Best Kids' Books for Halloween
You know it’s Halloween when your neighbor puts a fake corpse under his car tires and you get chased down the street by a teen in a mask with something that sure looks like a chainsaw. My kids experienced both of these when trick-or-treating, demonstrating that everyone has a different line of demarcation between “funny” and “scary”… and that line can move in either direction from one year to the next.
So think carefully as you choose your Halloween read-aloud. You can find everything from preschooler silly to tween nightmare-inducing. Here are a few ideas and how they rate for scares:
Pumpkin Jack by Will Hubbell (Albert Whitman, 2000, 32 pages) tells the story of Tim, who carves his first Halloween pumpkin and names it (big surprise) Jack. When Jack begins to rot, Tim puts him out in the garden. A year goes by, with the pumpkin going through a cycle of stages, until there is a new Jack the following Halloween.
How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin? by Margaret McNamara (Schwartz & Wade, 2007, 40 pages) is part of a picture book series about Mr. Tiffin’s classroom. When the class estimates the number of seeds in their pumpkins, Charlie, the smallest member of the class, is surprised to learn that the smallest pumpkin has the most seeds. A great introduction to both estimation and kindness.
Scare factor on the pumpkin books: None.
One of my favorite Halloween read-aloud combinations is The Hallo-wiener by Dav Pilkey (Blue Sky Press, 1995, 32 pages) and The Haunted Hamburger and Other Ghostly Stories by David LaRochelle (Dutton, 2011, 40 pages). Poor Oscar (The Hallo-wiener) is a dachshund who endures taunts of “Wiener Dog” from the other dogs. When his mother buys him a giant hot dog bun for his Halloween costume, Oscar feels doomed to have a miserable night of trick-or-treating. But being low to the ground can have its advantages, and by the end of the night, Oscar’s nickname has changed from Wiener Dog to Hero Sandwich.
The two protagonists of The Haunted Hamburger are young ghosts Franny and Frankie. Father Ghost is trying to get them to sleep, but all they want is more bedtime stories. Father obliges with “The Scary Baby” and “The Haunted Hamburger”, but by the time he gets to “The Big Bad Granny”, his patience is wearing thin. At the end, he goes to bed himself, leaving the youngsters to try to stay awake all night. But Father has one more trick up his sleeve that gets everyone settled down in a hurry.
Scare factor: If you read The Haunted Hamburger in a spectral voice, you may be able to create a single shiver down a young spine. But it will quickly be erased by laughter. You’re safe with The Hallo-wiener unless someone suffers from frankophobia (irrational fear of hot dogs).
If your kids are ready for something scarier than a Fourth of July cookout menu item, have no fear. You can hand them the heart-pounding Skeleton Man (HarperCollins, 2001, 128 pages) by Joseph Bruchac, who draws on his Native American heritage in several frightening books. Molly has grown up hearing her father tell stories from his Mohawk heritage about strong children defeating evil characters like the Skeleton Man. She has to draw on the courage she’s learned from these tales when her parents disappear and she’s taken in by a creepy old man who claims to be her uncle. Other horror tales by Bruchac include Bearwalker, The Dark Pond, Whisper in the Dark, and The Return of Skeleton Man.
Orphans Molly (a different Molly than Skeleton Man) and Kip have to be every bit as resourceful when they’re hired as servants in a spooky English mansion occupied by a pale, sickly family in The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier (Abrams, 2014, 368 pages). When Kip sees a ghostly gardener entering the house after dark, and Molly realizes everyone in the house has nightmares every night, they know they are up against an evil force threatening their lives and those of the family who lives there.
Scare factor: Extreme! Preview both of these before handing them to your kids. But they’re appropriate for those 10 and up who enjoy the horror genre.
And to round out the list, a couple new books that take place on Halloween. Ghosts is the most recent graphic novel by perennial favorite Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic, 2016, 256 pages). Sisters Catrina and Maya are adjusting to their new hometown after a move to help Maya’s cystic fibrosis. A neighbor boy tries to introduce them to the ghosts that are said to inhabit the town, but Catrina refuses to believe. Maya is fascinated by them, though, and the story becomes something of a meditation on life and death that peaks at a ghostly gathering on Halloween night.
In School of the Dead by Avi (Harper Collins, 2016, 288 pages) Tony is new in town, too, and starting at a school that his strange late Uncle Charlie insisted he attend. There are rumors of ghosts here, too, and stories of children who have mysteriously disappeared. Tony’s afraid he may be targeted to be next, and it’s impossible to tell whom to trust. The story unfolds with lots of suspenseful twists and turns until Tony is forced to take on the ghosts at the school’s Halloween party.
Scare factor: Ghosts is pretty scare-free, although it does get into some moderately heavy questions about life and death. School of the Dead has vengeful ghosts and plenty of suspense, but doesn’t move into Skeleton Man/Night Gardener territory.