On Halloween night, the streets of our small town burst with goblins and strolling parents. It’s a once-a-year party that can’t be beat. Here are four picture books guaranteed to get you in the “spirit.”

Jon J Muth continues his captivating, thought-provoking Zen series in Zen Ghosts, a unique Halloween tale. As in Zen Shorts and Zen Ties, the story features a giant panda, Stillwater, who pays an instructive visit to three siblings. After trick-or-treating, Stillwater “draws” the trio a mysterious story, based on a Zen koan, or parable. Muth explains in an author’s note that this great ghost story “leaves you with more questions than answers,” and he’s right. His trio of Zen books can truly be enjoyed—and contemplated—by all ages.

The Curious Little Witch, by the late Belgian author/illustrator Lieve Baeten, is a delightful book, perfect for youngsters who want some non-scary Halloween fun. Lizzy and her cat are taking a spin on Lizzy’s broomstick when they spot an unusual house, which turns out to be full of magical details and friendly witches. Upon landing, Lizzy breaks her broom, leaving her in a pickle. She explores the house room by room, from top to bottom, finding a different witch in each location. Young readers will enjoy lingering over Baeten’s intricate illustrations, including a final large cutaway floor plan. The Curious Little Witch is likely to be enjoyed all year round, not just at Halloween.

Another good no-scares book is Always Listen to Your Mother written by the mother/daughter team of Florence Parry Heide and Roxanne Heide Pierce. Ernest is a good little boy, who always “picked up his toys, ate all his vegetables, sat up straight, and listened to his mother.” When a new family moves next door, Ernest befriends young Vlapid, who loves to swing from the chandelier, write on the walls and create all sorts of havoc. This might seem a friendship destined for disaster, but the joke is that Vlapid’s mother likes life that way, and Ernest can dutifully report that Vlapid always listens to his mother. Children will love this gentle tale, made all the more fun by the whimsical illustrations of Kyle M. Stone.

For frightfully fun Halloween poems, a treat is waiting with Hallowilloween: Nefarious Silliness from Calef Brown. Brown is well known for his magical wordsmithery, as seen in his best-selling book of nonsense poems, Flamingos on the Roof. His verbal acrobatics continue here in high form, in lines like these from “Not Frankenstein”: I’m not Frankenstein, / but people say / I’m “Frankensteinesque.” / I sit at a desk / in my mountain lodge / and do decoupage. / It’s an homage you see, to the human collage—that’s me! While easily accessible, these are verbally dazzling poems, perfect for elementary students and sophisticated preschoolers. Both audiences are likely to benefit from additional explanations of some finer points of vocabulary and idiom from an adult, but the poetry is far from pedantic.

You’ve heard of spaghetti westerns, of course, but what about a Halloween western? Rhode Montijo brings the genre entertainingly to life in The Halloween Kid, a rootin’, tootin’ romp. The Halloween Kid keeps order in town, wrassling “pumkin-suckin’ vampires” and tickling leaf-pile ghosts, whom he calls “heap-hauntin’ holligans” (parents, get ready—this book is best read with a Western-drawl). He’s got a new mission now, wrangling the Goodie Goblins, who are stealing sweets and terrorizing trick-or-treaters. Did I mention that the Kid is cute, with a Lone Ranger hat, mask, and lariat, and always astride his trusty stick horse?

Montijo’s illustrations are the perfect blend of modern and retro, featuring oranges, yellows, and an effective use of black, some done in silhouette—all adding to the tale’s energy. There’s plenty of old-fashioned excitement (but nothing gross or garish), including an ambush in a cave and a daring escape and rescue by the Kid’s sidekick horse. In the end, the Kid restores order and rides out of town under a moonlit sky, saying: “Y’all keep trick –or-treatin’ now, ya hear?” Yee-ha, this is one clever book!

A full Halloween moon and a brisk wind set the spooky stage for Nancy Raines Day’s On a Windy Night, in which a young boy in a skeleton costume walks through the woods alone. The gentle rhyming text builds tension as the boy imagines he hears a voice: “CRACKLETY-CLACK, BONES IN A SACK. / THEY COULD BE YOURS—IF YOU LOOK BACK.” The voice gets louder; clouds become ghosts; skeletons dance in the field, and the boy fears he felt a head in the field.

Just when things could hardly get worse, the boy realizes that he is being stalked by a cat, not a ghoul. George Bates’ pen-and-ink, digitally colored illustrations add to the charged atmosphere, with dark blue, orange and black tones filled with just the right amount of “comfortable” scariness, as readers spot the cat stalking the boy, and watch tree branches, for example, morph into an image of a giant bat. For preschoolers, this book will likely be the source of repeated read-alouds filled with spine-tingling squeals of fright and delight.

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