14 Halloween Children’s Books to Set Your Pumpkins on Edge

Originally published October 30, 2016.

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It’s that time of year again — the time when the dead raise the living, when unremembered trauma traps a ghost, when even the timid John Pig invites a witch and her friends in for a party, when children battle malevolent ghosts in a parallel London, and, of course, when carrots intimidate rabbits! In celebration of Halloween, some of Kansas State University’s Children’s Literature faculty suggest books that frighten and books that brighten (not all of our recommendations are scary).

Happy Halloween!

And look out for that carrot!  No, NO — the carrot behind you!

PICTURE BOOKS

Judith Ross Enderle and Stephanie Gordon Tessler, Six Creepy Sheep, illustrated by John O’Brien (1992)
A reverse counting book, a picture book, and a celebration of poetic sound patterns, particularly alliteration, this delightful book depicts what happens when six sheep dress up in costumes and venture out “one spooky Halloween night.” O’Brien’s illustrations perpetuate the wordplay, for example, depicting a “passel of pirates” as pigs. A contender for Best Halloween book ever.

Mark Newgarden and Megan Montague Cash, Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors (2014)
Like the first Bow-Wow picture book (Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug, 2007), this wordless tale speaks the pictorial language of the comic strip. In this adventure, our intrepid terrier faces off against ghost cats in a haunted house, but — I hasten to add — the book is funny, not scary. The tone is more Buster Keaton than Boris Karloff, more well-timed gag than hair-raising fright. Since it is more likely to charm than to spook, the book is ideal for the easily frightened — and, of course, for any who enjoy a well-told tale.

Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown, Creepy Carrots! (2012)
Is Jasper Rabbit paranoid … or are those carrots following him?  Is that the “soft … sinister … tunktunktunk of carrots creeping”? Influenced by the shadowed compositions of film noir, Peter Brown restricts his color palate to black and white … and orange. His visual storytelling creates just the right mood for Aaron Reynolds’ words. Until the very end, we’re not 100% sure whether Jasper Rabbit is just imagining these menacing vegetables or whether they really are after him.

Dr. Seuss, “What Was I Scared Of?” (from The Sneetches and Other Stories, 1961)
Colored in dark hues and set entirely at night, this Seuss story is actually a bit scary: Why does this “pair of pale green pants / With nobody inside them” haunt our protagonist? He or she (the nameless character’s gender is never revealed) has a series of close calls with these empty, sentient pants until, finally, they meet face to face. At that point, fear gives way to understanding. Realizing that each character was afraid of the other (“I was just as strange to them / As they were strange to me!”), the two become friends.  A tale about confronting your fears.

Duncan Tonatiuh, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (2015)

Tonatiuh’s picture book tells the story of José Guadalupe Posada and his calaveras — festive skeletons associated with el Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead). A mix of biography and cultural history, the book does not strive to scare — but Posada’s calaveras are both grim and humorous. Tonatiuh includes original art by Posada, accompanied by pithy observations and questions. Next to an image of skeletal figures working in the street, Tonatiuh asks whether Don Lupe (as Posada was known) was telling us that “calaveras are all around us? That we are all Calaveras, whether we are rich or poor, famous or not?” With dark humor and good will, the book considers death as an invitation to reflect on life.

Jan L. Waldron, John Pig’s Halloween, illustrated by David McPhail (1998)
In this picture book, John Pig is too frightened to venture out with his mates on Halloween Night. A witch and her familiar crash-land on his doorstep, and, as a courteous host, he invites them in. A party with plenty of home-made treats ensues. A satisfying story and gorgeous illustrations will make this a necessary family tradition.

CHAPTER BOOKS & PROSE TALES

Peter Beagle, Tamsin (1999)
A 13-year old New Yorker is abruptly uprooted from her home and taken to live with a new stepfamily in an ancient farmhouse in Dorset. Mysterious cold spots in the kitchen, sinister giggles in the bathroom, and a ghost cat lead Jenny to Tamsin, who lived during the terrible scourge following the Monmouth Rebellion in the late seventeenth century. Tamsin has “stopped,” as she calls it, because there is something she cannot bear to remember. Jenny must help her recall it, and brave not only the Wild Hunt, but also the malevolent ghost of Judge Jeffries who hanged so many of her countrymen. Potent, mesmerizing fantasy.

Tananarive Due, Ghost Summer: Stories (2015)
A teacher with a tarnished past comes to the deep south, where her daily solace is the lake behind her new house, full of longing.  A mother suspects her child has been taken, replaced by a monster…a monster who loves her.  The American-Book-Award-winning author turns her talent for long, slow horror novels to sharp, dense, lucidly memorable short stories, stories written for adults but perfect for teens.

Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (2010)
Moody more than terrifying, this is a children’s novel of a little boy who falls into the hands of monsters–who care for him as their own.  Outside the graveyard, an ancient conspiracy searches for the boy whom the ghosts name Nobody; inside the graveyard, the boy learns about history, fear, death, and the warm embrace of the long dead.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898)
A governess fears that her youthful charges are haunted by the unspeakable deeds of their late caretakers. But could she be mistaken? Is the evil only in her mind? A classic gothic tale written for adults, but powerful for teen readers as well.

Charles Perrault, “Blue Beard” (1697)
A wealthy widower woos and wins a naive young girl. He then goes on a business trip, charging her to enjoy and explore her new mansion, with the exception of one room, whose key is included in the ring he gives her. What she finds in the room, and her desperate attempts to erase the evidence build to a suitably suspenseful conclusion.

Alvin Schwartz, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (1985)
This is a classic for many reasons. We still fondly remember the resolution of “The Green Ribbon.” For years, our son structured all of the stories he created for us along the lines of “In a Dark, Dark Room.” And “[h]ave you seen the ghost of John…?” You don’t know your Halloween children’s literature if you haven’t entered Schwartz’s Dark, Dark Room…

Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races (2013)
Every November, the horses come out of the sea.  Every November, the men of one small island ride them.  Every November, the men die.  This November, one girl, her family slowly disintegrating around her, will ride with them, unless she’s killed by the horses…or the men.  A richly imagined, poignant novel for teens.

Jonathan Stroud, The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.) (2013)
A London that has been plagued by ghosts for over fifty years fights back with Detection Agencies that train and use children who have the needed psychic abilities. Witty and sometimes very scary and eerie, this first book of a series features narrator Lucy Carlyle, a young teen from northern England who joins the small detective agency, Lockwood, composed only of teens (no adult supervision) and in fierce competition with better funded  and more conventional agencies.

Contributors:

Carol Franko: Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase. Philip Nel: Newgarden and Cash’s Bow-Wow’s Nightmare Neighbors, Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s Creepy Carrots, Tonatiuh’s Funny Bones, Seuss’s “What Was I Scared Of?” Anne Phillips: Waldron’s John Pig’s Halloween, Enderle and Tessler’s Six Creepy Sheep, Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room. Joe Sutliff Sanders: Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, Due’s Ghost Summer. Naomi Wood: James’ Turn of the Screw, Perrault’s “Blue Beard,” Beagle’s Tamsin.

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