If you wait all year for October to roll around so you can break out the skulls and cobwebs and jack-o’-lanterns, this Stack Overflow is for you! Here’s a mix of picture books, comic books, and fiction with a gamut of monsters, witches, and other spooky subjects.
Vlad the vampire isn’t doing so well at Miss Fussbucket’s School for Aspiring Spooks, because he’s more interested in skateboarding than learning the proper ways to be spooky. Can he combine his love for skateboarding with being creepy? This is a cute picture book filled with all sorts of monsters for Halloween that isn’t too scary for little kids.
This picture book is actually inspired by Arabic folk tales, so while it’s not exactly a Halloween story, it does feature a ghoul. The entire village is frightened of the ghoul who lives on the mountain, and kids are constantly shushed for fear that they’ll disturb the ghoul, who eats children. (Hmm, reminds me of A Quiet Place.) The thing is, none of the villagers have ever actually seen the ghoul, or know of any kids who have been eaten. So one day Hasan, a young boy, decides to brave the mountain and see what’s up there for himself. It’s a monster tale that also teaches us to celebrate our differences—perhaps a message we could all stand to hear a bit more these days.
Skulls! They’re creepy and chattery, and ubiquitous at Halloween, right? But they’re also dead useful. (Heh.) They keep your brain safe, and have holes for things like air and sound and grilled cheese sandwiches. This picture book celebrates skulls and what they do: it’s not actually about their creepiness at all, but could make for some great educational reading during this month!
This book is a cross between a picture book and a comic book, and features young Tiger, who has a Monster living under her bed. But it’s okay: they’re actually best friends, and Monster helps fight off nightmares through the night. One night, though, a nightmare shows up that’s a little too big for Monster to face … how will these two friends face it? The illustrations in this book are wonderful, and it’s a nice message about facing your fears.
I’ve always admired Shaun Tan’s illustrations, which often incorporate collage and photography in the mix. This book showcases photos of his sculptures, each paired with a snippet from a fairy tale. The excerpts are brief, often giving you a taste of a scene from the middle of the tale rather than the whole story. For familiar fairy tales, that’s enough to call to mind the whole story; for unfamiliar tales, it gives you a sense of wonder and mystery. (If you want to know more, there’s also a summary of each tale at the back of the book.) The sculptures and excerpts give a haunted feel, and it’s an excellent (and gorgeous) book to flip through during this season.
If your preferences for witches and wizards includes the Harry Potter series, then you’re sure to enjoy this illustrated guide to Hogwarts, as seen in the films. Jenny Bristol took a closer look at this title recently, and it’s a delightful deep dive into the magical school, filled with bits of trivia, quotes from the films, and details about some of the special effects in the films.
This gorgeous hardcover book includes 13 ghost stories, written and illustrated by the Illustrátus team. A couple of the stories are in rhyming verse, but most are in prose, and they’re told with a framing story about two kids at camp who visit the creepy groundskeeper, who’s known for having the best ghost tales. While this book is for kids, it’s not for the faint at heart! These aren’t cute ghost stories with cheerful endings, and some of them are downright gruesome, but if you’ve got kids who like a good shiver, these would be perfect.
This is actually the second book in the Anne of Green Bagels series, with chapters that alternate between comic book panels and prose with illustrations (much like the Fog Mound series by the same creators). I originally started this one, thinking it would be a good match for this column simply because of the monsters involved, but was surprised by where the story went. Anne and her friend Otto decide to film a movie with their friends, and because nobody can agree on the genre, they end up with a horror romance, with Frankenstein and Dracula getting married. But while they’re filming at a local castle, the owner throws a fit about the wedding scene—and then the video of the owner goes viral, which leads to some other repercussions.
I was impressed with the way that the book touches on several difficult topics in the course of the story: gay marriage, viral videos and how horrible the comments section can be, and there’s even a subplot that involves the environment and ecology. The resolution did seem a bit easier in the book than what I’d expect in real life, but it’s a surprisingly thoughtful story that still manages to be silly and fun.
Okay, I have a confession: I’ve never read any Goosebumps books—they’re just not my thing. But now R. L. Stine has a new series of comic books with scary stories for kids, so I figured I’d give it a shot. The first volume, Scare School, follows the exploits of a few kids who discover that their school is apparently linked to an alternate reality school. First, a couple of students from the other world try to escape into this world, but are captured and taken back. Then some kids from our reality make their way into the other school, where things don’t seem to make sense. It’s not incredibly scary—there are some monsters and a creepy principal, but on the whole it felt less eerie than the Ghosts book I mentioned above. Still, the story was kind of fun. I should note that the interior of the book is more comic-book style, not like what’s pictured on the cover, so that may also temper the frightfulness a little.
The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade written by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate
Book 5 of this post-apocalyptic series for middle grade readers is still going strong: Jack Sullivan and a couple of friends seem to be the only ones left in Wakefield after a giant portal opened up and let loose a pile of monsters (and also turned a bunch of townspeople into zombies). Since then they’ve encountered a monstrous tree-thing, friendly monsters from the same world who have teamed up with them, and one other human kid … who for some reason is obsessed with helping the evil monsters take over the world. In this latest volume, Jack’s baseball bat-turned-blade has acquired some strange new powers that he’s trying to master, and Dirk’s encounter with the undead has left him acting a little weird.
The first book has been made into a Netflix special—it’s about an hour long, with more seasons to follow. It does a pretty good job of bringing the story to life: it’s narrated by Jack himself, like the books, and lets you see the world through his eyes.
It’s a fun romp filled with monsters that manages to include some heartfelt messages about friendship and family while also reveling in Jack’s nerdiness. His attempt at a training montage is hilarious. Sometimes Jack is a bit of an overconfident jerk, but he’s also becoming more aware of his faults, too. Overall, I’ve been having fun with this series, and it was fun to see it make the leap to the small screen.
Moth Hush loves witchy things—her favorite books and shows are all about witches—but what she didn’t know is that she’s from a long line of witches. Unfortunately, her small town of Founder’s Bluff isn’t quite so fond of witches: their annual school play celebrates the Founder’s Witch Hunt led by Judge Nathaniel Kramer, and the Kramer family is still in power, proud of their heritage.
This graphic novel is a lot of fun, even as it addresses some not-so-fun topics. Moth’s mother and grandmother had a falling out, which is why Moth was never raised as a witch. Moth meets a new friend, but their relationship gets complicated when they learn more about each other’s families. It’s a weird, funny, magical adventure.
This is actually the second book in the Dead Endia graphic novel series, though I didn’t know that at first; there’s some history to the characters that you’ll pick up over the course of the book, but some of them are also spoilers for the first book. The story is set at Dead End, the haunted house at the Pollywood amusement park, which also happens to be a portal into the other 12 planes of existence from the Divine (level 1) to Tartarus (level 13). Earth is smack in the middle at level 7, and is sort of a neutral ground between the demons below and angels above. In this book, Norma and her friends (some human, some not-so-human) run the hotel as a resort for visiting supernatural beings, but there are strange things brewing.
For one, Norma is having trouble keeping her soul inside her body (due to events from Book 1), so she’s learning a thing or two about her ghost powers. Also, her friend (and former Dead End employee) Barney begins a lucrative career as a pro-wrestler … of demons. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of demon kings declaring war on humanity and using Dead End as a staging ground.
Even though I missed the first book, I enjoyed this story, which has a mix of humor, action, intrigue, and romance, topped off with a big dollop of weirdness. I’m definitely going to look up the first book and give it a read as well!
Stig and Tilde are twin siblings from a small seaside community with a coming-of-age tradition: at age 14, teens are supposed to spend a year alone on an island. But these days it’s more of a summer camp: the kids just all go to the same big island and hang out together for a month. Stig and Tilde get thrown off course, though, and end up stranded by themselves on the wrong island, where things get a little strange. I don’t want to spoil too much, but this one does have some creepiness that makes it a good fit for today’s column, and it’s probably best for tweens and up—some of the content may not be appropriate for younger readers. The back of the book mentions another book in the series, so it seems that this brother and sister duo may not find their way to the big island right away…
Beautiful Darkness is hard to describe, but is definitely appropriately titled. It’s a graphic novel, and the illustrations look like something from a children’s picture book, with people of various types and sizes. The story, however, is creepy and at times gruesome: when the story starts off, we meet Aurora (the girl seen on the cover) as she’s having tea with her crush Hector, when everything goes wrong and there are people running to escape some sort of collapse … and we see that all these people are actually tiny, clambering out of what appears to be a dead girl’s head. From there, the story follows the various clumps of people as they attempt to survive life in the wild: Aurora is always trying to help others, often to her own detriment, while the others behave in selfish ways that often end up backfiring. One character in particular, Zelie, looks like a beautiful doll but is sinister, building up her own following and undermining Aurora’s efforts to bring all the little people together. It’s a bit like Lord of the Flies, but with adorable pictures, and that juxtaposition is both disturbing and mesmerizing.
This is a hilarious graphic novel about Lucy, a debutante who gets caught up in hunting vampires but is somewhat tempted to join them; Lord Byron, the poet (“you know, from books”) who hunts vampires but is more interested in vamping; and Sham, a mysterious bounty hunter with more than a few secrets. The three of them work together (somewhat grudgingly) to chase down Lady Violet Travesty, the leader of a coven of vampires, but they spend more time bickering and flirting than actually hunting. Oh, and did I mention Napoleon, Byron’s psychic eagle?
I should note that although the book is quite silly, it’s not for younger kids—there’s a lot of comical blood spatter as well as a bit of profanity. You can get a sense of the style of humor (and content) from Emily McGovern’s webcomic, My Life as a Background Slytherin, in which she puts herself into the Harry Potter series as, well, a background Slytherin student.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Tina Berning
Frankenstein: The 200th Anniversary Edition written by Mary Shelley, illustrated by David Plunkert
If you’re looking for some classic reading, these two recent editions from Rockport Publishers (an imprint of Quarto) augment these well-known stories with fantastic illustrations, in a large hardcover format.
Tina Berning’s illustrations for Jekyll and Hyde are paintings with washes of dark color, full of shadows, that preserve Stevenson’s abstracted portrayal of Mr. Hyde: you don’t see him clearly, but instead get an impressionistic view: some piercing eyes here, a silhouette there. The edges of the book pages are also decorated with the quotations “I am the chief of sufferers” and “I am the chief of sinners.” David Plunkert’s illustrations for Frankenstein are collages, appropriate for a story about stitching together body parts to create a whole. This edition has an embossed cover that gives the cover illustration some texture.
Both books are visually striking, and provide a new way to experience these groundbreaking tales.
My Current Stack
Aside from the books already mentioned above, I recently read Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith, a comic book that makes some intriguing arguments against restricting immigration. They address many of the primary fears of immigration—economic, cultural, and criminal—and I found it thought-provoking and pretty convincing on several counts.
I also read Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, a graphic novel that brings together two of Hatke’s characters for an intergalactic showdown against an army of giants preparing to invade Earth. I probably should have reviewed the other five books in the two series before reading this one, but it did a pretty good job of catching me up on the important parts. It was a lot of different characters to bring together into one story and you don’t necessarily get a lot of time focusing on each one, but it did set up some personality clashes between Jack’s world and Zita’s world that were as important to resolve as the invasion of the giants.
I’ve also been making my way through Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, a look at how language has evolved because of the internet and social media. I have a tendency toward prescriptivism when it comes to grammar, so I thought this book would be a good reminder to myself that language grows and changes, particularly depending on context. But you’ll still never make me give up my Oxford comma.
Happy reading, and happy Halloween!
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books mentioned in this column except Because Internet, which I purchased myself.