That Terrible Halloween Night by James Stevenson
Out-of-print, but easy to find many places online! Is there anything better than hilarious and spooky? A grandpa tells his grandchildren about the time he explored a haunted house on Halloween.
Funnybones by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Our copy is straight from my childhood (confession: it is very clearly marked inside as my sister’s copy, muhahahah!!) and it totally stands up 30 years later. A skeleton family goes for a walk at night, trying to find someone to scare, but everyone is asleep. My son’s favorite part is when the dog jumps over a bench, scattering his bones everywhere. Hijinks ensue as they try to piece him back together.
Hester by Byron Barton
This one is also out-of-print but not difficult to find online (it’s how we got our well-loved copy)! Hester dresses up as a witch for Halloween, then gets invited into a real witch’s house while trick or treating. Do we still send young children out alone (especially in NYC or some equivalently large city, where this appears to take place)? No. Do we still think it’s totally fine if they go into friendly strangers’ homes? No. But there’s something about that sense of “you might be in real danger / pscyh everything is totally fine!” that I always love in a children’s story.
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams
Linda William’s story reads like so many Alvin Schwartz and J.B. Stamper ghost stories I read and re-read growing up: the repetition and layering of a scenario getting more and more strange feels wonderfully ghoulish, even as the strange things on their own are just silly. Lots of opportunities in this book for using ridiculous voices.
Harriet’s Halloween Candy by Nancy Carlson
My parents reminded me of this classic from my own childhood, in which Harriet doesn’t want to share her Halloween candy with her baby brother so badly that she hides it in a new place every day, counting and re-counting it to make sure it’s all there, Scrooge McDuck-style. Her anxiety builds and builds until she decides to eat it all to make sure he never gets a single piece … giving herself a stomach ache halfway through. I remember viscerally identifying with all of the emotions Harriet goes through in this book, but never realized what an anti-capitalist message it had until rereading it as an adult.
The Little Kitten by Nicola Killen
A cute story about finding an enchanted black kitten in a pile of leaves, while also wearing your own black cat costume; this is an adventure I am down to have. I am all about the beautiful cut-outs and shimmering metallic copper overlays in this book.
The Scary Book by Thierry Dedieu
I would put this magnificently weird book out as coffee-table decor. Simple illustrations on each page of bats, pumpkins, ghosts, werewolves, spiders… but when you pull down the flap over each creature’s mouth, it turns out to be much grislier than it first appeared. “A bat eats insects. DO YOU WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT THIS BAT EATS?” I think my now-5-year-old should have been much more frightened of this book when he was 2 and we first got it, but he’s always found every page hilarious.
Mother Ghost: Nursery Rhymes for Little Monsters by Rachel Kolar and Roland Garrigue
Classic songs and rhymes like “Hey Diddle Diddle” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” spookily reimagined. The illustrations can verge on the overly-nightmarish for younger readers; but that’s according to this adult, and not the child I’ve watched love every page of this book.
Stumpkin by Lucy Cummins
Lucy Cummins is another year-round favorite in our household and it all started with Stumpkin. Come for the coziness of Halloween in Williamsburg, stay for the bodega pumpkins’ anxieties around being chosen to become Jack-o-Lanterns and the joy of finding a sense of home right where you are. (Cummins’ Vampenguin is another great one I debated adding to this list … but while it has vampires and is adorable and hilarious, in my opinion it does not have quite enough Halloween-y je ne sais quoi to qualify.)
The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen
Another children’s book dream team right here. “You may be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you.” A simultaneously creepy and comforting portrait of a creaky old home with its “cold, smooth windows” and the little boy who lives in it, as he tries to come to terms with the dark and all the places it can be found.
Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown
If Hitchcock wrote and illustrated a children’s book, and then it got edited by Kurt Vonnegut and, I don’t know, Jim Davis, it might be the unexpectedly pretty, actually a little creepy-funny, vibrantly orange Creepy Carrots. Perfect noir paranoia in salad form. (Creepy Crayon! is also worth adding to this list. Creepy Pair of Underwear! would not make our cut just for feeling like a noun swapped repeat of Creepy Carrots!)
Little Blue Truck’s Halloween by Alice Schertle and Jill McElmurry
Hop in the Little Blue Truck for a drive down a blustery autumn road to exactly the kind of barnyard Halloween party we all wish we were invited to every year, complete with purple punch, a goat band, and a horse dressed like a dragon. This book scores major points for having lift-up flaps that are virtually toddler-indestructible.
Ollie’s Halloween by Olivier Dunrea
Five goslings dress up in their Halloween costumes and explore the farm. Sweet, simple rhyming scheme in a book that is viscerally autumnal.
Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà
Most children’s book biographies of famous people are weighed down with the kind of details you don’t need in a children’s book. Is this one too? I can’t tell, it’s written so beautifully and is so interesting, and is a pleasure to reread over and over again.
We’re Going on a Pumpkin Hunt by Goldie Hawk and Angie Rozelaar
If your toddler is as obsessed with the “we’re going on a bear hunt” song as mine was, this book is a no-brainer. Fun, festive take on the classic rhyme.
The Hallo-weiner by Dav Pilkey
This book is very controversial in our house. My husband hates it and thinks it’s a bad story (some truth to this: a dog is mercilessly bullied until his tormenters are bullied themselves and he saves them, but also in saving them he humiliates them, and somehow they’re grateful for it and then everyone is best friends). It’s one of our son’s top favorite books of all time. At first I only tolerated it because at least the illustrations are wonderfully ’90s and there are dog puns, but now I love it too.
Sherlock Holmes: A Babylit Primer by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver
True story: this is a book for babies. My kid outgrew it long ago. But each drawing is a real #mood and I never get sick of it.
What have I missed? I am eager to know your family’s Halloween favorites: send me an email.