playful, especially with its cadence, rhyme, and onomatopoeia, as in the following: “histwhist/ little ghostthings / tip-toe / twinkle-toe.” You have to see it on the page to fully appreciate the affect. It’s skintight. It’s an image of three ghosts in bed sheets hovering over a moonscape of blue, one with a bright, yellow circle of light. Minimalistic in both language and imagery, it strikes a sort of primeval cord that’s the basis of fear and really the basis of Halloween.
D.K.R. renders e.e. cumming’s writing with smooth, eerily quiet illustrations that highlight the poem’s darkness. Each page looks like it’s wisping its way to the next. The first words themselves, separated by little more than a tab space, give an onomatopoetic sound to its ghostly tone: hist whist. It seems to me, that D.K.R.’s style is all about contrast: it’s quiet yet full of movement; it’s dark with bursts of warm color; and though each scene is simple, you can’t help but let your eye dive into its luster. On one page spread, there’s a yellow devil on one side and a red devil on the other, with only the two words, “devil / devil,” that practically dares you to tag along with e.e. cummings and D.K.R. in reimagining the cultish, whimsical scene.
By the end of the poem, with the last cheer of “wheeEEE,” D.K.R. makes the brilliant choice to show how all the ghosts, witches, toads, mice, and devils we’ve seen beforehand are actually costumes, ending the poem, as I suspect was also e.e. cumming’s aim, on a celebratory note. It’s the idea of being attracted to what we think is frightening: it’s irresistible.
This mischievous little goblin of a book has captured the atmosphere of a holiday that we’ve been lured towards for centuries, and it does so with yearning brevity. It’s a combination of verse and imagery that calls for your attention, as well as your participating imagination, in reinventing not only a wonderful poem but all those memories of carved pumpkins, ghost stories, trick-or-treating, and costumed runs through the neighborhood. So now, when I think of Halloween as it approaches this year, I’ll be thinking of hist whist.
Colter J. Ruland has a BA in English from The University of Arizona. He's an associate teacher at a charter school in Tucson.