The Death Eaters are coming for you!

The Death Eaters are coming for you!

Two weeks ago, my daughter’s elementary school had their annual Fall Festival and I got talked into… I mean, I got the privilege of helping head up the haunted house. Actually, it’s called The Haunted Hallway because, basically, we have a few hours to transform two sections of school hallway into something that can creep out a K-6 audience. But WEEKS of planning happens before that short set-up time, particularly regarding the “theme” of the haunted house, which has to be both appropriate and interesting for elementary school kids. This year – and I couldn’t have been happier about this – the theme was HAUNTED HOGWARTS. That’s right. A Harry Potter Haunted House.

It made the kidlit/Potter-nerd in me completely geek out and it couldn’t have been more perfect because my daughter is currently reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (She’s almost done. ______ _____ just died. She’s sad. We’re dealing with it.) Originally, we hit onto the idea because we thought that it would be really creepy to have Dementors going after the kids, but, after a few weeks of planning, we didn’t end up having Dementors at all. (The costume was tricky and we couldn’t figure out a good “Dementor Kiss” effect.)

Instead, the students entered a hallway in Hogwarts (complete with floating candles and talking pictures) where Professor McGonagall warned them that Voldemort and the Death Eaters were on the rise. Next, they went through a pitch-black Forbidden Forest, where they got whomped by parents in Whomping Willow costumes and almost got eaten by a giant spiders. They then moved onto Diagon Alley, getting harassed by goblins all the way, until they ended up in a graveyard where Voldemort and some masked Death Eaters were waiting for them. (I was a masked Death Eater who jumped out from behind a curtain, yelled “Avada Kedavra!”, and pointed my wand at them – which was really an air-compressor hose that loudly sprayed a stream of air at them, making the kids scream and run out the exit.)

It was a whole lot of fun and I’m proud of what we accomplished on a very small budget in a very small amount of time. Here are some pictures of our nerdy parents having DIY fun in J.K. Rowling’s world…

This was the first Hogwarts Hallway. Isn't that backdrop painting cool?

This was the first Hogwarts Hallway. Isn’t that backdrop painting cool?

Our very own Acromantula (i.e. big-*** spider)

Our very own Acromantula (i.e. big-*** spider)

Our homemade Diagon Alley...

Our homemade Diagon Alley…

... complete with creepy Kreacher-esque goblins (yes, I know Kreacher was a house-elf, but they're still creepy)

… complete with creepy Kreacher-esque goblins (yes, I know Kreacher was a house-elf, but they’re still creepy)

[read the rest of the post…]


rexhallow_0004Before I get started, let me say that I know that saying anything is the “best EVER” is one of the internet’s most heinous and frequent sins. Everything online has to be the greatest or the worst. People can’t disagree on the web — they either destroy their opponents or come off as an epic fail. Everything is heightened and over-the-top, which means that nothing is really heightened or over-the-top, so, when someone online tells you, “This is the best ever,” there’s no real reason why you should think that they’re talking about anything special. EXCEPT THIS TIME… because Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and its sequel, Frankenstein Takes the Cake, are seriously the best Halloween books for kids EVER.

If you haven’t been overwhelmed by incredulity yet, let me explain. Yes, I realize that people like sharing spooky books with kids around Halloween time and I love that. For younger kids, you can give them something clever (but safe) like The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky or Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall. (Both great.) For older kids, you can go classic like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving or modern classic like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (Super creepy.) But, for me, Halloween is really all about that sweet spot where unbridled fun and playful spookiness collide and I don’t know of any other kids’ titles that tap into that crazy tone overlap better than Rex’s Frankenstein books.franksandcover

For those unfamiliar, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes the Cake are two insanely creative illustrated poetry collections that utilize a breathtaking variety of art styles and rhyme schemes to tell short stories about some of the most famous monsters of all time – Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, the Mummy, witches, yetis, zombies, Godzilla, and, of course, the titular Frankenstein.frankcakecover

If that sounds cool, yes, these are incredibly cool books, but you also need to know that the poems are FUNNY. The Frankenstein books are among the funniest kids’ books we own. Get a load of the titles of some of the poems: [read the rest of the post…]


Before I get into my discussion of Jack Prelutsky’s The Wizard, I want to tell you about a fantastic Halloween reading tradition that’s sprung up over the past few years called All Hallow’s Read, which apparently originated with a blog post by Neil Gaiman in 2010. It’s all about… well, I’ll let Gaiman explain it himself:

That’s it. On the week of Halloween (or on the day itself), give someone you know – adult, kid, or in between – a scary book to read.

Simple yet elegant. I love the concept for many reasons. First of all, if you can actually find a book that really, truly scares you, it’s an amazing sensation. Finding out that reading words on a printed page can actually chill you to the core of your being is a staggering, unrivaled experience, and it often gets dismissed by people who look down their nose at “genre” fiction. Personally, if a book can actually scare me, I find the experience way more affecting than a book that can make me cry. I cry all the time (ask my wife – it’s a sickness), but scaring me while I’m sitting on the couch reading in the middle of the day? That’s a hard act to pull off.

Secondly, I love that there’s this aspect of All Hallow’s Read that’s all about figuring out your audience. It’s not just finding a book that YOU might find scary. You’re trying to find a book that will scare your mother, your daughter, your pal, your co-worker – some real thought has to go into that selection. The book has to have the APPROPRIATE scare level for the person you have in mind. Your nephew might be a little tame and timid, but can’t get enough of campfire ghost stories. Your best friend might despise gore, but might love the existential dread of a Lovecraft novel. Psychological suspense might bore your sister to tears, but she ADORES blood and guts. It’s like choosing the perfect holiday gift for your friends and family, only with marginally more viscera and tentacled gods.

I decided to get in on the All Hallow’s Read fun this year and find a scary book to share with my daughter, which… was a challenge. She’s almost five and is a bit of a scaredy-cat. And it’s hard to predict what will or won’t resonate as scary with her. She can’t get enough of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal – both of which have some decidedly weird and dark moments – but curls up in anxiety whenever she sees a picture of a gun or whenever there’s an especially creepy background shadow in a picture book spread. (I’m 95% certain that she never even realized that she was supposed to be afraid of the dark until I read her The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, so, thanks a lot, Stan and Jan.)

The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky

The Wizard by Jack Prelutsky

So I had to stay away from murder, death, weapons, unfriendly monsters, situations that couldn’t be explained away as fairy tales, overt threats towards children, and particularly spooky illustrations. In other words, I didn’t have a ton to work with. But I eventually found the perfect All Hallow’s Read book for my daughter in the 2007 picture book adaptation of Jack Prelutsky’s poem The Wizard, illustrated by Brandon Dorman – a book that I think is a PERFECT Halloween read for nervous young readers looking for a slight dose of spookiness before bed.

If you don’t already know, Jack Prelutsky was named the first Children’s Poet Laureate in 2006 and, for decades, he’s been a major force in children’s poetry. When asked to name great poets for young readers, I normally rattle off the names “Silverstein, Seuss, and Prelutsky” on instinct before my brain has time to start thinking of other options. If you have third graders or older – or younger kids with particularly strong constitutions – who would revel in tales of monsters and mutilation, you can’t go wrong with Prelutsky’s perfect-for-Halloween poetry collections, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep or The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. Both are way fun and are accompanied by a series of Edward Gorey-esque illustrations created by the great Arnold Lobel. [read the rest of the post…]


Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall

Kneel before the Substitute Creacher!

We did our normal Friday trip to our local library last week and came home with some old favorites – my daughter enjoys the Dirk Bones early readers – and some fun new titles. One of the standout titles was Substitute Creacher by Chris Gall, which was the perfect book for an almost-five-year-old, in October, who just had her first subtitute teacher experience last week. Gall’s artwork is big and bold – cartoonish, but in the crazy bombastic style of a 1950s monster movie poster. It’s like Harry Allard’s Miss Nelson is Missing mixed with Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes.

I’ll write a longer entry on it one day, but we’ve had a GREAT intial reaction to it so far. Here’s the book trailer, so you can decide for yourself if your kid is ready to experience the campy horror of… the Substitute Creacher.


That was what my almost five-year-old daughter told me as I was getting her ready for bed tonight.

“What?” I said. “Wait, what was this? When was this?”

It had been raining today, so her kindergarten class had stayed inside for recess and watched a movie.

Teeny-Tiny and the Witch-Woman (1975) by Barbara K. Walker

The book in question….

“And it was about this old lady… and there was this scary part with hands at the beginning… it was so freaky… and the old lady, she was a witch… she would take children’s bones and boil them, and, if you want to get someone’s bones, you have to kill them. So this lady KILLED children, Dad. She killed like a hundred children. She had a fence of bones… no, I’m serious, Dad. She killed children. So many children. And ripped out their bones.”

“This was at school today?”

“Yes, I’m really telling the truth, Dad. It was a video from the people that made the Knuffle Bunny and Pete’s a Pizza videos, but it was about KILLING…”

That went on for a while.

It turns out – after some quick Google searches – that the video was an animated version of a book called Teeny-Tiny and the Witch-Woman (1975) by Barbara K. Walker, illustrated by Michael Foreman, which seems to be out of print. The cartoon adaptation was done by Weston Woods, a fantastic production company, owned by Scholastic, that specializes in animated versions of classic children’s books. (My daughter knows their Mo Willems and William Steig videos, which are great.)

I found Teeny-Tiny and the Witch-Woman on YouTube and… yeah, my daughter was right. That is freaky. Really freaky, right? (The hands are WAY scary.)

So, OK, Teeny-Tiny and the Witch-Woman – you’re on the radar of the Library now.

I’m going to try to track down a copy to see if the actual book is any less “freaky.” Oh, and I’m also going to enjoy about a month of questions from my kid about murdered children and the best way to collect the bones of young ones, so, thanks a lot, Teeny-Tiny.