Why is Halloween such a heavenly holiday for children? Here's one answer from Barbara Robinson's The Best Halloween Ever: "It's like you get to have all the candy there is, all at once. You get to look at it, and count it, and separate it into little piles . . . . And trade it . . . and eat it."

Halloween can be terrifying, not to mention cavity-promoting, but The Best Halloween Ever is part of a fresh batch of books that concentrate on good, ghoulish fun. Robinson has legions of fans from previous books featuring the Herdman clan, truly terrorizing children who appear in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and The Best School Year Ever. Just how bad are they? So bad that their school principal has cancelled Halloween, designing a school festival with no candy. He hopes the Herdmans won't show up, but of course, we know they will. This is a genuinely funny family read-aloud for older kids.

Monstrous celebrations
Stay in the groove with Wild Witches' Ball by Jack Prelutsky. Prelutsky is definitely a king if not the king of children's poetry, and this particular verse is a counting rhyme that will give kids plenty to giggle about ("Four fat bags took healthy bites from parts of three unsightly frights"). Artist Kelly Asbury's witches all look friendly; there's even a Cinderella-like witch wearing a pumpkin gown. While this book is a short read for little ones, it could easily be a lively vocabulary lesson for slightly older kids ("Witches eight with mangy tresses danced with seven sorceresses"). That's the beauty of Prelutsky: he's a poet for kids of all ages.

Old and young alike will frolic the night away with Monsters Party All Night Long, by Adam J.B. Lane. Poor old Count Dracula is lonely, so "From 'round the world to Castle Drac/The monsters come a-knocking/And with a grin/They're welcomed in/And soon the night is rocking."

Lane calls his illustrations "sculpstrations," because he made and photographed three-dimensional sculptures. Reminiscent of Claymation meets The Nightmare Before Christmas, Lane's artwork is colorful, creative and loads of fun. Little ones won't find the scenes scary, while there are plenty of sophisticated jokes, including a mummy deejay and a cemetery with headstones such as "Ghoulvin Klein" and "Oscar DeComposa."

More Halloween festivities are in store for readers of David Costello's Here They Come! A family of little green monsters lives in the woods, eager for their big party of the year. Cheery rhyming verse and illustrations show a parade of whimsical guests, including warlocks, ghosts, hobgoblins and werewolves. These monsters are a cute bunch, so the preschool set is unlikely to flinch. Costello has just the right combination of silliness and delightful jitters.

The skinny on witches
For a final Halloween treat, gather around a cozy fire and read Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale by Virginia Hamilton. Beware this is a wonderful story, but a bit scary, so share it only with children ages eight and up.

The late Virginia Hamilton a great in children's literature was fascinated by black folklore about witches who hang up their skin and ride other people through the air. In the story she creates, young James Lee describes how a black cat jumped onto his Uncle Big Anthony and wouldn't let go. The cat was actually a "Wee Winnie," a witch. Every night the witch rides Anthony through the sky, and one night the witch captures James Lee and takes him riding high. Hamilton keeps the story simple and the tension high. Her text is perfectly paired with the work of another master: Barry Moser. His colored wood engravings offer realistic but frightening views and angles even I cringe at the sight of the Wee Winnie shedding her skin. Yet the terror is perfect, never gratuitous. This is a superb choice for tweens who still love Halloween but are ready for more chilling fare.



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