FORT WAYNE – Human skulls are freaky enough, with their pasty-white cranium, two vacant sockets where the eyes should be, and a hole where there was once a nose. But what makes it even weirder is the teeth are still attached, providing a lifeless, toothpaste-commercial smile.
Uncle Ralph? Is that you and your gold tooth?
Of the 10 books that Mary Voors, children’s services director at the Allen County Public Library downtown, recommended as her favorites for Halloween reading for kids, the photo book devoted to animal skulls gave me the willies the most. But it’s also the most fascinating.
In the event that parents want to perk up the Halloween season with something other than dressing their 7-year-old as a pirate or handing out the “fun-sized” candy bars (fun size meaning one, sugary bite), gather your troops and the neighborhood kids over for a backyard, read-by-flashlight storytelling session.
It all depends on the ages of the kids, of course, on what is appropriate. A detailed reading of Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” may not be suitable for a 3-year-old. As an alternative, Voors offers up the picture book, “Frank was a Monster who wanted to Dance.”
“This one is really, really silly; good for preschoolers,” she says. “The poor guy, as he dances, body parts fall off.”
She calls it a “laughing book.”
“They’re very, very popular,” Voors says of the large selection of Halloween-related books. “Scary stories go year-round. Like ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,’ almost any time of the year you’re going to find copies of this checked out. Around Halloween, my impression is grown ups are checking them out to read to kids. The rest of the time, kids are checking them out, themselves.”
From the 30 or 40 Halloween books that she sorted out from the children’s services section, Voors selected her 10 favorites for kids of various ages. Here they are, in no particular order:
“The Ghost & I: Scary Stories for Participatory Telling.” Edited by Jennifer Justice. 119 pages.
One story was about an ordinary man named John, who walked home after work through a graveyard. Two nights in a row he heard a voice say, “Turn me over. Turn me over,” but he ran home. On the third night – Halloween – he heard it again. It came through the door of a tomb. When he went inside, there were red hot coals. On those coals was a grid. On the grid was a hamburger. “So he picked up the spatula, and he turned the hamburger over. And it said, “Thaaank youuuuu.”
“Frank was a Monster who wanted to Dance.” By Keith Graves. 24 pages.
The author is also the illustrator, and the illustrations are captivating for all ages. It begins with Frank, a monster with a green, zipper head and two bulging eyes that don’t match, watching “Soul Train” on his television. Wearing his rat slippers and purple robe with an embroidered “F,” he tells his disgusting-looking cat, “I know I could boogie if they gave me a chance.” Sure enough, he drove to the theater and hopped on the stage. Unfortunately, the more he dances, the more body parts fall off.
“Zen Ghosts.” By Jon J. Muth. 33 pages.
The book is based on a Zen koan, which is a story, statement or dialogue to foster suspicion or doubt. Shortly after friends go trick-or-treating, they are told a tale by a panda, who looks like one of their friends who wore a panda costume. The story told within the story has the reader (and those who listen) wonder if one person can really be two. Preschoolers will not appreciate the book, but it’s a story that could open a debate for fourth- and fifth-graders on up.
“Half-minute Horrors.” Edited by Susan Rich. 141 pages.
Welcome to a compilation of quick, scary stories by nearly 50 authors. There are poems and pictures. There are mysteries under the bed and in the closet. There are stories that take up two pages or more, and a story with three sentences. Read about goblins and worms and clowns. It’s a quick read and a quick scare.
“Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection.” By Simon Winchester. 256 pages.
Want to know what a frog skull looks like? Or a snake? Ever see a two-headed cow? Maybe you’ll want to keep the little ones away from this book. But it’s a fascinating collection of photographs of more than 300 animal crania. With each skull comes a description of the animal, with a small, accompanying photo of what that animal looks like.
“Frankenstein Takes the Cake.” By Adam Rex. 39 pages.
Don’t be deceived by the book’s title. There are several stories within, led by the wonderfully illustrated “The Mother-in-Law of Frankenstein Makes Wedding Plans,” in which the bride-to-be returns home to introduce her fiancé with the flat head. And both of them have come back to life. Witty and irreverent, some stories may be over the heads of some kids. But adults will love it, even to the back cover.
“In a Dark, Dark Wood: An Old Tale with a New Twist.” By David A. Carter. 26 pages.
To be sure, read this slowly and deliberately, with gusto (or ghosto, if you please). Let the illustrations add to the story, in which everything is “dark, dark.” Notice the portrait of the bearded man with eyes that seem to move, or, across the hallway, the portrait of Medusa. And check out the picture of the dog with three eyes. And make sure to hold the pages tightly for the surprise at the end.
“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” Collected from Folklore and Retold by Alvin Schwartz. 111 pages.
The way this paperback cover is creased and torn and dog-eared, it has to be popular. Either that, or whoever read it last kept clenching it tightly. Many of these short stories are spun from urban legends, like the girl who was dared to stand on top of a grave at night and stick a knife into the dirt. You’ll have to read it to see how it ends. But even the back cover suggests the book is for ages 9 and up.
“The Chicken-Fried Rat: Tales too Gross to be True.” By Cylin Busby. 94 pages.
Like the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” this collection of yuck is based on “real” events. The group of short stories begins with the tale (not tail) of the rat, which is what a young girl presumably bit into after visiting a fast food restaurant. Many of the stories are food-related, so it’s up to you to read it on an empty stomach or a full one.
“The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural.” By Patricia C. McKissack. 122 pages.
The title of these 10 short stories refers to the last half hour before dark, when kids have to finish playing outside and get home – or else. All the stories are based in the rural, black south, and McKissack was the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Author Award.