Monsters, witches, werewolves it's hardly any surprise that Halloween can be pretty darn scary for young children. So scary, in fact, that my son's preschool bans costumes and Halloween parties. The right books, however, can gently introduce children to Halloween fun, while reassuring them about their fears. I plan to take several of the following books, which my four-year-old son adores, to his school for classroom reading.
In Jan L. Waldron's rhyming tale, John Pig's Halloween (Dutton, $14.99, 0525457445, ages 4-8), poor John Pig is too scared to go trick or treating, so he stays home. As he begins carving a pumpkin, a witch and her cat arrive at his doorstep, demanding goodies. They turn up their noses at the licorice and rock candy that John Pig offers, but kindly help him whip up a veritable feast of pumpkin pies, tarts, cookies, sundaes, muffins, mousse, and spiced apple juice. Soon the house is filled with the witch's friends a vampire, a ghost, a dragon who gobble up the treats and have a shindig.
Even fearful John Pig warms up to the crowd: As this ghostly group danced and chowed down his food,/A beaming John Pig was caught up in the mood. Readers will also be caught up in the mood of this charming tale. Illustrator David McPhail manages to make even creepy visitors appear charming.
Another delightful trick-or-treater is Gilbert, the hero of Diane de Groat's Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet (Morrow, $15, 0688157661, ages 5-up). Like many of the children in his class, Gilbert plans to wear a popular Captain Zigg costume to the school parade and party. Instead, he grabs the wrong bag and finds himself at school with horror of all horrors his sister's ballerina costume! To remedy the situation, he dons the tutu, and, as you can well imagine, hilarious results follow.
Both the illustrations and story are lively and fun (author/illustrator de Groat even visited a boys' school lavatory to be sure to get the details just right). Meanwhile, the story has an excellent message about the importance of being different instead of copying the crowd.
Follow four frolicking ghosts in Jacques Duquennoy's The Ghosts in the Cellar (Harcourt Brace, $12, 0152017755, ages 3-8). These very friendly looking ghosts are playing cards in a castle at midnight when they hear a mysterious knocking coming from the cellar. Although terrified, they creep closer and closer to explore, encountering bats, spiders, a mouse, and other frights along the way. The tension is fearsome fun, yet not at all intimidating, perfect for young children. And who is knocking? None other than the ghosts' ebullient Aunt Gigi, ready to celebrate her 500th birthday. These ghosts are such fun that I plan to look for their previous adventures, The Ghosts' Trip to Loch Ness and The Ghosts' Dinner.
A young girl encounters another house of ghouls in The Horrible Spookhouse, by the Swedish team of Kicki Stridh and illustrator Eva Eriksson (ages 4-8). The child is lost in the woods when she comes upon the house, knocks, and asks for food and a place to stay. She's not one bit frightened of the truly horrible looking witches, ghosts, monsters, and spooks who are determined to give her a good scare. The big fun of this tale is not that this girl is brave, but that she simply doesn't seem to notice any danger whatsoever. Kids will not only enjoy, but feel emboldened by her attitude.
Another title about a frightening house and just right for reading to a group of middle-graders at a Halloween party is The House of Boo by J. Patrick Lewis (Atheneum, $16, 06898036567). A leading children's poet, Lewis uses an unusual rhyme scheme that links the stanzas and holds young readers in its grip with this story of three children out to explore a deserted house one dark night. Older readers may think of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird and perhaps of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Katya Krenina's illustrations are suggestive and scary, a great debut for this Russian immigrant artist.
Counting all the Halloween creatures in A Creepy Countdown (Greenwillow, $15, 0688154603) will appeal to young ones in the four-to-six age range. Jos. A. Smith's black-and-white scratchboard illustrations of ghosts, bats, skeletons, witches, and mice fairly dance off the page. Surrounded by a color border, they depict personality and action and set just the right tone for Charlotte Huck's wonderful rhyming verses.
The big surprise (and scare) in this title come in the middle of the book after readers have reached ten. Then they have the opportunity to see all the scary creatures vanish as they count from ten back to the one scarecrow who stood all alone. Slightly older children will relish the slick wordplay and graphics in Psssst! It's Me . . . the Bogeyman (by Barbara Park, illustrated by Stephen Kroninger, Simon ∧ Schuster, $16, 0689816677, ages 4-9). Who hasn't worried that something, perhaps the Bogeyman, is lurking underneath the bed? In this book he's definitely there, but such a jive-talking dude as to seem more hip than scary. He's got the scoop on what it means to do his job, such as the fact that bogeymen don't say boo. As he explains: Boo's a baby word, Bubbie./It rhymes with toodle-loo,/And Winnie the Pooh,/And it comes after peek-a-/And right before hoo. This character confesses that he likes chicken fingers, Gummi Bears, and flossing his teeth. In the end, the boy whom he confronts cleverly outwits him, ousting the Bogeyman from his room.
So here's hoping your family's Halloween is as much fun as that of the bogeyman, a house full of spooks, four frolicking ghosts, Gilbert and his sister Lola, and John Pig. Take heart, too, from the words of Jan Waldron: Soon more trick-or-treaters began to stop by.
They'd seen the lit pumpkin and smelled the warm pie.
They're my pals, the witch whispered in John's little ear.
They're loud and they're messy, but nothing to fear. Trick or treat!!! howled the callers. Bring on the fun!