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Otis and the Scarecrow

Loren Long. Philomel, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-399-16396-8

Otis the tractor’s goodhearted nature continues to shine in his fifth picture book. The farmer has just placed a new scarecrow in the cornfield, and the “sour look” permanently stitched onto the scarecrow’s burlap head says plenty about its perceived attitude. As the days pass, the silent scarecrow remains indifferent to Otis and the farm animals below. Eventually, Otis finds a way to bring the scarecrow into the fun he and the animals are having—or at least to bring the fun to him. Although Otis himself is entirely animate, Long leaves the scarecrow’s sentience an open-ended question. As the book comes to a close, Otis “couldn’t be sure, but he thought he might have seen the scarecrow smile.” Readers will have to hazard their own guesses, as the scarecrow’s face is turned away from them in the final pages. Ages 5–8. Agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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At the Old Haunted House

Helen Ketteman, illus. by Nate Wragg. Amazon/Two Lions, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4778-4769-5

Readers meet the residents of a spooky house atop a grave-lined hill by way of a riff on the counting tune “Over in the Meadow”: “At the old haunted house/ in a room with no sun/ lived a warty green witch/ and her wee witchy one.” Wragg’s background in animation shows in dramatically composed scenes lit with unholy shades of yellow and green, as well as the pale glow of moonlight. As Kettemen proceeds to 10, a werewolf family dances in a magenta library to tunes playing on a gramophone, gap-toothed mummies stir a burbling cauldron for their “mummy mommy” as trick-or-treaters peer in at them from outside, and furry fanged spiders spin “sticky webs/ in the dusty old den” while chandeliers sway in the background. A massive party fit for monsters and humans alike wraps up this entertaining Halloween adventure. Ages 5–8. Illustrator’s agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Pumpkin Time!

Erzsi Deàk, illus. by Doug Cushman. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $14.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4022-9526-3

In author/agent Deàk’s kooky harvest-themed story, an overalls-clad girl named Evy doesn’t have her head in the clouds, but rather in the soil. Cushman (Pigmares) shows Evy planting seeds, dressing a scarecrow, and harvesting vegetables while rambunctious farm animals frolic throughout the year: “The day the sheep picnicked on the neighbor’s lawn... Evy didn’t see a thing. (What was Evy doing?)” Not donkeys sailing through the sky nor Halloween festivities can distract Evy from her work: “When ghosts and goblins danced door-to-door all night long” (the ensemble includes a sheep dressed as a vampire, a pig in a mummy costume, and a horse witch), Evy is carrying the harvested vegetables indoors. Hard work and commitment pay off for the avid gardener, and readers should appreciate seeing her finally enjoy the fruits of her labor—in the form of pumpkin pie—with the animals. Ages 4–8. Agent: Erzsi Deàk, Hen&ink. (July)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Sweetest Witch Around

Alison McGhee, illus. by Harry Bliss. S&S/Wiseman, $15.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4424-7833-6

Eight years after A Very Brave Witch, McGhee and Bliss return with a companion story that sees the brave heroine of that book educating her younger sister, Witchling, about humans, whom most witches fear. “Study the humans and learn their mysterious ways,” the young witch tells her sister in full-on teacher mode. “They love dressing up on Halloween. Especially like us.” However, the poison apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and, like her sister, Witchling shows uncommon bravery. She dives headlong into trick-or-treating—unlike most witches, Witchling thinks candy is great—while her older sister tries to “rescue” her. McGhee’s knack for sharp, funny dialogue is a major asset in a story that unfolds entirely through speech and thought balloons. Bliss’s ink-and-watercolors illustrations provide plenty of humor, too, especially as Witchling struggles with the massive haul of candy she takes in. Ages 4–8. Agent: Holly McGhee, Pippin Properties. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Problem with NOT Being Scared of Monsters

Dan Richards, illus. by Robert Neubecker. Boyds Mills, $15.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-62091-024-5

Plenty of Halloween stories deal with fear, but debut author Richards suggests that bravery has its own pitfalls. His young hero isn’t afraid of monsters, and, as a result, they won’t leave him alone. “It’s hard to climb out of bed in the morning,” writes Richards, as the boy crawls out from under a heap of creatures that include a purple hairball, a blue octopuslike monster, and what looks like a giant yellow sponge with horns. The boy’s monster “friends” are also happy to sample his cereal, munch on his homework, and wear his favorite pajamas. The book’s ending fizzles a bit, with the boy simply foisting his troubles onto his younger brother, but Neubecker’s pen-and-ink cartoons draw a good amount of fun out of the relationship between the put-upon narrator and the wide-eyed, well-meaning beasties. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Paul Rodeen, Rodeen Literary Management. Illustrator’s agent: Linda Pratt, Wernick & Pratt. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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I Am a Witch’s Cat

Harriet Muncaster. Harper, $15.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-06-222914-4

In Muncaster’s tongue-in-cheek debut, a girl dressed in a head-to-toe cat costume explains how she knows her mother is actually a witch. For starters, she keeps “strange potion bottles in the bathroom that I am NOT allowed to touch,” and “when her friends come over, they sit in a circle and cackle and swap spell books.” The gentle “witch” in question has bouncy red curls, and Muncaster’s illustrations—photographs of delicate miniature models with cut-out props made from cloth, paper, and other media—often reveal the truth behind the girl’s statements; the “bubbling, hissing potions” cooking away in the kitchen look more like vegetable soup. Muncaster’s miniatures create an alluring backdrop for this ode to creative, capable mothers and their adoring familiars... er, children. And the story doesn’t shut the door to the possibility of real magic, either. Ages 4–8. Agent: Jodie Hodges, United Agents. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Ghosts Go Haunting

Helen Ketteman, illus. by Adam Record. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-8075-2852-5

Grinning, goofy ghosts, witches, spiders, and more descend on an unsuspecting elementary school, their shenanigans described in a twist on the familiar children’s song “The Ants Go Marching.” Ketteman makes her way from the ghosts of the title to a horde of blue-skinned zombies that “go stumbling ten by ten.” Some of the verses can be a mouthful: “The monsters go stomping five by five./ They catch the computer repairman alive,/ and they take him stomping/ all over the school/ for some Hal-lo-ween fun./ Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!” Supplying crisply rendered illustrations, Record clearly had fun creating supernatural mayhem—one purple goblin has stamped itself with an “overdue” stamp in the library, and the illustrator includes a visual joke in a spread starring eight mummies, drawing a connection between their wrappings and rolls of toilet paper scattered on the bathroom floor. Ages 4–7. Illustrator’s agent: Shannon Associates. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Halloween Scare in Ohio

Eric James, illus. by Marina le Ray. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $9.99 paper (32p) ISBN 978-1-4926-0624-6

This Ohio-centric title is just one of two dozen regionally focused Halloween books from James and le Ray, which focus on various North American cities, states, and regions, and are being published simultaneously. “From Akron, Toledo, Columbus, Brook Park,/ A mountain of monsters came out of the dark,” writes James, as the streets of Ohio begin to fill with witches, vampires, banshees, and other creatures. The frightened child narrator hides indoors: “I froze for a moment, as quiet as a mouse./ Yes, I could hear noises from inside the house!” James makes occasional mention of Ohioan cities, street names, landmarks, and famous residents, but there is little to distinguish the setting from any other suburban neighborhood. The cut-and-paste nature with which the book’s Ohio references are stuck in keeps it from feeling in any way special or specific. Ages 3–up. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Little Boo

Stephen Wunderli, illus. by Tim Zeltner. Holt, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9708-5

Throughout the year, a cherubic pumpkin seed with gentle eyes and rosy cheeks is eager to grow up and “be scary.” In winter, he tries to frighten a group of spritelike snowflakes with a “Boo!” only to have them respond, “There’s more of us than you.... Why would we be scared of you?” The wind encourages the seed to be patient, and after snoozing in the winter soil, waking to the sun, and growing into a rather unfrightening flower, the seed eventually becomes a pumpkin and is picked from the garden to become a scary jack-o’-lantern. Wunderli’s tender story offers a lyrical take on the holiday, entwined with an impatience to grow up that many young readers will easily identify with. Painted on plywood, Zeltner’s acrylics mix anthropomorphic cuteness with a seasonal moodiness that’s well suited to the story’s coming-of-age theme and year-round arc. Ages 3–7. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dog and Bear: Tricks and Treats

Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Roaring Brook/Porter, $14.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-59643-632-9

Friends Dog and Bear return in their fourth book, a collection of three brief tales, this time built around a Halloween theme. In the first story, Bear is startled when he discovers a bear that looks “EXACTLY like me” at a costume shop (youngest readers will gleefully point out that he’s looking into a mirror). In the second story, Dog takes candy from the aliens and pumpkin-headed monsters who show up at his door (“Treat, of course,” he responds, interpreting their “trick or treat” as a question instead of a demand). And, in the third story, a homeowner dressed as a ghost refuses to believe that Dog and Bear are in costume when they go trick-or-treating (they prove him wrong). Seeger skillfully sketches the characters’ emotions and humor, and the “gotcha” zingers that wrap up all three stories will leave readers with a smile. Ages 3–7. Agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/25/2014 | Details & Permalink

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