For this post, we're deconstructing five spooky children's picture books to see how they're put together to find success. Warning: Spoilers are included in these deconstructions.
October is my favorite month. I love the autumn leaves, the pumpkin farms, cooler evenings, and spooky stories. As a father of five, I've spent countless hours reading spooky picture books and poems to my children over the years, and I thought it would be fun to deconstruct a few of my favorites below.
In this post, we'll look at page counts, word counts, opening pages, and how the stories develop and end (so yes, there are spoilers). My hope is that we'll all leave with a better understanding of ways to put together an entertaining children's picture book that is also delightfully spooky.
Picture books are one of the most delightful—and important—genres in all of literature. In this course, you'll learn how to write a winning picture book narrative, envision it with illustrations, and put together a picture package that a publisher will really notice. Plus, you'll receive feedback on each assignment from your instructor and have the chance to participate in the peer critique section of the workshop with other classmates.
In the Haunted House, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh (Clarion Books)
Page Count: 28 pages
Word Count: 278 words
Opening Page: "This is the house where the scary ones hide. / Open the door and step softly inside."
Once inside, there are witches, ghosts, bats, and several other spooky things with two people saying they're not scared (but in a way that makes it seem like they're maybe scared). On page 21, one says to the other, "Is someone behind us? I don't want to look! / It might be a zombie! It might be a spook!"
The two leave the house, and it's revealed on page 26 that it was a spooked father and excited daughter who were walking through a Halloween House for thrill seekers. The twist on pages 27 and 28 is that the daughter pulls the father back for another trip through the haunted house.
Buy In the Haunted House, by Eve Bunting
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We're Off to Find the Witch's House, written by Mr. Krieb and illustrated by R.W. Alley (Puffin Books)
Page Count: 29 pages
Word Count: 264 words
Opening Page: "We're off to find the witch's house."
The illustrator actually starts this story on the copyright page and dedication page spread by showing four trick-or-treaters dressing up for Halloween: a wizard, a cowboy, a pirate, and a superhero. With bags in hand, they declare they're setting off on their journey to the witch's house.
As they begin, they say, "We're creeping down the witch's street, / but we're not afraid. / No, we're not afraid." On their journey, they cross paths with an owl, skeleton, Frankenstein's monster, ghost, wolf, Count Dracula, and mummy, and it gets a bit scary before they get to the witch's house, which is covered in spider webs and guarded by bats.
After the door screeches open and the witch appears, they all scream, "Trick or treat!" on the spread for pages 25 and 26. The next spread shows the witch (a dressed up girl) calling back, "Happy Halloween!" The four protagonists are followed by the monsters they encountered, who are all dressed up kids as well. Page 29 ends with an illustration of them breaking open a pumpkin pinata.
Buy We're Off to Find the Witch's House, by Mr. Krieb
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, written by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd (HarperCollins Publishers)
Page Count: 29 pages
Word Count: 716 words
Opening Page: "Once upon a time, / there was a little old lady who was not afraid of anything!"
One day the little old lady went for a walk in the woods in search of "herbs and spices, nuts and seeds" and doesn't head back home until night with "only a sliver of moon shining." Suddenly, she stops because there are disembodied shoes going "CLOMP, CLOMP" in the middle of the path. Luckily, the little old lady is brave and says, "Get out of my way, you two big shoes! I'm not afraid of you," and continues on down the path, followed by the shoes.
Over the next several pages, the little old lady runs into one pair of pants that goes "WIGGLE, WIGGLE," a shirt that goes "SHAKE, SHAKE," two gloves that go "CLAP, CLAP," and a hat that goes "NOD, NOD." All follow the little old lady to the final "very huge, very orange, very scary pumpkin head" that goes "BOO, BOO!"
This does finally freak out the little old lady runs back to the safety of her cottage. Once there, she regroups and tells the pumpkin head and clothes that they can't scare her, which makes the pumpkin head sad until the little old lady gets an idea that she whispers to her potential scarers on page 25.
On page 28, the little old lady wakes up to see the shoes, pants, shirt, gloves, hat, and pumpkin head do their thing ... "And scare all the crows away!" on page 29.
Buy The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda Williams
Inside a House That is Haunted, written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Tedd Arnold (Cartwheel Books)
Page Count: 25 pages
Word Count: 469 words
Opening Page: "Here is a house that is haunted."
The next page shows a hand knocking on the door "outside a house that is haunted," which sets off a chain reaction of things that happen "inside a house that is haunted." Basically, the hand knocks on the door that startles a spider, which frightens a ghost, surprising a cat, and so on until they wake the monster on page 18 "who stomped on huge feet" (on page 19) and "threw open the door, and heard, 'TRICK OR TREAT!" on page 20.
The twist on the spread for pages 21 and 22 is that all these "real" monsters and spooks are completely frightened of this normal little boy in a Halloween costume looking for treats. On pages 23 and 24, they run off into the night while the little boy watches before he runs to the spooky house next door on page 25.
Buy Inside a House That Is Haunted, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli
The Monster at the End of This Book, written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin (Golden Books)
Page Count: 24 pages
Word Count: 359 words
Opening Page: On copyright page, Grover says, "This is a very dull page. What is on the next page?"
On the first real page (or second page--depending on if you count the copyright page or not), Grover does a double take and asks, "What did that say?" Of course, that dull page had the title of the book, The Monster at the End of This Book. At this point, Grover confesses that he's "so scared of Monsters!!!"
His solution is to implore the reader to quit turning pages so that they don't have to get to the end of the book...where the monster lurks. Of course, readers can't help themselves, which forces Grover to tie the pages of the book together before nailing the pages shut and building a brick wall. All these obstacles, of course, do not stop the reader.
On pages 20-21, Grover makes his final appeal to not turn to the end of the book before it's revealed on pages 22-23 that the monster at the end of the book is actually "lovable, furry old Grover," who says, "And you were so scared!"
Then, on page 24, Grover covers his face and thought bubbles, "Oh, I am so embarrassed..."
Buy The Monster at the End of This Book, by Jon Stone
Here are a few lessons learned from these spooky children's picture books:
- The title sets the scene or describes the main character. Three books are about being inside a haunted house or on the way to a witch's house; the other two books are about a little old lady who was not afraid of anything or a monster at the end of a book.
- The sweet spot appears to be 24-29 pages. This could include the copyright page or not, but all these books have 12 to 14 spreads.
- Word counts are usually fewer than 500 words. In fact, both the books that go beyond 360 words use a lot of repetition. Cut out the repetition, and all the books would have fewer than 400 words.
- The danger or fear builds through most of the book. The first 80 to 90 percent of each story is a gradual build of the danger or fear before...
- A twist ending that relieves all the fear. These are children's books, and the last thing parents want is a child who is afraid to go to sleep. So yes, the best spooky picture books all have a twist, funny (or happy) ending.
Now, you should be armed with a good sense of which elements are essential to successfully spooky children's picture books.