Spooky Safe Picture Books

*This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Kids & Books.*

My daughter’s brilliant preschool teacher understood the fear factor for young children. Early in October, she’d begin to downplay Halloween scariness and play up the fun. She put a skeleton in a small high chair and recommended feeding him because “he needs a little meat on his bones.” She desensitized the children to costumes by changing out gloves in the dress-up corner — a white glove was replaced by a dishwashing glove and finally a hairy monster paw appeared. In time, the children became as happy to wear it as the others.

In October, scary masks and stories have a haunting presence — they’re everywhere from costume stores to library shelves. Some young children may prefer safe-spooky to downright scary and this sensitivity can continue into early elementary school years. There are others who will always avoid the fearful and seek out the fun of Halloween. Below find recent books that will do the trick: treat children to safe scary good times.

Ghost in the House by Ammi-Joan Paquette, illustrated by Adam Record

“There’s a ghost in the house, in the creepy haunted house, on this dark spooky night, all alone.” But he’s not alone; he hears a groan. A flap reveals a mummy that makes two “in the creepy haunted house, on this dark spooky night.” In total there are five scary characters, all of whom are frightened by the spookiest creature of all — a boy! Flap turning, guessing characters, the repeated refrain and the ending twist all make this a fun read-aloud for younger children who are still learning Halloween icons. (ages 3-5)

It’s Raining Bats and Frogs by Rebecca Colby, illustrated by Steven Henry

Delia, a young witch, looks forward to flying in the Witch Parade every year. When her elders despair that it’s “raining on our parade,” Delia whips out her wand and chants to change the wet into raining cats and dogs. This pleases everyone at first, then animal abundance brings new problems. The cheery Delia substitutes new chants turning the rain into “hats and clogs.” And, at first, these please her fashion-conscious elders until they begin to argue over ownership. Bats and frogs proves worse and Delia toys with additional, alternative ideas: “gnats and bogs,” “mats and logs,” and “rats and hogs.” By this time Delia can predict potential disasters and returns the weather to regular raindrops. This forecast brings pleasure to all as floats float, the marching band learns synchronized swimming, and the witches toss water balloons. The young witch’s power of imagination, surprising results, and the author’s use of clever clichés add up to fun. (ages 4-7)

Ethan Long Presents Fright Club, written and illustrated by Ethan Long

Vladimir, the vampire, assembles his friends in a tree house for one last coaching session before Halloween.  Speech balloons and illustrations set a tone similar to that of most inspirational speakers. A flip chart spells out the three traits of highly successful monsters: “1. Ghoulish Faces 2. Scary Moves 3. Chilling Sounds.” Vladimir’s audience — a mummy, witch, werewolf, and Frankenstein’s monster — look rapt. That’s until a rap on the door interrupts them.  It’s a small rabbit begging to join. Quickly, Vladimir chases the intruder off. The monsters are practicing their skills when another knock announces the bunny’s return with her attorney Frances Foxx. He protests that his client has been “denied her inclusion in your so-called Fright Club.” These are only the first two interlopers — soon the tree house is swarmed by insects and stormed by other animals until the members of the Fright Club are pop-eyed with fear. The invasions teach them that “not only monsters make ghoulish faces, scary moves, and chilling sounds. And when it comes to scaring the more the merrier.” A “scary good” inclusive Halloween ensues. Adults will enjoy the sophisticated references their audiences may miss and children will be thrilled with the familiar theme of exclusion presented in a new way. (ages 4-7)

The Little Shop of Monsters by R.L. Stine, illustrated by Marc Tolon Brown

For years, R.L. Stine has been acclaimed as the master of spooky stories, but his first picture book is dramatically different. The male narrator begins, “Psssst…hey, you! Are you afraid of monsters?” Then he and his sister invite brave readers to come along with them to the monster shop. Once inside, the boy leads readers past cute growling, snapping monsters such as Snackers — “hand-shaking not recommended for hands are his favorite food.” Next come the stinkiest, pukiest, rottenest, yuckiest monsters, like Sneezer who performs his expected feat prompting the narrator to suggest that “you’d better get a towel and wipe the sneeze off this book.” There are the Yucky-Mucky Twins who are “ooey and gooey. They’re sticky and slimy. They’re goopy and wet and clammy and drippy” and they love to hug. Pacing speeds up as the narrator warns, “Quick! Turn the page! Turn it fast! Phew! You just escaped.” The ending provides one of Stine’s trademark twists. Things may not be as they appear sometimes; “the monsters may select you.” Marc Brown has as much fun drawing the rather comic beasts as Stine does immersing himself in wordplay. This safe-scary romp makes a perfect read-aloud. (ages 4-7)

Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson

An author known for twists and humor writes a more straightforward story that humanizes ghosts. The hero, Leo, is a ghost who can’t be seen. He lives alone “on the edge of the city, reading books and drawing pictures in the dust.” When a family moves in Leo, a good host, makes them mint tea and honey toast, but they’re scared. Leo, upset by frightening them, flees. He roams to the city where he is ignored until he finally meets Jane, a wonderful playmate who can see him. She knights him, introduces him to her invisible animals and assumes he’s one of the imaginary crew. Leo, happy to finally have a friend, worries about telling her he’s a ghost. The truth emerges after Leo dons a sheet and scares off a thief. This time it’s Leo who’s surprised for Jane loves having a ghost friend even better than having an imaginary one. The book ends warmly, “they went to the kitchen to have mint tea and honey toast at midnight.” Illustrator Christian Robinson’s chosen blue tones convey twilight and sad moods. (ages 4-6)

The Dead Family Diaz: A Story of Family, Fiestas and Friendship by P.J. Bracegirdle, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

The book begins as “the dead sun chased off the dead moon. All across the Land of the Dead, everyone’s spirits were high.” A child unfamiliar with the Day of the Dead may need a bit of basic knowledge, but all will be intrigued by Angelito, a skeleton boy, who is scared to walk among the living. His sister Estrellita is excited to experience the living who have “big red tongues and bulging eyes” and are “hot and squishy” to the touch. Angelito’s mother is quick to tell her son that “the living are our friends.” Soon Angelito and his family take the elevator to the Land of the Living where he loses his family. Thankfully he meets friendly Pedro (who in reality is a boy wearing a skeleton mask). After an initial mutual fright, the two become friends and “the Dead boy discovered that he didn’t need guts to be brave.” Along with the theme of friendship and a vivid presentation of the holiday, there are a slew of jokey, punny bits that will please young readers. (ages 4-7)

Each of these books can be a jumping off point for discussing Halloween’s meaning and making it friendlier for young readers. Representing the spirit of the festivities, they encourage imagination, invite surprise, inspire inclusion, applaud friendship, embrace seeming differences and enliven the ordinary with not-too-spooky thrills.

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