Can we read? Special edition: Halloween 🎃

"In this town we call home / Everyone hail to the pumpkin song"*

A few weeks ago I was reading an old post from someone I follow on Instagram where she wrote, “We aren’t huge into Halloween,” and my first thought was, “Oh, so that’s what we are — huge into Halloween.”

And it’s true. I go all out for holidays — this is one of the wonderful ways in which I am turning into my mother, who somehow managed to make a stunning amount of magic for me as a child despite working a super demanding job in a male-dominated field, leading my Girl Scout troop, solo parenting at least once a month while my dad was away for the Navy, and taking care of basically everyone in her life — and Halloween is a big one, second only to Christmas.

I am also one of those weirdo adults who dresses up every year even though I am the only one sitting at my desk in a 2.5 foot-tall green hand-felted gnome hat that cost an embarrassing amount of money on Etsy and which I cannot stop wearing because it makes me feel like a cross between a woodland sorceress and kitchen witch (in the best way — as if there could be any other way). My feeling is that life is too damn serious not to do this, really.

And of course, I fill up the front-facing bookshelf with a big pile of Halloween reads — all of which smell like the pumpkin candle I keep in the Halloween box and never fails to remind us of this particular time of year — and my children and I sit and sift through our old favorites and explore new titles I’ve added, and then we maybe go into the kitchen, newly adorned with purple twinkle lights because purple twinkle lights, and drink some cider from our apple CSA, and read, and even though it’s never perfect (ever, ever, I promise you) I trust I am doing this one thing right, because the joy I see in their faces is, I know, reflected in mine.

The magic-making matters.

This is actually my second big juicy Halloween-ish offering: if you want to read my Spotlight On: Witches, which came out last week (with glitches; I blame Mercury retrograde), click on the link below:

Can we read?
Spotlight On: Witches 🧙🏻‍♀️
I fell in love with witches when I was just a little girl. It almost certainly began with a 1986 movie adaptation of Jill Murphy’s book, The Worst Witch, which captivated 4-year--old me like almost no other television in my lifetime, along with Madam Mim in Disney’s…
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Likewise, if you want more awesome titles, check out my 2020 special edition on Halloween:

Can we read?
Can we read? Special edition: Halloween 🎃
We have a lot of Halloween books. A lot. We DO Halloween (so, fair warning, if you do not do Halloween, or read books about witches/ghosts/etc., skip this whole issue entirely). We don’t have as many Halloween books as Christmas ones (that collection is just totally out of control, as I make a book Advent calendar for my kids as well as provide a pile t…
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Here are some titles that have brought more magic to our house and our lives, in hopes of bringing more to you and yours…

Ten Little Mummies: An Egyptian Counting Book by Philip Yates, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (2004)

I can’t recall where I first heard about this book, only that the review said something along the lines of, “kids go crazy for this book.” That sent me immediately to the open browser tab where the library catalog stays up all day long. I was skeptical — it’s just a counting book, I thought — but HOO BOY, was I wrong.

My kids are crazy for this book. I’m not even sure I understand it. It really is just a counting book — “Deep underground in a dreary old room, ten little mummies were stuffed in one room” — but it’s also more than just a counting book, as it tells the story of how, one day, these ten little mummies decide to go out and play. But one by one, for one reason or another, they disappear — one gets heat stroke, another gets arrested for painting the Sphinx, another gets “adopted by friendly baboons” (not sure there are baboons in Egypt but let’s roll with it). When the last, lonely little mummy finally returns to the tomb she finds a big surprise — and the other nine mummies safe inside.

This is a fabulous way to learn to count backward from ten (and like all great skill books, kiddos aren’t even aware they’re learning) but it’s also just an entertaining story, told in Yates’ perfect rhyming text with Karas’ dynamic characteristic pencil and watercolor illustration.

A must-read any time of year, but especially recommended for extra fun on Halloween.

Trick Arr Treat: A Pirate Halloween by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Jorge Monlongo (2015)

The minute I saw this book I immediately said the title out loud — go ahead, do it, I’ll wait — and then laughed. I knew whatever was inside, unless it was overwhelmingly terrible, I was going to have fun reading this one to my kids.

I was right. The premise is funny enough — “the pirate chief’s mom calls a meeting,” directing the small scalawags to go trick-or-treating (but be home by dark) and they take off on their mission with a hilarious degree of dedication — but it’s the reading-aloud that really makes this one. I admittedly get into character voices and personalities more than your average bear but it’s pretty much impossible for me not to crack a smile while reading lines like,

Pirates sneaking door to door.
Pirates peeking, wanting more.
Pirate plunder, overflowing.
Happy pirates yo-ho-ho-ing!

“Fill my belly!” says Charlotte Blue-Tongue.
”Rot my teeth!” says Rude Ranjeet.
”Shiver me timbers!” says Glass-Eyed Gabby.
”We be pirates. TRICK ARR TREAT!”

(“Rot my teeth!” just gets me. And I am also inordinately fond of fellow glasses-wearer Gabby.)

It’s also downright delightful — for kiddos and adults alike — to watch the pirate crew tear through their neighborhood unrestrained, wild-eyed and open-mouthed from sugar and joy. (Monlongo is a comic book and animation artist and that incredibly active feeling of motion comes through loud and clear in his lively digital illustrations here.)

This book makes it easy to remember that feeling of euphoria (though I can’t honestly recall romping quite so much, as I was almost always running from house to house in pitch darkness + snow), and it’s exciting to share in the sense of exuberance here. If your children aren’t hyped enough for trick-or-treating this will get them there (I don’t know if that’s ever a goal? but it’s a spirited, rambunctiously good read either way).

Gustavo, the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago (2020)

Things are downright tough for Gustavo, a shy little violin-playing ghost who is terrified of making friends and never speaks to other monsters. He tries to get close to them in other ways — he changes himself into a balloon, a lampshade, an ice rink, a soccer ball — but even when he’s right in front of them, no one ever sees him, not literally and certainly not figuratively. He longs to be part of something, and he tells himself, “I have to be brave. I have to let the others see me!”

So he decides to send a very special letter to the monsters inviting them to his violin concert in the cemetery at the Day of the Dead Party on the next full moon. He is worried and afraid, and… no one comes. Somehow, rather than sinking into a pit of emotional quicksand like, ahem, I might have done, Gustavo does what he loves most — plays his violin — and it makes him so happy that he glows and glows, just at the moment when all the other monsters finally show up. From that moment on, his life changes — and though he is still shy, his friends love him for who he is.

In the author’s bio on the back flap, Drago admits that as a kindergartener, she would sit on a bench during lunch break and “wonder how the kids were able to play and talk to each other so easily. It was a mystery to me.” This real-life experience — and familiarity with loneliness and uncertainty about how to fit in — comes through in every line of her text here, which is so honest it’s a bit heartbreaking. Her mixed media illustrations keep it from drifting into sad or saccharine territory though, and the culminating messages about bravery — the bravery to be who are you and to do what you love — are, like learning to accept oneself, well-worth the pain of getting there.

The Ninja Club Sleepover by Laura Gehl, illustrated by MacKenzie Haley (2020)

If I had to pick one book that has surprised me this year, this would be it: I was not expecting it to be as good as it is, nor did I anticipate such an enthusiastic response from my children (my 7yo found this in my Halloween pile to review, immediately snatched it to her heart despite the fact that we were, at the time, nowhere near ready to read Halloween books, and has picked this at bedtime over and over ever since). Sometimes a good book sneaks up on you, and I’m so glad this one did.

The Ninja Club Sleepover is, as you may have already guessed, the story of a sleepover of the members of the Ninja Club — Willa, Val, and Fiona, three friends who are absolutely bonkers about ninjas. But despite their shared interest, there are some key differences between these girls — Willa, for one, is a werewolf, and her friends don’t know. When Val has a sleepover, Willa tries everything she can to keep her secret from her friends, but the moon eventually comes out, and so, in a way, does Willa. What she doesn’t expect is that her friends not only accept her as she is, her courage gives them permission to share their secrets — who they really are — too. (Their revelations will surprise you!)

It’s rare to find a title with these specific fantasy/paranormal characters for this age group — I can’t think of another picture book featuring a female werewolf, for instance — so props to this team for coming up with a fun, fresh idea. “Fun and fresh” is also a good way to describe their individual contributions — Gehl has written a light and relatable story here, which is complemented perfectly by Haley’s cheerful digital illustrations.

Do you find good friends when you step into the power of accepting who you are? Or are you able to accept who you are because of the power of having good friends? This sweet book makes me think, somehow, it’s both.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow adapted by Freya Littledale from the story by Washington Irving, illustrated by Melanie W. Hall (1992)

I have loved The Legend of Sleepy Hollow ever since I was a child and saw Disney’s 1948 film, The Adventures of Mr. Toad (Sleepy Hollow is the second of two segmented stories, the first of which is based on characters from The Wind in the Willows and, having recently revisited this movie with my own children via Disney+, is much more hilarious than I ever realized as a kid.)

My favorite version of the classic tale by Washington Irving is illustrated by Will Moses but as it sticks absolutely to Irving’s original writing — no abridgment (a plus) — it’s still just too long for my children to listen to in one sitting, so I have been looking for years for a title that tells the story faithfully but not at such length (and not published by Disney), and this is it.

Littledale’s adaptation is all one could want and more: she portrays superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane in all his persnickety glory, includes his infatuation with the beautiful Katrina Van Tassel, and shares all the frightening — and entirely exciting — details of his ride home from a party at the Van Tassel’s home one autumn evening, when he is chased on horseback by a cloaked rider without a head, the notorious Headless Horseman.

In its original form this is not only a ghost story but a truly scary one, so I appreciate Littledale’s modifications not only for length but for terror — my sensitive 7yo doesn’t like to be scared so I have to be thoughtful about what I read to her, and she is always able to handle (and appreciate) this one, thanks in part to Hall’s acrylic paint illustrations, which soften the edges of this tale in a welcome way. (My now-5yo, who delights in all things creepy and loves a tingle up her spine, is equal parts fascinated and appalled by the Headless Horseman, just as I was a child.)

If you’re looking for a updated take on a classic tale, don’t miss this one.

Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters: Chilling American Indian Stories by Dan SaSuWeh Jones, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (2021)

The author of this unique anthology, Dan Sasuweh Jones of the Ponca Nation, traveled the United States for five years, living on American Indian lands and collecting stories from the people he met. In the introduction of this book he writes:

It soon became clear across all the regions I traveled that there was one type of common, recurring story — the ghost story. This became my umbrella term for the stories about all the things that frighten people the most: ghosts and monsters and witches and other unknown beings that live all around us.

It is these stories that are the focus of Sasuweh Jones’ offering here: his own stories, stories from his own tribe, and those of other various other nations. Since they are oral stories — originally and still primarily told out loud — the text reads differently than it might have had they been stories intended for the page.

Nevertheless, there are some bone-chilling tales here — “The Rock Baby,” a traditional tale about an evil spirit that lives in the rock on the face of a cliff is so creepy I thought about it for days after first reading it; and “La Lechuza, the Owl-Witch” pretty much convinced me never to wander South Texas, alone or otherwise. Alvitre, from the Tongva tribe, adds a sinister black pen etching to each story to great effect (some, like the one that opens “Deer Woman,” are downright disturbing).

This is one for older kids and even adults, especially around a campfire or on a windy early winter night. Sasuweh Jones lists sources for further reading (all published in the last 30 years) in the back of the book, but one thing is clear: his fascinating and truly scary book belongs among the best of them.

Monster School by Kate Coombs, illustrated by Lee Gatlin (2018)

If you’re still trying to hop over the fence when it comes to poetry, Halloween is a great jumping off point, as there are some subperb collections out there.

Through a variety of poetic forms (mostly rhyming, but not all), here the reader meets a cast of oddball characters — students who all attend Monster School, along with their two spooky teachers (one a banshee, the other a nagi) and their unidentifiable but very hungry class pet. Coombs’ text, which leads readers through various everyday aspects of school — like entering the science fair and eating lunch in the cafeteria — is skillful and humorous, but what makes this book really shine is its wacky, macabre illustrations. Gatlin, who claims that he loves drawing monsters more than anything else, is clearly telling the truth: the personalities of these pupils, creepy as some of them are, jump out at you (and there is a lot going on in his digital images, which makes this a book that invites kids to spend time lingering over the pages).

This is a lively and strangely jolly (can you call a Halloween book jolly?) one that might resonate more with older elementary kids than younger, and I recommend it.

Also highly recommended
  • Little Pumpkin’s Halloween by Algy Craig Hall (for babies and toddlers)

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (for older readers or read-aloud — this is amazing on audio, read by the author)

  • Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes

  • The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt by Riel Nason

  • By the Light of the Halloween Moon by Caroline Stutson

  • We’re Going on a Pumpkin Hunt by Mary Wilcox (for toddlers)

  • Hallowilloween: Nefarious Silliness from Calef Brown

  • Mother Ghost: Nursery Rhymes for Little Monsters by Rachel Kolar

  • Monster Goose by Judy Sierra

Especially for babies and toddlers
  • Eek! Halloween! by Sandra Boynton

  • Spooky Pookie by Sandra Boynton

  • Boo to You! by Lois Ehlert

  • Corduroy’s Trick or Treat by Don Freeman and Lisa McCue

  • Peek-a Boo! by Nina Laden

  • Sweets and Treats by Toni Trent Parker

For older readers, or for read-alouds
  • The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

  • The Random House Book of Ghost Stories edited by Susan Hill

  • The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain

  • Lola Levine and the Halloween Scream by Monica Brown

  • Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe (I loved this book as a kid!)

  • The Best Halloween Ever by Barbara Robinson

  • Nate the Great and the Halloween Hunt by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat (early chapter book)

Everything else
  • Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party by Erin Barker (an especially well-done counting book)

  • Bonaparte Falls Apart by Margery Culyer

  • The Tailypo: A Ghost Story by Joanna Galdone

  • Little Goblins Ten by Pamela Jane (a Halloween take on the classic children’s song, “Over in the Meadow”)

  • The Vanishing Pumpkin by Tony Johnston

  • At the Old Haunted House by Helen Ketteman (another Halloween take on “Over in the Meadow”)

  • Bats at the Library by Brian Lies (there are three other Bats books but of course I like the library one the most)

  • Pumpkin Cat by Anne Mortimer

  • Bone Soup: A Spooky, Tasty Tale by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (a fun Halloween version of Stone Soup)

  • Pick a Pumpkin by Patricia Toht

  • Good Night, Baddies by Deborah Underwood

Thanks ever so much for reading.

If you want to purchase any of the titles I’ve mentioned today and you’re willing to support independent bookstores, I’ve put together a list on my storefront called Books for Halloween. I also have the same list on Amazon — including all the out-of-print titles Bookshop doesn’t carry — if you’d prefer to shop there. (I receive a small commission if you buy from either — and I appreciate it!)