“It’s a little monster, a Little Ghoul, that is anxious for her first day of school and because she’s a monster her anxieties are the opposite of what a human child’s would be,” Czeka says. Her worst fears are that people will be friendly and lunch will be delicious. “It’s a way to point out anxieties without kids feeling too self-conscious about them.”
It’s a book “to talk about kid anxieties, but in a funny way. My default is make it gross, make it kind of scary,” Czekaj says. The book arrives as many schools are going back to full classrooms this fall for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. “This one was ironically written before the pandemic, but it seems very timely,” he says. “…With covid, I think everyone’s feeling more anxious”
Join Czekaj and friends for a release party for the book at the outdoor patio behind Remnant Brewing at 2 Bow Market Way in Somerville on Sunday, Aug. 29, from 3 to 5 p.m. It will feature music, books, puppets and prizes. It’s free (except for drinks).
Czekaj, who moved with his partner and their son to Arlington this year after two decades living in Somerville, has illustrated 14 children’s books—including “Hip & Hop Don’t Stop!,” “Cat Secrets,” “Dog Rules” and “Austin Lost in America.” When the pandemic arrived, Czekaj created his DIY kids television show “Sequestered Storytime with Jef Czekaj,” which debuted in April 2020 on social media and Somerville Community Access Television in partnership with the Somerville Public Library. In 27 episodes (so far), he reads from children’s books by himself and others and performs puppets, original songs, magic and drawing how-tos. (My sweetheart Kari Percival and I, as Wonderland Spectacle Co., have made art and nature videos included in the series.)
“A lot of my books I start doodling a character and then I start doodling a character a lot and Little Ghoul was one of them,” Czekaj says. For him, the character stirs a vague memory from childhood, or perhaps an echo of John Stanley’s comics character Melvin Monster.
Czekaj, himself, struggled with anxieties about school in early elementary school until fourth or fifth grade. “I would get migraine headaches almost once a week or once every couple of weeks.” It could get so bad that he sometimes vomited. “I think I was just holding in a lot. I wasn’t picked on or bullied. School was just too much for me. I was just a shy, quiet kid.”
“I wasn’t really thinking of that when I wrote the book,” Czekaj notes. “But obviously there was a connection there.”
When he was in early elementary school, “they didn’t know what was going on with me,” he recalls, so the adults signed him up for lots of tests, including “brain scans.” They pulled him out of gym. So he got to stay with his first grade teacher instead and draw. “I was already drawing, but to get that time was super important to me as a kid.” And was a beginning leading him to becoming the artist he is today.
Spoiler alert: “Little Ghoul Goes to School” ends with everything turning out okay—lunch at her school is actually repulsive and the place is full of monsters. Czekaj relished drawing strange, cute dragons and mummies and gorgons, things with horns and three eyes and oozing slime.
“The other thing I wanted to put into the book is a tribute to school specialists,” Czekaj says. “…The characters that make Little Ghoul feel better are the art teacher and the librarian.” Roles Czekaj values, but that that seem to be shrinking in schools. “School librarians can talk up your book too. So from a marketing standpoint genius,” he jokes.
The librarian was inspired partly by “activist cool librarians” and the librarians in the children’s room at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library, where he often took his son when he was younger. In the story, there’s a Principal Edelman leading a school. At public readings he’s given of the book, “everyone thinks the principal is named for [retired New England Patriots football star] Julian Edelman,” Czekaj says. In fact, it’s a tribute to his partner, Jacy Edelman, an educator who works for a company that creates software to teach kids programming. “There are no sports references in the book.”
The Aug. 29 book release party at Remnant Brewing has a lineup of authors and bands. Peanut of Adventure—Czekaj’s band with Chris Braiotta (of the band Planet of Adventure) and Ernie Kim—will perform Czekaj’s original songs from “Sequestered Storytime.” Puppets from the show will also appear. Jamaica Plain children’s book author Vita Murrow—author of “Power to the Princess” as well as a series of books about brave animals—will read and may perform a puppet. There will be a performance by Noell Dorsey, a “classically-trained opera singer” and lead singer of the “legendary local rock band called Major Stars, a super guitar-heavy rock band. She also does weird experimental vocals stuff,” Czekaj explains. There will be an appearance by Cotton Candy, which is Mark Robinson and Evelyn Hurley, of Teen-Beat records and bands including Unrest, who now cohost the WMBR radio show “Mark and Evelyn’s American Top 41” on Sundays. They sing a cappella renditions of old jingles.
“I always try to do something that will freak out people. That’s kind of my goal,” Czekaj says. “…Going to kids events as a parent can be kind of boring and terrible.” Which, you know, is why he scheduled this one at a place where beer is readily available. “My background is Allston basement shows and weird noise shows, so I try to bring that to the kids world.”
The resurgent delta variant of covid “makes it kind of a weird time to be planning an event,” Czekaj acknowledges. “I’m telling [grown-up] people to not come if they’re not vaccinated and kids should wear masks.”
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