Horn BOO! 2023

What do wombats, narwhals, and mac and cheese have in common? They appear alongside zombies, vampires, werewolves, and more in this year's roundup of eighteen recommended new preschool and primary books for the season. For more spooktacular reads, visit hbook.com/HalloweenBooks. Happy Halloween from the Horn Booooook!

Witch & Wombat 
by Ashley Belote; illus. by the author 
Preschool, Primary Random 40 pp. 
7/23 9780593569634 $18.99 
Library ed. 9780593569641 $21.99 
e-book ed. 9780593569658 $10.99 

Wilma is excited to bring home her new cat, but there’s a big problem: the pet store is out of cats and gives her a wombat instead. The young witch doesn’t hide her disappointment and unsuccessfully tries to force her pet to be more catlike. Belote’s humorous digital illustrations showcase the many ways a wombat is not like a cat. It’s only after her pet runs off that Wilma begins to appreciate the wombat she has. This lighthearted and heartwarming allegory about acceptance also includes a brief appended list of interesting facts about wombats, building on a sillier list within the story. MARVA ANNE HINTON 

The Great Zombie Pumpkin Parade! 
by Robert Burleigh; illus. by Wendell Minor 
Preschool, Primary Ottaviano/Little, Brown 40 pp. 
8/23 9780316331975 $18.99 

In propulsive rhyming verse and spooky watercolor and gouache illustrations (“mixed with digital”), readers are introduced to the participants in a parade of zombies with jack-o’-lanterns for heads — Slime-Faced Sumpkin, Ghoul-Eyed Gumpkin, Crush-Headed Cumpkin, etc. — who march through the countryside on Halloween night. They return to the pumpkin graveyard at dawn, but “watch out, my friend, / beware, be wise! / This isn’t the end— / the zombies will rise.” Burleigh and Minor’s latest collaboration (Breaking Waves and Wilbur Wright Meets Lady ­Liberty, both rev. 5/21) is perfect for young readers who enjoy a bit of “shiver and quiver” in their picture books. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO 

Melvina Whitmoore (More or Less a Horror Story) 
by Faith Capalia; illus. by the author 
Primary Harper/HarperCollins 40 pp. 
9/23 9780063247826 $18.99 

Melvina, who is afraid of everything, thinks she has found safety in her new house, “Until — BANG!” A series of ­vertical spreads invites readers to turn the book as Melvina’s sense of security, and her house, are shaken by the appearance of “monsters and beasts and ghosts.” But appearances can be deceiving (and not all the beasts appear that scary — see: giant duck). The illustrations, made with digital art “and ghostly visions,” use their palette effectively to indicate when Melvina is frightened and when she isn’t in this reassuring (if occasionally didactic) story. SHOSHANA FLAX 

The Goblin Twins 
by Frances Cha; illus. by Jaime Kim 
Primary Crown 40 pp. 
9/23 9780593480212 $18.99 
Library ed. 9780593480229 $21.99 
e-book ed. 9780593480236 $10.99 

Two little dokkaebi (“something of a cross between a spirit and a goblin” per the informative appended note), Doki and Kebi, venture from their home in Korea to “a land where . . . there are haunted houses, and people go visit them because they WANT to be scared.” Scaring humans is one of Kebi’s greatest treats, but Doki would rather read books. Their new home is the perfect compromise — but ­Halloween brings an unexpected, narratively satisfying twist. Cartoony digital illustrations give the dokkaebi — shown as colorful, blobby, rosy-cheeked tricksters — personality and provide funny, scene-setting details. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ 

A Super Scary Narwhalloween [Narwhal and Jelly Book] 
by Ben Clanton; illus. by the author 
Primary Tundra 72 pp. 
7/23 9780735266742 $12.99 
e-book ed. 9780735266759 $7.99 

Excited Narwhal can’t decide which costume to wear for Halloween, while scared Jelly doesn’t plan to participate. But when Jelly and their friends must “superfy” themselves to bravely rescue Narwhal from a “humongously hungry” sea monster (i.e., Narwhal in too many costume ­comboonations), that gives Narwhal the perfect costume idea for their Narwhalloween party . . . featuring waffles, of course. Humorous puns abound; the varied panel structure and dynamic character expressions in this graphic novel for transitional readers help build age-appropriate suspense. This entertaining eighth series entry includes three “story chapters” plus facts about potentially scary real-life creatures and a “Super Waffle, Strawberry Sidekick and the Bat Attack” comic interlude. CYNTHIA K. RITTER 

Vlad the Fabulous Vampire 
by Flavia Z. Drago; illus. by the author 
Primary Candlewick 40 pp. 
9/23 9781536233322 $17.99 
Spanish ed. 9781536233339 $17.99 

Drago (Gustavo, the Shy Ghost, rev. 9/20; Leila, the Perfect Witch, rev. 9/22) presents another offbeat, sympathetic, supernatural character overcoming insecurities. Fashionista vampire Vlad, while confident in his sartorial selections, is embarrassed by his rosy, non-vampiric cheeks that “made him look different from everyone else — so horribly alive.” After stumbling on a friend’s secret (big pink hair), he’s able to appreciate and embrace what makes the two of them — and others — unique. The text is lighthearted, and the detail-filled mixed-media illustrations display energy — and style. Concurrently published in Spanish as Vlad, el vampirito fabuloso. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ 

Bruce and the Legend of Soggy Hollow [Mother Bruce] 
by Ryan T. Higgins; illus. by the author 
Primary Disney-Hyperion 48 pp. 
7/23 9781368059589 $18.99 

Bruce the bear’s family of mice and geese tries to get him in the Halloween mood by acting out “The Legend of Soggy Hollow.” Mouse Nibbs is the Horseless Horseman (complete with jack-o’-lantern head) and reluctant Bruce plays protagonist “Icky Bob,” until a romantic scene with Camilla the moose sends him fleeing from her into the forest . . . alongside the real Horseless Horseman of Soggy Hollow. This tongue-in-cheek retelling of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is cleverly faithful to the source material and an excellent addition to the Mother Bruce series. Amusing speech-bubble dialogue, animated character reactions, and seasonally-hued action-packed panels help build Higgins’s story to a spirited ending for all involved, including readers. CYNTHIA K. RITTER 

In the Dark 
by Kate Hoefler; illus. by Corinna Luyken 
Primary Knopf 40 pp. 
8/23 9780593372838 $18.99 
Library ed. 9780593372845 $21.99 
e-book ed. 9780593372852 $10.99 

The townspeople are suspicious of the outsiders in the woods with their cloaks, brooms, and black cat. One spooky night, the townsfolk mistake the others’ bird-shaped kites for witches, but when a storm helps the townsfolk realize the truth, the two groups unite to celebrate and “dance like kites.” The book’s vertical layout — with, at first, the townspeople’s point of view on the top and the others’ on the bottom — and the use of different fonts effectively tell the story from two different ­perspectives. Hoefler’s text is atmospheric and lyrical; Luyken’s mixed-media art, in a limited palette using mostly black and yellow, excels at portraying the eeriness of the woods as well as their benign reality. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO 

It’s Fall! 
by Renée Kurilla; illus. by the author 
Preschool, Primary Little, Brown 32 pp. 
8/23 9780316363990 $18.99 

“Scarecrows, mums, / and wagon rides. / A corn maze we get lost inside!” Get into a fall mood with Kurilla’s upbeat rhyming text and exuberant digitally rendered illustrations in a rich palette appropriately dominated by warm yellows, oranges, and reds. A diverse group of kids happily revels in the delights of the season, sharing favorite sights, sounds, smells, and activities. Varied compositions (double-page spreads, vignettes, etc.) capture the highlights: school buses, colorful leaves, pumpkin- and apple-picking, baking, trick-or-treating, geese flying south, Thanksgiving, and more. “Rake some crunchy leaves and— / flop!” KITTY FLYNN 

Benita and the Night Creatures 
by Mariana Llanos; illus. by Cocoretto 
Preschool, Primary Barefoot 32 pp. 
9/23 9798888590027 $17.99 
Paper ed. 9798888590034 $9.99 
Spanish paper ed. 9798888590416 $9.99 

Benita is wrapped up in her reading and not bothered by the night creatures who try to frighten her at bedtime. Annoyed at the growing crowd of would-be scarers, she yells, “DON’T YOU SEE I’M READING A BOOK?” Intrigued, the monsters ask Benita to read to them. Now all engrossed, they yell “SHHHH!” to latecomer Yanapuma, who rather than scaring everyone, instead joins the storytime. Boldly colored pencil and digital illustrations pop against mostly black ­backdrops. Young book lovers will relate to Benita’s devotion to reading and be amused by the friendly night creatures, who are all based on Peruvian legends. Concurrently published in Spanish as Benita y las criaturas nocturnas. MONICA DE LOS REYES 

The Wilderness 
by Steve McCarthy; illus. by the author 
Primary Candlewick 40 pp. 
10/23 9781536231373 $17.99 

Thirteen members of the Vasylenko family (each child named for a month of the year plus Mama Mariana, who has brown skin, and Papa Everest, a strapping redhead) love the outdoors. The fourteenth member, Oktober, “went on his adventures inside books, safe from the climby, slimy, grimy, wet, cold, and wild outside,” and most especially from the personified, monstrous Wilderness. When he does encounter the Wilderness, adorable in an entertaining vertical gatefold, our hero learns to shift perspective. The tactile-seeming digital illustrations are motion-filled, rounded-edged, and cozily autumnal. ELISSA GERSHOWITZ 

The Scariest Kitten in the World 
by Kate Messner; illus. by MacKenzie Haley 
Preschool, Primary Farrar 40 pp. 
8/23 9780374390051 $18.99 

An offstage narrator warns readers (à la Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book) about the “ferocious monster” that haunts the pages ahead. “It’s not too late for you to choose a different book about something more pleasant.” A page-turn reveals the speaker/­monster: a terrifying(ly cute) white kitten doing its darnedest to be threatening. “Hey, quit laughing.” Enlisting the help of two sweet puppies, a fluffy duckling, and other animal friends, the kitten’s subsequent jump-scare attempts yield similar results. And then . . . from the doorway . . .  a foreboding shadow looms . . . “Bath time!” The ­well-paced text, vibrant pencil and digitally painted illustrations, and effective use of page-turns heighten the drama — and the ­silliness. KITTY FLYNN 

The Light Inside 
by Dan Misdea; illus. by the author 
Preschool, Primary Penguin Workshop 40 pp. 
8/23 9780593521625 $8.99 

When a mischievous black cat runs off with a little jack-o’-lantern child’s purple mouse stuffie, the child must face their fears to find their beloved friend. In the end, stuffie and child are reunited, and our hero discovers a reserve of courage they didn’t know they had. A lot happens in this wordless Halloween adventure that plays out in cleanly rendered panel illustrations. The jack-o’-lantern travels across a river and into a forest where they encounter a skeleton, ghosts, a witch (sad about her missing black cat), a giant octopus, and, scariest of all, the dark. The details sound frightening, but the art’s soft ­palette and comforting round shapes signal to young readers and listeners that they needn’t be. KITTY FLYNN 

Sí. ¡No! [Skeletown] 
by Rhode Montijo; illus. by the author 
Preschool, Primary Little, Brown 40 pp. 
8/23 9780316464932 $17.99 

Two skele-kids have fun picking out a ­present and playing at a party (“Sí”) and wreak havoc trampling flowers and staging a daredevil jump over friends (“¡No!”). One skeleton’s dismayed “Sí” at having to throw out their now-broken bike is rebutted with a determined “No”: they won’t give up on repairing it. Now with a newly modified tandem bike, the skele-friends daredevil jump into the Skeletown sunset together. The text demonstrates a range of meanings for sí and no (the only two words in the book) with black, white, and blood orange images that are jam-packed with friendly skeleton details. MONICA DE LOS REYES 

The Monster Mac and Cheese Party 
by Todd Parr; illus. by the author 
Preschool Tingley/Little, Brown 40 pp. 
6/23 9780316376426 $17.99 

Step into the monstrous, cheesy fun with an invitation to, you guessed it, a monster mac and cheese party with no humans allowed. Parr keeps listeners involved with direct questions and choices — they get to decide what dish they would bring, and whether they would eat some of the monsters’ creations. (Mac and cheese with stinky socks, anyone?) Finally, two humans arrive with their own (boxed!) contribution, and the monsters agree to let them join. Parr’s signature bold lines and bright colors keep viewers’ eyes wide and their minds engaged as he creates a lively book with a strong message: in the end, everyone is ­welcome. Two of his favorite recipes are included in the back matter. KARINA JHA 

Theme in Yellow [Petite Poems] 
by Carl Sandburg; illus. by Tatyana Feeney 
Preschool, Primary Cameron/Abrams 24 pp. 
8/23 9781951836924 $15.99 
e-book ed. 9781647009939 $14.39 

In this entry in a series that illustrates existing poems, Feeney takes on S­andburg’s 1916 poem, written from the point of view of a ­pumpkin. On double-page spreads with striking backgrounds, children gather pumpkins and celebrate Halloween. ­Cheerful hues dominate at first (“I light the prairie cornfields”) and give way to ­Halloween night–appropriate shades of black (“­Children join hands . . . Singing ghost songs / And love to the harvest moon”), but orange and the titular yellow are always present and help emphasize the holiday’s festive atmosphere. The poem’s full text and discussion of it, plus background on Sandburg, are appended. SHOSHANA FLAX 

First Night of Howlergarten 
by Benson Shum; illus. by the author 
Preschool, Primary Penguin Workshop 32 pp. 
8/23 9780593521274 $18.99 
e-book ed. 9780593660256 $10.99 

First-day-of-school anxiety and the fear of not fitting in take a hair-raising twist when aspiring werewolf Sophie begins howlergarten. Sophie wants “to be part of a pack” but worries she’ll never grow fangs or a bushy tail like her werewolf parents. As she struggles through “furry fun were-activities,” humorously depicted in Shum’s comic-style illustrations, Sophie ­discovers that being in a wolf pack runs deeper than fur. While Sophie’s desire for community will resonate with all readers, Shum uses the ­werewolf theme to subtly subvert ideas of which identities and social behaviors equal acceptance, imagining a world where everybody has a pack. CONNOR BATSIMM 

I Will Read to You 
by Gideon Sterer; illus. by Charles Santoso 
Primary Little, Brown 40 pp. 
8/23 9780316592611 $18.99 

“Fly now, Witches, on your brooms, / march now, Mummies, from your tombs . . . I will read to you.” In a rhythmic rhyming text with the titular phrase (and variations on it) as a refrain, a mother reads to a child who prefers spooky fare . . . and then the child wonders, “Who tucks in beasts? Who cares for them?” So they trek to the highest hill and invite all manner of monsters to storytime. The child takes control as leader and reader, which alleviates scariness, and the atmospheric full-bleed illustrations, done digitally combined with handmade pencil textures, make even a swarm of supernatural beings feel just cheerful enough. SHOSHANA FLAX

From the September/October 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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