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Best Halloween Picture Books (an Entirely Subjective List)

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About 2010, when I still worked as a children’s librarian for New York Public Library, I was sitting at the Reference Desk in the Children’s Center at 42nd Street when this 3-year-old walked up to me, bold as brass. He had the biggest brown eyes I’d ever seen outside of a Chuck Jones cartoon, and an adorable little lisp to match. “I want scary books,” he informed me. I looked about. No parent in sight. No one to curb the boy’s desires. This was an interesting puzzle. Back in my library school days some attention had been paid to the Reference Interview With a Small Child (which could probably be a blog in and of itself). Most children’s librarians have fascinating stories about encounters with the very young, being asked questions that sound simple and aren’t (example: “I want the blue book”).

But I digress.

It would have been a mistake to grab something too out of hand for the little mite, though in my experience 3-year-olds have an enviable level of fearlessness that completely dissipates within two or three years. I knew what the solution was, anyway. All I had to do was load him down with monsters, as many as he could carry. And so, for the next hour or so, I ran around the children’s room pulling every fun book that mentioned vampires, werewolves, mummies, swamp creatures, you name it off the shelves. They didn’t actually have to be frightening. He just needed the monsters themselves. Being that he was three and unable to read, he would dutifully toddle to the back room and page through the books (I was still not sure where those parents were supposed to be). When he was done he’d come back to me and quietly insist, “I want more scary books.” And so it went.

This year, someone asked if I might make a list of Halloween-related picture books. This is an interesting request for a number of reasons. Halloween, like the first day of school, is the kind of holiday that can actually produce picture books that are so good that they transcend their time of year. If done correctly, a great Halloween book can be read in any season. After all, I gave that three-year-old a ton of them, and he was delighted. So if we’re going to make a Halloween Picture Book List, we need some ground rules. They are:

1. The books must mention Halloween or take place in the fall.

2. The list can’t just have white kids on it. And let me tell you, this is one of those great, gaping areas where we definitely need diverse books. For whatever reason, it can be hard to find Halloween lists that star kids of a variety of races (rather than showing up in groups or as background characters). Google “Halloween picture books” sometime to see what I mean.

Yeah, that’s it. Honestly, I thought I’d have more rules when I started this list, but that was pretty much the only one I came up with. And with that, let’s salute those Halloween tomes that we consider particularly cool in a given year.

Note: If you don’t see the usual classics on this list, that is probably because I’ve already covered them with my sister on our podcast, or I’m just about to. Also, it’s not like the usual suspects need any more press. These are the books that deserve a little more loving.

Great Halloween Picture Books

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

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I remember the first time I read Brenner’s book. Though by now his “And Then Comes” series has encompassed a wide range of holidays and celebrations, it was this first book he wrote that really caught my eye. You cannot help but adore the language. With a kind of gentle, rhythmic cadence, Brenner goes through all the different events that lead up to Halloween at long last. Perfect for those kids who simply cannot wait for the end of the month.

Annie Was Warned by Jarrett Krosoczka

AnnieWasWarned

Long before he reached his current levels of fame with Hey, Kiddo, Krosoczka put out this, what I believe was his second, picture book. In it, a girl is dared to explore a haunted house on Halloween. Ideal for large groups, I have found that my own kids love reading this in every conceivable season. It was originally published in 2003 and alas the glow-in-the-dark display type on the cover didn’t really hack it in terms of longevity, but for reading aloud it’s perfect.

Behind the Mask by Yangsook Choi

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I get so excited when I encounter books as cool and fun to read as Choi’s book. In this story a boy is teased because his classmates think his “old man” mask is insufficiently scary. What they fail to realize is that his grandfather was a traditional Korean mask dancer and the boy is using the mask in remembrance. It’s one of the best books that looks beyond American culture around Halloween time.

Ghosts in the House by Kazuno Kohara

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For a while there, Kazuno Kohara was cranking out these truly beautiful picture books on a regular basis. Unfortunately, she hasn’t produced anything since 2014’s The Midnight Library. While we patiently wait for her next book, let us remember that Ghosts in the House! (her debut) appeared on the 2008 New York Times Best Illustrated Books list. An adept mixing of cute and mild chills, this is what you hand the small child with ghosts on the brain.

Little Boo by Stephen Wunderli, ill. Tim Zeltner

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Maybe it doesn’t look like the coolest book on this list, but if you want to talk about plant growth as it relates to jack-o-lanterns, there isn’t another title out there that does it this well. I was mighty impressed by Wunderli’s adaptation of a classic picture book set up, combining it with the life cycle of a pumpkin. It’s a good read aloud, and if (for some reason) you’d prefer a board book version then you’ll be happy to hear it’s in that format as well.

Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes, ill. Yuyi Morales

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That’s right! Yuyi did a Halloween book once, and with none other than Marisa Montes. Published in 2006 it remains one of my favorite titles to this day. Spanish words are woven into the text. Notably, the book is not about Dia de los Muertos, though PW would disagree, saying of the book, “Halloween and the Day of the Dead overlap in this atmospheric, bilingual romp.”

Only a Witch Can Fly by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

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It was Yoo’s block prints, combined with McGhee’s rhymes (which work throughout and never come across as jarring) that made this a standout back in 2009. It’s a quieter Halloween book than a lot of the ones on this list, with the possible exception of the Brenner, up top.

The Pomegranate Witch by Denise Doyen, ill. Eliza Wheeler

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Did you miss this one when it came out last year? Well, the good news is that it’s never too late to find a new favorite. On its surface this is a tale of neighborhood kids vs. a wicked witch, but the story beneath that surface is a lot more complex. Bonus: After reading it to my children they both absolutely HAD to try pomegranates for the first time.

The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg

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Did you know that not a single Chris Van Allsburg picture book has ever gone out-of-print? Originally published in 1986, most folks wouldn’t think of this book when they consider “Halloween” and “Van Allsburg”. They’d probably go with the better known The Witch’s Broom or something like that. But to my mind, this book is everything that I like about Van Allsburg. Quintessential Van Allsburg, if you please. There’s the mystery at its core (who is this amnestic man who is so fascinated by steam and heat?) and that killer moment of realization that’s the best example of “show don’t tell” you’ll ever find in a picture book. If you read no other book this fall, read this one.

Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummings

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Another 2018 release. This is one of those stories you’re sure you’ve read somewhere before (pumpkin wishes to become jack-o-lantern but keeps being passed over). Yet even if you had, this version would be better. Sweet and slightly melancholic. Just like the season, really.

A Tiger Called Thomas by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Diana Cain Bluthenthal (2003)

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A Tiger Called Tomás by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguéns (2018)

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I’ve already discussed these two books at length, but remember what I said about the season being pretty white? Use this classic tale in all its different iterations as a counterpoint.

For a much longer list, have some fun and check out the 435 titles on the Goodreads Best Halloween Picture Books List. They’re a bit loosey goosey with their definition of “Halloween” (would you honestly include The Monster at the End of This Book?), but there are some good suggestions on there.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Dear Betsy, could you give an idea of the age range for these books? I am a school librarian and looking for good Halloween read-aloud for third and fourth graders. (One can only read THE HAUNTED HAMBURGER and THE WIDOW’S BROOM so many years in a row.) Most of these look like they’re aimed at younger children, though I believe THE POMEGRANATE WITCH is a chapter book….? The season advances, and there is just time to order a couple of these before Halloween.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Every single book here is a picture book, including the lovely POMEGRANATE WITCH. For your kids, you might want to opt older. These books are skewing pretty young. You might want to take the suggestion from another commenter here of THE BAKE SHOP GHOST. I’d add THE WOLVES IN THE WALLS, except that it is a very long read and would only work if you had a lot of time to kill. TAILY-PO, illustrated by Paul Galdone, is great because it really jacks up the creepy factor. I say also go with THE STRANGER (included on this list and by Van Allsburg) because it will lead to lots and lots of discussion.

    • For older kids I like to read the chapter “The Baddest Witch in the World” from Ramona the Pest.

  2. Jacqueline Ogburn’s THE BAKE SHOP GHOST is splendid–will span from first to fifth grade (unless the first graders are unusually wiggly): funny, pleasurably scary, and satisfying. As an extra bonus, the heroine is African-American.

  3. Good timing! My almost-4-year-old niece asked for “spooky books” for her birthday this week. I got her Ghosts in the House! as well as Aaron Reynold’s Creepy Pair of Underwear! (she loved Creepy Carrots!); Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson’s Leo: A Ghost Story; and Bob Shea’s The Scariest Book Ever. I’m sending your list to my sis-in-law to supplement!

    And hey, I don’t know that Chris Van Allsburg title (RI represent!) — I put a hold on it at the library. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Brooke Shirts says:

    So glad to see someone else recommend THE BAKE SHOP GHOST!

    I’ve always been partial to some of my old Halloween storytime standbys: Felicia Bond’s THE HALLOWEEN PLAY and Linda Williams’ THE LITTLE OLD LADY WHO WAS NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING. And I grew up with Marc Brown’s WITCHES FOUR, so that’ll be in my rotation forever.

    And I knoooooow that it doesn’t mention Halloween specifically, but I love pulling out Patricia McKissack’s PRECIOUS AND THE BOO HAG this time of year. And for older kids, Hal Johnson’s FEARSOME CREATURES OF THE LUMBERWOODS is always a big hit, especially if they “get” the over-the-top absurdity . . . seriously, that book reads like John Hodgman’s “Areas of My Expertise” got thrown in a blender with “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Love it.

  5. Great list, Betsy. Although not strictly mentioning Halloween, Adam Rex’s two books, “Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich” and “Frankenstein Takes the Cake,” contain lots of monsters, scariness and witty humor for a slightly older elementary crowd.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Not a bad notion. And the second of the two, FRANKENSTEIN TAKES THE CAKE, does show the blog of the Headless Horseman quite a lot. That’s pretty Halloweenish!

  6. Aunt Grizelda’s Treasury of Grim and Grisly Rhymes by A.L. Best and N. Pavaliayeva is new (or newish) and a spectacular companion to Adam Rex’s books and the beloved Monster Goose by Judy Sierra. Some of the poems have a page turn–which is a feature, not a bug, when you consider the creepy, wry, hilarious turns these poems take.

  7. Stacy Dillon says:

    I’m still a sucker for Cinderella Skeleton.

  8. Thanks for all the great suggestions Betsy and everyone!

    One of my favorites is from 2009 is By the Light of the Halloween Moon by Caroline Stutson and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. The tone is just scary enough to appease both young and older listeners, the text is creepily but joyfully repetitive, the illustrations are just extraordinarily rendered to enhance the text, and the ending never fails to delight my audience. It went back in my October rotation this year and every grade school class from K-6th grade enjoyed it, so after reading we spent some serious time discussing what our favorite pages were and why it’s such a great picture book.

  9. Corinne Bantle says:

    I’d recommend Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman — Witch, Witch Come to my Party by Arden Druce.