Scary books for Halloween -- Jon Scieszka reviews stories of witches, ghouls, and vampires for kids

Scary books for Halloween

About 3,000 years ago, the ancient Celts celebrated the end of October like most kids do today — with a mixture of fear and excitement. The October end of the Celtic year meant the sun was leaving for the winter, and for one night the witches, demons, and creatures of evil were free to roam until dawn. Some peo-ple put out sweets and other good things to eat to calm the spirits. Others, hoping to fool the demons, dressed in disguises. Priests lit bonfires to scare them off.

We still light the ritual fires in jack-o’-lanterns, dress up, and offer sweets to celebrate the end of October. But these days the demons of darkness are more apt to look like Homer Simpson than like Mephistopheles. Halloween is both spooky and silly. Here are some best-of-their-class books that celebrate this haunting and hilarious holiday. All books: A

Ages 5 to 8

Guess What?
Mem Fox; illustrated by Vivienne Goodman
It probably won’t take you long to guess what Daisy O’Grady does for a living. Mem Fox’s rollicking ques-tions and answers reveal that O’Grady wears a black dress and has a black cat. Vivienne Goodman’s surreal paintings, chock-full of hilarious detail, likewise drop a lot of pointed clues. The page-turning design of the text and the wryly detailed, spookily funny illustrations are a perfect combination. Is she a cursing, cackling, cranky old witch? Guess! Is this a great Halloween book? Yes!

Written and illustrated by Daniel Pinkwater
Young Jonathan Harker sees a vampire movie and decides to become a vampire. When three real vampires visit him one night, he’s surprised to learn they would rather sink their fangs into cold chicken and ginger ale than flesh and blood. These exuberant, balding, bespectacled blood-suckers with Eastern European accents (”Wempires! That’s us!”) trash Jonathan’s kitchen and wake up his mom. Pinkwater tells this goofy tale with his signature breezy dialogue and simple illustrations. The dedication to F.W. Murnau (the German director of the classic 1922 film, Nosferatu), the young narrator’s name (the same as that of the narrator of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula), and the perfect ending are all neat Pinkwater touches that make this a funny and intelligent Halloween book, worth reading and rereading.

Gaes 8 to 11

Scary Stories 3
Retold by Alvin Schwartz; drawings by Stephen Gammell
This is the third book in a series of scary stories collected from folklore and retold by Alvin Schwartz. This book, like Schwartz’s first two, is a wonderful collection of tales that range from creepy to silly to haunting. The stories are all the more scary because they are supposedly true, and believers will love the notes, sources, and bib- liography in the back. Stephen Gammell’s drawings add just the right touch of supernatural spookiness.

Tales from the Crypt, Volumes 1, 2, and 3
Story adaptations by Eleanor Fremont and Richard Wenk
Though not as much gruesome fun as the originals, these short-story versions of some classic Tales From the Crypt comics of the early ’50s are great trashy reading. Punny introductions by the Crypt-Keeper (”Greetings and salivations, boils and ghouls”), the Old Witch, and the Vault-Keeper lighten the sometimes gory situations. The occasional illustrations are mild enough to sneak by unsuspecting teachers, and the creepy plots, fast action, and surprise endings are intact. The next-best thing to reading the original comics for Halloween.

Weird! The Complete Book of Halloween Words
Peter R. Limburg; pictures by Betsy Lewin
Weird! is a perfectly entertaining book that explains where words like skeleton, jack-o’-lantern, ghost, and goblin came from. Short, illustrated entries packed with everything from Frankenstein to Shakespeare’s weird sisters to Michael Jackson’s ”Thriller” video illuminate the origin and history of Halloween words and customs. Fascinating reading and a good reference book for all imps, devils, and witches preparing for All Hallows’ Eve.

Ages 11 and Up

Unreal! and Uncanny!
Paul Jennings
A ghost skeleton on the dunny (toilet). A tattooed finger in a shark’s stomach. A U.F.D. (unidentified flying dog). Wonderfully weird and spooky things turn up in these two collections of stories by a best-selling Australian author. Horror fans with a taste for quirky plots and disgusting details will love stories like ”Spaghetti Pig-Out” and ”Cow Dung Custard.” Hauntingly amusing stories with a twist.

The Spirit House
William Sleator
From the author of the outstanding Interstellar Pig and The Boy Who Reversed Himself comes a chilling novel about an exchange student from Thailand who brings more than just his luggage to America. Fifteen-year-old Julie’s life begins to go haywire after her brother builds a Thai spirit house in the backyard for their guest. It’s up to Julie to fig-ure out what the ancient Thai spirit has to do with a regular American girl. The subtle horror of what is real and what is not makes for an eerie novel of suspense.

Tales of Edgar Allan Poe
Illustrated by Barry Moser
A marriage made in heaven…or maybe hell? This collection of un-abridged stories enhanced by first-rate artwork shows how good an illustrated book can be. Poe’s stories are recognized masterpieces of the macabre. Barry Mos-er’s paintings, true to the spirit of Poe, alternate between the quietly ominous drip of a candle and the full-face, close-up horror of a hungry rat. Here’s a great reason not to buy rewritten classics with second-rate illustrations. For more of the same original spooky tales with great art, try Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow illustrated by Arthur Rackham.