Ghoulies and Ghosties and Things That Go Bump in the Night

by Lois Rubin Gross

As a child, one of my favorite poems was a James Whitcomb Riley poem with a terrifying refrain:

And the goblins ‘il git you
Ef you don’t watch out.

The poem is called Little Orphant Annie, and has absolutely nothing to do with the aged comic strip or the Broadway show. Years later, I learned that it was about an indentured servant who told ghost stories to the youngsters in the house where she worked.

HalloweenReading-thumbThese days, I would probably never read that poem during story time despite its classic status because parents would object to the fearsomeness of the theme. We walk a bit more carefully, these days, when it comes to Halloween, both because of the religious implications of a holiday associated with witches, ghosts, and goblins and because of the potential to cause nightmares for sensitive children.

Latin cultures do not look as grimly on the commemoration of death. In fact, in Mexico and the southwestern United States, November 1 is a day of celebration. The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) is a day to honor ancestors who have passed away, and picnic in cemeteries to remember relatives. You can teach your child about these customs with books such as:

  • Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life and Death, by Amanda Doering (Capstone Press, 2006)
  • The Little Bitty Book for the Day of the Dead: The Festival of Bones (El Festival de las Calavaras), by Luis San Vicente (Cincos Puntos Press, 1999) – a the bilingual book.

No Hispanic celebration of Dia de las Muertos is complete with a telling of La Llorona. This is the most widely told folk tale in all of the Spanish speaking world. I most versions, it tells the story of a native woman who is taken as a mistress by a Conquistadore, then abandoned with her children. Tortured by her humiliation, she kills the children, much as Medea did in Greek mythology, then commits suicide, but remains as a ghost trying to steal children from their parents. You can find many versions of The Crying Woman, but a famous bilingual edition, La Llorana: The Crying Woman was written by Rudolfo Anaya (University of New Mexico Press, 2011). A good storyteller can turn this into the scariest story you have ever heard, with the rise of La Llorona’s cry for her lost children as wailing as a southwestern wind on the desert: “Mi hijos!” Honestly, told correctly, you won’t sleep for weeks.

So, what can you read to younger children that won’t traumatize them or cause them to wake you at 2 AM with nightmares of being pursued by blood sucking vamps? You can always go with a good monster book such as the classic Go Away Big Green Monster, by Ed Emberly. (Little Brown and Co., 1992). This die-cut book allows children to build the Big Green Monster then disassemble him so that he vanishes and never comes back.

Of course, that’s only until the next reading, which will probably be five minutes later. This is a book that demands repetition. It also now has a companion book, Nighty Night, Little Green Monster (Little Brown and Co., 2013) which is equally fear-free and just as popular with little ones.

Romping, Monsters, Stomping Monsters, by Jane Yolen (Candlewick Press, 2013) is another harmless monstrosity with creatures that look extra-terrestrial more than horrifying, as they jump, run and play on a monster-appropriate playground.

For older readers, what better time than this to introduce the Salem witch trials than at Halloween? Salem seems to have unending fascination for early teens, and a good book to introduce the topic is Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem, by Rosalyn Schanzer (National Geographic, 2011). For an award-winning fictional account of why the women of Salem were really just misunderstood, introduce the classic The Witch of Blackbird Pound, by Elizabeth George Speares. There are many editions of this book that opens many discussion topics of discrimination against people who are different from the ordinary, and how the “witches” were misrepresented by the Puritans, and persecuted.

Halloween as a time to pig-out on candy, dress up as a Disney princess, or parade in store-bought costumes at a school pageant, may be something that your child anticipates with great enthusiasm from August till October 31. However, it can be greatly enriched with a different view of the creatures that inhabit the dark, dark night.


Lois Rubin Gross has an MS in Library Sciences from Drexel University. She is currently Senior Children’s Librarian at the Hoboken (NJ) Public Library. She has also worked as a librarian for children with special needs. She is a book reviewer for Children’s Literature and a blogger for After Fifty Living and Wise Women Now. Join her Facebook book community Lois Storylady.


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