Kids are under plenty of stress these days, absorbing grownups’ various real-world anxieties, not to mention wearing masks long before picking out their Halloween costumes. If you’re looking for age-appropriate distractions that won’t give them nightmares, we’ve got you covered.
Children’s author and illustrator Jorge Lacera and Common Sense Media’s Senior TV Editor Polly Conway offer a selection of their favorite new books and TV shows, with varying degrees of spookiness. Repeat, new — not the beloved classics that should be on any list of Halloween kids’ fare. Looking at you, Great Pumpkin.
“It’s fun to get a little scared,” says Conway, “but it’s also nice to feel safe and to have your family around and know that nothing bad is really going to happen to you.”
For Lacera, what makes the Halloween season special is that “we get to play with feelings and emotions that we don’t normally get to put next to each other.” Emotions like joy, fear, even a bit of sadness fill the stories below.
What to watch, from Polly Conway, senior TV editor for Common Sense Media
Muppets Haunted Mansion, 2021, 9+, Disney+
“Muppets Haunted Mansion is a really fun musical special starring a bunch of super cool guest stars. … It’s sort of a return to form for The Muppets. The Muppets have tried a bunch of different things in the last few years, and not everything has stuck. But I think there’s something about the special that really harkens back to the classic Muppet Show vibe.”
A Tale Dark and Grimm, 2021, 11+, Netflix
Based on the Adam Gidwitz book series of the same name, A Tale Dark and Grimm is an irreverent, darkly humorous retelling of classic Brothers Grimm stories starring such comedians as Ron Funches, Nicole Byer and Scott Adsit. Conway says, “It’s pretty scary. … Kids who don’t want to watch something for babies will be pleased with this one. … There are tons of great comedians who are doing voices.” Plus, “any time you can hear Ron Funches laugh is a good time.”
The Ghost and Molly McGee, 7+, Disney Channel
Conway calls this new series “something for the younger kids who want to feel a little bit scared, but maybe are not quite ready for the big stuff.” Eternally optimistic Molly is a teenager whose family has finally moved into their forever home. She’s thrilled. Cranky ghost Scratch who lives in the attic, not so much. “It’s really about the relationship between her and this ghost and how they figure out how to live together. It’s really cute … pretty to watch. … It’s not necessarily a Halloween pick, but it has a Halloween vibe.”
Just Beyond, 2021, 9+, Disney+
“This is like an X-Files for kids,” says Conway. Based on graphic novels by R.L. Stine (Goosebumps), “It tells all kinds of different spooky stories from kind of a science fiction bent.” Despite the eerie trailer, “It’s hilarious and interesting for adults, and kids are really going to enjoy the stories.” Conway promises, “There’s some scariness, but there is not gore.”
What to read, from author/illustrator Jorge Lacera
The House of Madame M by Clotilde Perrin, 5-9
The House of Madame M is “a really fun, unusual book,” says Lacera. “It’s very light on plot because you’re literally interacting with Madame M’s House.” And, yes, it’s haunted. If they dare, readers lift up flaps to find out what’s there. “You’re told that, ‘Oh, please come in and check this place, you know, come in from the cold. But if you’re going to check this place out, be sure not to touch anything.’ And, of course, it’s a popup book with a bunch of interactive flaps.” Lacera says he and his wife and creative partner Megan love this book for “the beauty of the illustrations, but also the cleverness of the popup elements.”
There’s a Ghost in This House by Oliver Jeffers, 4-8
Another haunted house tour, in There’s a Ghost in This House “the narrator is convinced that their house is haunted. But only the reader knows the truth because there’s a clever use of clear vellum sheets so that as you turn the page, it reveals that there’s all these ghosts that are actually hanging around all over this little girl’s house,” says Lacera, “how they’re hiding in different nooks and crannies and doing fun and silly things.” There’s more about the book’s creation in this recent NPR interview with the author.
Pony by R.J. Palacio, 10+
R.J. Palacio “is a big deal in our house due to Wonder,” says Lacera. Pony, which takes place in the 1700s, is an “immediately enthralling tale that includes ghosts and courage. It’s about a boy whose father goes missing and it’s his quest to get his dad back. … He has this relationship with a ghost who is very much present in the story and sort of has this cool, spooky edge to it. But it’s also this wonderful story of courage. … It’s got that feeling of a modern classic.”
A little ghoulish night music, anyone?
If you need to get up and move around after all of that reading and watching, Elizabeth Blair recommends the new vinyl release of Andrew Gold’s 1996 album Halloween Howls: Fun and Scary Music. Like a zombie that just won’t die, the track “Spooky Scary Skeletons” has risen from the dead multiple times: A YouTuber paired Gold’s original version with a 1929 Disney cartoon, and the Undead Tombstone Remix spawned a gazillion TikTok videos including one by Will Smith. The new vinyl reissue includes artwork by Jess Rotter. She tells NPR, “The world needs to feel silly and get lost in the fun of Halloween. This was the perfect record to boogie with as the soundtrack. I had that in mind creating the artwork: feeling free and getting lost in a holiday where you can briefly escape yourself and the everyday.”