Children’s Books: Frightfully Good New Picture Books to Give Kids the Shivers, or the Giggles

I hope “Wee Sister Strange” reaches a large enough audience to trouble an entirely new generation with the idea of autumn. Its eeriness will merit repeat Halloween readings, as you may have guessed from the title, but it also echoes with deeper seasonal resonance.

One thing I admire about Holly Grant’s verse is its pluck: Sometimes it rhymes and sometimes it doesn’t; it goes where it wants, but always seems to scan. Wee Sister Strange turns out to be as independent-minded as her creator. She is very much an autumnal creature, an October forest sprite with yellow eyes and a garland of red, orange and yellow leaves in her auburn hair.

She cavorts with owls and bears, enjoys a wary détente with wolves and is equally at home in the bog where “she swims oh so deep / And she walks on the slime / Where the bog creatures creep.” K.G. Campbell’s illustrations are both gorgeous and mysterious – again, seasonally appropriate – and he manages to make even that slime and those bog creatures alluring. But he saves his best for first: The book’s initial spreads, before night falls and Sister’s adventures begin, are masterpieces of waning yellow-orange light and lengthening purple-grey shadows.

The story begins:

They say there’s a girl
Who lives by the woods
In a crooked old house
With no garden but gloom.
She doesn’t have parents.
No one knows her name.
But the people in town
Call her Wee Sister Strange.

We eventually discover that Sister is searching for something. What that is, and where and how she finds it, involves a leap into bedtime metafiction that could have felt forced, or cute; instead, the ending strikes emotional chords that are hard to articulate but should be familiar to anyone who has felt the pull of October’s shifting moods, its sorrow and comfort. I love “Wee Sister Strange.” I think it would have sent C. S. Lewis over the moon (a harvest moon, preferably).

“The Call of the Swamp” is more of a November tale. In Marco Somà’s illustrations, the brown leaves have mostly fallen, the skies are cold and gray, and nearly every spread features a light but steady rain. The emotional temperature is also grayer, sadder. Like “Wee Sister Strange,” Davide Cali’s narrative unfolds with the matter-of-fact oddness of a centuries-old fairy tale. It begins, as so many such stories do, with a childless couple. When they find a newborn at the edge of the swamp, “it seemed like a gift from heaven, and they paid no attention to the fact that he had gills like a fish.” They don’t worry if he has parents either, “because he had found a new mom and dad now.” They name him Boris.

Boris. That made me laugh. “The Call of the Swamp” pulls off the rare trick of blending whimsy with genuine ache. Boris has a good life with his parents. He goes to school, rides a bike, plays with friends, is loved. But his three pairs of wavy external gills mark Boris as an outsider, and one day “a salty smell” borne on the wind – “the scent of the swamp” – stirs a longing for old haunts. He runs away … but from home or to home?

“The Call of the Swamp” could be read as a fable about adoption, and at points the text edges toward “issue book” reassurance. But for the most part, Cali transmits his tale on older, Grimm-attuned frequencies, while Somà’s illustrations possess a dry, surreal wit that serves the story’s poignancy well. The lovely resolution will appeal to any child who has ever felt the sting of not knowing where he or she belongs – which is pretty much all of them. And us.

From “The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse.”

“The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse” and “Creepy Pair of Underwear!” aren’t nearly as evocative as the two previous books, but both are very funny, with morbid senses of humor that will hit Halloween sweet spots. Mac Barnett’s story begins, “Early one morning, a mouse met a wolf, and he was quickly gobbled up.” Not to worry: Inside the wolf, the mouse finds not death and digestion but a duck who has set up housekeeping. “You’d be surprised what you find inside of a wolf,” the duck explains.

It turns out the wolf’s gut harbors the best party in town, and some readers’ sympathies might shift toward the carnivore – aided by the great Jon Klassen’s droll paintings; no one does perturbed animals better. He and Barnett previously collaborated on the award-winning “Extra Yarn” and “Sam and Dave Dig a Hole.” Just this spring they published the marvelous “Triangle.” I bet they’re a great party themselves.

“Creepy Pair of Underwear!” is a sequel to Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s Caldecott Honor-winning “Creepy Carrots!” of 2012. Jasper Rabbit and his tuft of curly hair return for a tall tale that owes a spiritual debt to Dr. Seuss’s “What Was I Scared Of?” and that story’s irrepressible if empty pale green pants. “Creepy Pair of Underwear!” may lack the surprise and sense of discovery of “Creepy Carrots!,” but if you aren’t immediately drawn to a book that co-stars a pair of glow-in-the-dark jockey shorts decorated with a Frankenstein’s monster face and gifted with Jason Voorhees-like indestructibility … well, I expect responses to this book will be binary. Love-hate. Trick or treat.

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