• Grace McKinney

Spooky and Other Synonyms: Halloween-ish Picture Books

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

Stockings and nutcrackers are cropping up in stores, and you know what that means—it's Halloween! I jest, I jest. (Well, kind of.)


Though we're too late to recommend books to throw into the cycle this year (but Gaby's list provides some thoughts on the culture of costuming and her article provides some thoughts about scary stories), we did think long and hard about what kind of resource we'd hope to provide. We sifted through ghostly rhymes and witchy stories. We considered the bats, the pumpkins, and the other usual suspects of tricking and treating. We even reminisced a bit about our own favorite costumes and traditions.


And that's where I wanted to jump in: the tradition of it all, the cultural importance of Halloween and the basis of this now candy-crusted holiday. In a thoughtful piece about holidays in the Montessori classroom, Ginni Sackett calls holidays "an important part of the cosmic human experience – holidays structure our orientation to and interpretation of our experience as a species and as individuals; they order and regulate our relationship to the human and non-human worlds, to both everyday and profound experience, to the known and the unknown." Her thoughts and guidelines led me down a rabbit hole in search of cultural festivals or holidays that honor the dead around the world, in hopes that I could offer a list of books in which children and their grown ups could learn more about how we universally gather to commemorate those we have loved. Beyond a handful of pretty gorgeous books surrounding Día de los Muertos, I could find little.


While that list is still one I'd love to make, I've still got a few picture books to offer that capture the spirit of the spookiest season.The first little group is all about what-to-expect-when-you're-spooking; each narrative centers on trick-or treating, the typical American child's experience of Halloween festivities. Their content will be a little more familiar, and may help the child new to the tradition as to what exactly you're doing at the neighbor's house on a Wednesday.




And Then Comes Halloween by Tom Brenner, illustrated by Holly Meade


Kirkus lauds this title aptly: "A present-tense evocation of the season leads ineluctably to Halloween: “WHEN neighbors rake fallen leaves into piles, / and the sky is that certain deep blue, / and bins of pumpkins arrive at the grocery store… / THEN bring one home and scoop and carve….” Brenner’s gentle text captures the anticipation and the execution of a perfect Halloween, well-chosen words and a keen understanding of what’s important (“Dump the bags of candy on the floor”) getting to the heart of the event. Meade’s watercolor collages modulate from the vibrant hues of early autumn to the washed-out golds and greens of late October in the North Country, depicting flocks of children trick-or-treating in an idealized, cheerfully lit neighborhood. The way Halloween should be."



Pumpkin Eye by Denise Fleming


In her signature bold paper-pulp illustrations against a dark background, Fleming carries the reader through the sights and sounds of trick or treating. Simple, rhythmic, and rhyming text winds through the jack-o-lanterns and spirits that line the streets upon Halloween's arrival.




A Tiger Called Thomas by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Diana Cain Bluthenthal


A different, earlier version (though still not the first) of Zolotow's A Tiger Called Thomas, which we'd recommend as much as the latest one.




Behind the Mask by Yangsook Choi


Gaby included this one in her list on costumes, too. I'd recommend this one for a slightly older crowd, since it's a little more text-heavy than any others in this list.




hist whist by e. e. cummings, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray


I'll be honest here: As a standalone poem, "Hist Whist" actually freaks me out a little bit. Here's a taste:


"whisk     look out for the old woman

with the wart on her nose

what she’ll do to yer

nobody knows"


What will she do?! I don't want to know. One of the spookier picture books on this list, hist whist joins the group because of Ray's playful illustrations that tilt the poem towards costume play—just enough to reassure children (read: me) that all the ghoulies and witches and devils in the poem are really children, out and about and enjoying a trick-or-treating stroll. Unmasked on the final spread, the children shout "wheeEEE," inviting us to enjoy it, too. But not without being just a little scared.




But if you're looking to be spooked outside the limits of Hallow-tide (is that a thing?), I also wanted to include a couple of generally delightful ghost stories for some of our elementary-aged audience members.




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


A ghost named Leo departs the home he's been haunting so he can see the world, and he meets Jane. Jane believes Leo to be her imaginary friend until an emergency situation arises and Leo must tell her that he is, in fact, not so imaginary. Whimsical and ever-so-slightly spooky, Leo shows that friendship can transcend time.




Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann


I have a soft spot in my heart for Eric Rohmann, and this picture book is no exception. Before Gus's beloved dog Ella dies, she makes a promise that's she'll always be with him. On Halloween, though, skeleton-clad Gus isn't in the mood to do much of anything without her. But when a crowd of skeletons puts Gus in danger, Ella holds true to her promise. Rohmann's Halloween-ish tribute to man's best friend is simultaneously sad, alarming, and ultimately heartwarming.




The Bake Shop Ghost by Jacqueline Ogburn, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman


When revered neighborhood baker Cora Lee Merriweather dies, her shop lies dormant. The people who try to take over end up running away screaming, because Cora Lee isn't quite ready to leave and isn't quite a friendly ghost, to say the least. Annie Washington comes on the scene, though, and challenges Cora Lee to a ghostly bake-off. An ode to baked goods, neighborhoods, and the cure for loneliness, The Bake Shop Ghost entices in its ghostly and gourmet themes.

Now, this one I just discovered recently, though it's an older title. In my research I also uncovered this short film created as an ode to the picture book—if you have fifteen minutes, it's really worth the watch. They talk about buttercream almost enough to drive you drool-y.



I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for books that could make the list I hoped to make, but until then—happy haunting! What scary stories are you telling tonight?


Print this list! Click here for a link to a condensed version of this list in Google Drive.

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