Horn BOO! 2021

Cows that go boo? Vampenguins? Poultrygeist? While our annual roundup of recommended picture books for the season features some unusual characters, we’ve also got plenty of pumpkins, ghouls, and treats to set the eerie mood. For more spooktacular reads, visit hbook.com/HalloweenBooks.

Trick or Treat, Crankenstein
by Samantha Berger; illus. by Dan Santat
Primary    Little, Brown    40 pp.    g
8/21    978-0-316-45809-2    $17.99

Halloween is Crankenstein’s favorite holiday, obviously, but this year it is not going well, with a toothache, rain, a pumpkin-carving fail, and the like all conspiring to bring forth a grumbling “mehhrrr” from our young hero. The text relies on a repeated subjunctive conceit (“Crankenstein would say”) that is sometimes confusing, and the ending is abstract, but Crankenstein’s crankiness remains relatable (see also the monster’s previous self-titled story, rev. 9/13, and sequel) and even ­endearing, and the busy full-page ­digital paintings let it all hang out in a panoply of Halloween motifs. ROGER SUTTON

Boo! Baa, La La La!
by Sandra Boynton; illus. by the author
Preschool    Little Simon    16 pp.    g
7/21    978-1-5344-5283-1    $5.99

“On Halloween, the cow says Boo.” But who is the “someone out of sight” replying “Baa”? This ­nighttime-set board book stars the beloved animals and animal sounds from Boynton’s ­classic Moo, Baa, La La La! and boasts Boynton’s signature cartoon style. The follow-up works well on its own, though devotees of the first book (i.e., most toddlers) will delight in recognizing familiar characters and phrasing. The clueless cow contemplates the mystery, wondering, “Who might it be…” After a ­cacophony of familiar noises (meow, quack, snort, snuff, etc.), the cow climbs up “the tallest hill. / She calls out Booo! / Then all is still.” Skilled narrative pacing makes the final spread especially satisfying, featuring an answer to the mystery, a well-earned reunion, and a “Happy Halloween to yoooou!” KITTY FLYNN

Amara’s Farm
by JaNay Brown-Wood; illus. by Samara Hardy
Preschool    Peachtree    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-68263-165-2    $16.99

“Let’s help Amara find her pumpkins!” suggests the offstage narrator as our young, brown-skinned, overalls-wearing protagonist searches her farm. Brief, declarative answers to the refrain “Is that a pumpkin?” help listeners discern the similarities and differences between pumpkins and the other produce (including potentially unfamiliar persimmons, okra, kumquats, etc.): “That’s a persimmon. A persimmon is orange, but it has a smooth, waxy skin and no ribs.” Finally, Amara finds her pumpkins…just in time for an autumn potluck. The repetition in Brown-Wood’s engaging, informative text reinforces comprehension, while Hardy’s digital illustrations, featuring hand-painted ink and watercolor textures for added depth, provide a festive atmosphere with their vibrant autumnal hues. A recipe for molasses pumpkin bread is appended. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

by Lucy Ruth Cummins; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Atheneum    48 pp.    g
7/21    978-1-5344-6698-2    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-6699-9    $10.99

A deadpan narrator outlines the story of the Dracula family’s Saturday trip to the zoo as the illustrations divulge what really happens. The two little Draculas, in their black capes and ­yellow shoes, almost match the ­penguins, and no one notices when the littlest Dracula escapes the stroller and trades places with one of the birds. The text hilariously drones on through the day’s itinerary as expressive cartoon art creates mischief throughout. Mercifully, baby Dracula and the penguin manage to reconnect with their original families before the day ends, but not before a souvenir photograph commemorates the situation. A funny (and often startlingly relatable) outing. JULIE ROACH

Little Ghoul Goes to School
by Jef Czekaj; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    32 pp.    g
6/21    978-0-06-244111-9    $17.99

New-to-school fears are humorously explored in this story of one little ghoul whose first day doesn’t go as expected. Despite her mother’s assurances (“Don’t worry, my little maggot…I’m sure school will be just ghastly!”), the ghoul contends with un-grouchy grownups; a non-disgusting lunch (“There was even a chocolate chip cookie! Ewwwwww!”); and, worst of all, a possible human friend. Luckily, and with the help of her goth school librarian, a twist ending sets everything to rights. Czekaj’s (Hip & Hop Don’t Stop, rev. 5/10) digitally colored ink illustrations feature simple shapes and bright colors and star a wide-eyed, green-skinned protagonist with a fanged underbite—and a uniquely monstrous perspective on a common kid milestone. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

by Eric Geron; illus. by Pete Oswald
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-5362-1050-7    $16.99

A chicken crosses the road, crosses paths with a truck, and gets to…“THE OTHER SIDE” — the afterlife, that is. The neon-blue shadow of Chicken’s former self learns about what’s next from new companions, other undead animals. “It’s time to get foul, fowl!” these mischief-makers gleefully state. Against the digital illustrations’ midnight-dark backgrounds, the brightly colored poltergeists’ silliness should prevent young readers from feeling too “weak in the beak” (as a ghostly former-rat puts it). So should Chicken’s sentiment: “I don’t want to haunt anyone, especially not innocent readers…” It’s hard to feel chicken when a book is this clucking hilarious. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Bad Seed Presents: The Good, the Bad, and the Spooky
by Jory John; cover illus. by Pete Oswald; interior illus. by Saba Joshaghani
Primary    Harper/HarperCollins    32 pp.    g
7/21    978-0-06-295454-1    $10.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-308937-2    $10.99

Despite Halloween being its favorite holiday, the curmudgeonly sunflower seed from The Bad Seed is in a “baaaaaad mood.” The reasons: lack of a costume, extreme competitiveness, and…wistful nostalgia. “­Halloween used to be so much fun! My friends and I would all get dressed up together. Oh, the memories…” Deciding that a trick is in order, the seed announces the postponement of Halloween. “A HERD OF SEED-EATING SQUIRRELS IS RACING TOWARD US! YIKES!! WATCH OUT! SQUIRRELS AND RAIN AND THUNDER!” Fortunately, an empathetic fellow seed (pumpkin!) guides our hero toward rediscovering its Halloween spirit. The text cultivates emotion in the botanical protagonist, while the digital illustrations are seeded with funny facial expressions — now with bonus jack-o’-lanterns and silly costumes. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

by Joy Keller; illus. by Ashley Belote
Primary    Feiwel    40 pp.    g
7/21    978-1-250-76580-2    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-250-84684-6    $10.99

…three recipes for slime are appended. Still reading? Those who love the gluey, gooey stuff — such as young lab coat–clad protagonist Victoria Franken — will thrill to this story of scientific curiosity, creativity, and a sentient, slime-ient experiment. Locally famous for her viscous creations — varieties of which include rainbow cloud, intergalactic space, and ketchup — Victoria, assisted by bespectacled canine Igor, unintentionally brings one to life. “IT’S ALIVE!” shouts the text, as Victoria and Igor flee in terror. Turns out, however, the creature is a friiiiend — and also a fellow scientist. With its lively, science-y text and pore-over-able cartoony illustrations (including LOL-worthy endpapers), this picture book, with its welcome brown-skinned-science-grrl protagonist, will stick with readers. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

The Ghouls’ Guide to Good Grammar
by Leslie Kimmelman; illus. by Mary Sullivan
Primary, Intermediate    Sleeping Bear    32 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-5341-1095-3    $16.99

Monstrous-looking creatures, and a few humans, demonstrate guidelines explained by the text on topics broadly related to grammar, including punctuation, spelling, and witch — make that which — homophone to use. Funny-scary examples abound: where would “Vanessa Vampire loves cooking, her parents, and her baby sister” be without its commas? Useful information might just creep up on readers enjoying the cartoonish, often paneled illustrations, whose pastel palette removes the scariness from ghouls, ghosts, and zombies — as the guide should do for these rules of writing. If you’re going to write about a “ghoul chasing werewolf” or a “ghoul-chasing werewolf,” do so with confidence! SHOSHANA FLAX

Pumpkin Heads!
by Wendell Minor; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Charlesbridge    32 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-58089-935-2    $11.99
e-book ed.  978-1-63289-788-6    $6.99

Here is one if you’re looking for something seasonal but not spooky. In this revised edition of a book first published in 2000, “On Halloween, every pumpkin becomes a pumpkin head.” It’s a shaky premise, but it makes clear what we will see in the following pages: carved pumpkin heads in doorways, on a park bench, in a cowboy hat, as a snowman or a scarecrow, etc. (The only misstep is a pumpkin-head hot-air balloon, which one devoutly hopes is not carved.) There’s enough variety in the pumpkin heads to keep things interesting, and Minor’s gravely romantic gouache watercolors place the heads in a variety of sunset or moonlit settings. ROGER SUTTON

Hardly Haunted
by Jessie Sima; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Simon    48 pp.    g
7/21    978-1-5344-4170-5    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-4171-2    $10.99

An empty old house, full of cobwebs and dust, worries she might be haunted. Concerned about scaring off potential inhabitants, she tries not to “CREEEAAAK!” or “SQUEEEAAAK!” Despite her best efforts, she can’t control the wind, whose gusts cause more commotion: “SCRATCH! SCRATCH! SCRATCH!” Ultimately, this helps the house realize that “she liked being noisy. Maybe she liked being haunted.” Now all she needs is a “family who will help this haunted house become a haunted home.” Cue the ethereal ­foursome glowing against the night sky as they climb the hill with their luggage. Sima’s text is more sweet than spooky, complemented by the digital illustrations’ cool palette of purples, blues, and greens. Various sounds to read aloud and visual details to pore over (the anthropomorphic house’s expressions, the ever-present black cat) will surely lead to repeat ­readings. CYNTHIA K. RITTER

Boo Stew
by Donna L. Washington; illus. by Jeffrey Ebbeler
Primary    Peachtree    32 pp.    g
9/21    978-1-68263-221-5    $17.99

“There were always Scares in Toadsuck Swamp, but Curly Locks didn’t pay ’em much mind.” That is, until the Scares — shown as spiky black shadowy things — take up residence in the mayor’s house. Neither the boastful, hammer-wielding blacksmith nor the overconfident, lasso-throwing chicken rancher succeeds in driving off the creatures. But Curly Locks, a young Black girl whose passion is cookery (batwing brownies, lizard skin lasagna), suspects the way to a Scare’s heart is through its stomach. With a take-charge young protagonist; a tall-tale storyteller’s cadence (“the most annoyin’ thing about ’em was their hootin’ and hollerin’”); and Ebbeler’s (A Giant Mess, rev. 5/21) eye-catching mixed-media ­illustrations, this book is a storytime — if not a ­culinary — treat. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ

Cows Go Boo!
by Steve Webb; illus. by Fred Blunt
Preschool    Andersen    32 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-72843-891-7    $17.99

On placid Farmer George’s farm, all is as it should be, with pigs oinking and sheep baaing. Enter two mischievous cows, who jump out at Farmer George from behind a tree: “BOO!” Farmer George, so startled he jumps out of his boots, tells them, “NO. NO. NO!…cows do not go BOO…Please try to get it right.” This pattern continues, with the cows repeatedly disrupting the peace and order of the farm. Then Farmer George has an idea — he’ll send the miscreants to his cornfield, where their “BOO!”s will scare away the pesky crows. Of course, the tricky twosome reverts to their regular mooing, and it’s left to the now-wild-eyed farmer to do the scaring off. Comical and energetic cartoon illustrations imbue all the characters with personality and make the most of the story’s slapstick humor and interrupting cows. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

How to Help a Pumpkin Grow
by Ashley Wolff; illus. by the author
Preschool    Beach Lane/Simon    40 pp.    g
7/21    978-1-4814-1934-5    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-1935-2    $10.99

In early spring, a farmer (pictured as a Border Collie bearing a passing resemblance to Wolff’s Miss Bindergarten) plants a pumpkin patch. Determined to protect and nurture the crop, the farmer enlists the help of curious onlookers: “You want to help a pumpkin grow?” One by one, a crow, rabbit, goose, and goat join in the endeavor, until in the autumn there are plentiful pumpkins to harvest, make pies from (one pie for each animal), and turn into jack-o’-lanterns. “Now we have made our pumpkins…GLOW!” With a jaunty, rhyming text; lush, expressive, acrylic gouache illustrations; a theme celebrating growing things and the spirit of cooperation — and the added bonus of a little mouse to find on every spread. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the September/October 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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