Tales Before Fright Night

The run-up to Halloween, when the days shrink and a chill creeps into the air, is the perfect time of year for reading aloud scary picture books. Among this season's best:

The Warthog's Tail, by Debby Atwell (Houghton Mifflin, $16; ages 4-8) wraps a gentle moral in a treat of a story about a freckle-faced little witch who's hurrying to get home in time for Halloween but finds her way barred by a sleeping warthog. "What should I do to get rid of this nasty tusked beast?" Tegan wonders. As befits a witch's daughter, she tries casting spells, only to find that command doesn't always produce control. "Dog, dog, bite warthog so I can get home in time for Trick or Treat," she orders. "But of course the magic did not work and the dog said no." Luckily, an old man chances by to explain the subtler magic of persuasion. A clever plot kicker explains the title and resolves worries about Mom's opinion of such heresy. It turns out she was the one with the new trick up her sleeve all along. Atwell's sprightly, funny, folk-style paintings are an apt blend of witch-green, spook-purple and pumpkiny yellows and oranges.

Leonardo the Terrible Monster, by "Your Pal" Mo Willems (Hyperion, $16.99; ages 3-6). Willems, ever his own man, eschews a Halloween palette for this pitch-perfect yarn about a small monster with an identity crisis. Instead, he chooses pastel shades understated enough for a Paris catwalk and pairs them with all-caps, Old West poster-style lettering. The resulting dissonance underlines the fact that Leonardo, the soft-bellied hero making his way through the mauve, pink, pale olive and baby-blue pages, is literally "a terrible monster" -- a muted, wishy-washy fellow who "couldn't scare anyone." He's a nerd, too. Like a one-man recruiting office, "Leonardo researched until he found the perfect candidate": unsuspecting, bespectacled Sam. Only after Leonardo succeeds in scaring the tuna salad out of Sam does he realize that monstrosity is not what he wanted, after all.

Orange You Glad It's Halloween, Amber Brown?, by Paula Danziger (Putnam, $13.99; ages 5-8). This holiday title in the late Paula Danziger's "A Is for Amber" series of easy readers touches on a different kind of scariness: parents fighting. It's Halloween day, and Amber's having fun in school. Everyone has decorated a pumpkin as a favorite storybook character (not to give anything away, but the boys' pumpkins all sport underpants or round glasses, while Amber's totes a purple plastic purse), yet in between pumpkin math and pumpkin jokes, Amber is desolate. "I think about tonight. What if my parents are in a bad mood. What if they don't do the things we always do on Halloween? All of a sudden, I feel sad. What if my parents get a divorce?" As fans of the original Amber books for older readers know, that's exactly what happens. But for now, it's still second grade, Mom and Dad have the grace to make up in time for trick or treating, and Amber's trademark pun-happy good humor is restored.

The Ugly Pumpkin, by Dave Horowitz (Putnam, $15.99; age 4-8). This rhyming, vegetable version of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" is as much a Thanksgiving as a Halloween fable. The hero is a very ugly pumpkin indeed -- knock-kneed (be quiet, this is a fairy tale), swollen at both ends and skinny in the middle. All through October, he is passed over by pumpkin-gatherers, including a skeleton. Even the hideously gnarled apple trees pelt him with rotten fruit. "And then it started raining, so I began to cry." It's not until he takes shelter in a garden full of squash that he figures out who he is and what under-appreciated holiday he's really waiting for. Rejection and loneliness are frightening, as children know as well as anyone, but this book's festive ending and wryly comic art outweigh the darkness of the theme.

Last, a book for middle readers that would also make a good multi-night Halloween read-aloud for younger siblings. Bats are the focus in Pippa's First Summer, by Catherine Badgley (Mitten, $14.95; ages 8-12), the kind of old-fashioned narrative that makes fictional heroes of animals as a way of teaching natural history. Badgley, a research scientist, tracks a female bat from the summer day she is born "as lightning struck the barn and rattled the old beams" to the night months later when "snowflakes swirled over the forest [and] Pippa hung between her mother and her friend, deep in sleep." In between, Pippa loses her twin brother, who flies into a house and is killed by a human babysitter too fearful of rabies to just shoo him out. By this point, kids will have learned so much about Pippa's life that the episode will come as a shock. Remarkable black-and-white drawings by Bonnie Miljour, a scientific illustrator, greatly enhance the somewhat solemn prose.

-- Elizabeth Ward