To me, Halloween is about not candy but suspense: the anticipation of a magical night, a transformative costume, and the thrill of being scared. This suspense can be heightened by reading books whose mood matches the season.
I still remember the very first book I ordered from a Scholastic sale, when I was in kindergarten: It was The Witchy Broom, and while it is now out of print, my attachment to it was so enduring that decades later I purchased a used copy for my own daughter so we could share the magic.
Since the days when we parents were children ourselves, many excellent Halloween-themed books have been published, and you may find a new classic among the following tales. So pull the blankets up over your heads, turn on a flashlight, and enjoy!
For young kids, Pumpkin Town by Katie McKy is a circular tale that begins with some well-meaning farmer’s sons tossing pumpkin seeds over the edge of a hill. An abundance of pumpkins overwhelms the town below, and after taking valiant steps to help the townspeople recover, the town thanks them with a gift of watermelons. Their unsuspecting father then tosses the unwanted watermelon seeds.
Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman practically begs to be read in the voices of successive characters, each of whom gets involved in helping the witch try to pick her oversized pumpkin so she can make pie for Halloween. A vampire, a mummy and even a bat lend a hand in this tale that showcases the benefits of cooperation, served up with so much humor that the message gets through without sounding at all like a moral.
Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson tells the story of a witch who picks up a few hitchhikers as she is flying around on her broom. When the broom breaks and they encounter a witch-eating dragon, however, the broom’s riders have to think fast to help their driver. This is a rhyming book that uses repetition to maintain consistency from one misadventure to another, with delightful illustrations that complement the story perfectly.
& Other fun choices for the younger set include Click, Clack Boo! by Doreen Cronin and Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds.
With middle-grade readers—those old enough for chapter books but too young for the young adult shelves—knowing your child well is the best guide for which books are appropriate and which are too scary. That said, the following books all have devoted fans ranging from third grade to eighth.
Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm offers a retelling of classic fairy tales, so the stories are familiar, the endings known in advance, and the added creepiness may serve to enhance the thrills without actually frightening readers.
The Best Halloween Ever, by Barbara Robinson, is a comic tale of Halloween gone terribly wrong—wrong, that is, from the kids’ point of view. After a nervous town and school decide to commandeer the holiday in order to offer a tame celebration at school, the town’s family of ruffians save the day by ruining the adults’ plans.
For middle-school and high school students, Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener offers a dark and creepy story, complete with the most terrifying of elements: evil’s appeal to characters’ own greed and desire. Featuring orphans in need of work, a dilapidated mansion and a cryptic master and mistress of the house, this has all the elements of a terrifying tale.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is a novel featuring a witch with good intentions, set against the backdrop of a superstitious and fearful community. It is a serious story, yet filled with magic, wonder and the poignancy of a coming-of-age novel. The main character is a girl, offered as a sacrifice to the witch in the forest. Unlike the other annual sacrifices, however, this child’s mother does not offer her baby willingly. The darkness of the town and its inhabitants is offset by the witch, a caring soul who never sought the other children, but rather brought them to safety. This is a good story by any standards, and a particularly good choice for girls in their tweens.
You will never view another cemetery in the same way after reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. This young adult novel begins with a murder, not detailed or grisly, but mysterious in several ways. When the youngest member of the murdered family—a toddler—manages to escape, he finds refuge in a cemetery. The ghosts who inhabit the graveyard take him in and raise him, but even there he is not entirely safe. This story is scary and fast-paced, and even injects bits of humor: The 33rd president of the United States and writer Victor Hugo both appear as fiendish ghouls. Sometimes terrifying, always riveting and ultimately satisfying, this book requires the accessories of both a flashlight and a tissue or two.
Whatever you decide to read this Halloween, set the stage with a flickering candle and maybe a cup of cider. Even big kids may let you cozy up under a shared blanket if you take separate ends of the sofa, and just maybe you can make the grocery store happy by stocking up on some snack-sized candy bars.