I think about this subject every year at this time and did so even before I had kids. Maybe it’s because books had so much do with how my fantasy impressions of Halloween, not to mention the entire autumn season, have taken shape. Anyway, here’s a spotlight on six of my favorites.
Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep, by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel (1976):
Prelutsky seems to have written a children’s book a day for the last several decades, but this one really stays with you. It’s not just a collection of poems about monsters, but also the terrible things they do to their victims, who are almost always children. Lobel’s Edward Gorey-esque black and white sketches are masterful, the most frightening one being “The Ghoul,” which depicts a bald, pointy-eared creature perched atop a jungle gym, eyes fixed on a schoolhouse as children inside are getting ready to leave. (“He slices their stomachs and bites their hearts,” Prelutsky writes, “and tears their flesh to shreds.”)
How Spider Saved Halloween, by Robert Kraus (1973):
Kraus, like Prelutsky, is another writer who sneezes out kids books by the score. But his “Spider” books stand out because he does the rather crude crayon drawings himself, and they’re great. Most Americans my age and younger probably remember this one with great fondness and can recall the three challenges Spider overcomes: 1) Finding a convincing costume; 2) Scaring off two bug bullies who have been out smashing pumpkins and spraying trick or treaters with shaving cream; and 3) winning the full friendship of a petty character named Fly.
The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight, by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Arnold Lobel (1980):
Fun-loving duo Jack and Arnold’s sequel to Nightmares isn’t quite as bloodthirsty but just as creepy. The standout here is “The Darkling Elves,” depicting a quorum of twelve tiny apostles of evil gazing down from a tree at a sweet and unsuspecting little girl reading a book.
The Witch Who Went Out for a Walk, by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Krystyna Stasiak (1981):
In this book, we follow the travels of a green witch and her black cat who, strangely enough, have never seen owls, bats, jack-o-lanterns, or trees with faces on them before. Finally the witch decides to call it a night when the sight of trick or treaters finally freaks her out. Stasiak’s rich and colorful illustrations pay tribute to Eastern European naive art and make this one a must.
Granny Greenteeth and the Noise in the Night, by Kenn and Joanne Compton (1993):
In this story, a witch can’t read her book at night because of a strange noise under her bed. After failing to get help from a resident cat, broomstick, ghost, troll, goblin, bats, and bugaboo, all of whom prove to be whiny, excuse-making bums, she lets out a scream which finally scares them into action. The illustrations are all bug-eyed and funny, providing a lasting image of the quintessential scaredy cat.
Very Scary, by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Douglas Florian (1995):
This is another one featuring unusually gorgeous water colors that seem to capture the very mood of Halloween. The simple story’s good too: A number of nuisances slowly invade a nighttime pumpkin patch – owls, cats, crickets, children, and a real life witch. The kids find an enormous pumpkin, carve a face on it, and when they finally stick the candle in, it shrieks out a “boo,” scaring the pants off every last creature (including the witch, whose hair stands on end) and sending them all scurrying home, thus reaffirming what we’ve all learned elsewhere: The Great Pumpkin always gets the last laugh.