By Nancy Raines Day
Illustrated by George Bates
Abrams Books, 2010
$16.95, ages 4-8, 40 pages
A boy is haunted by crackling bones as woods transform into spooky creatures in this wickedly fun read-aloud.
As the boy in a skeleton jumpsuit heads home after trick-or-treating, he walks with his cat through a moon-lit wood that gets spookier with every step.
"On this winding road, on this windy night, / Clouds hide the moon -- / and / in / creeps / fright," Day writes, as imaginary cloud shapes sneak up from behind, one a clutching hand, the other a writhing serpent.
Bates brilliantly mimics the inky obscurity of night using parallel lines of ink, or hatching, over saturated blues, and delights with imaginative scenes of clouds, branches and leaves twisting into frightful sights.
The further the boy walks into the woods, the faster he steps. The wind rustles in his ear and he thinks he sees a bat with hollow eyes in the canopy of a leafless tree. Or is that just twigs meshed together?
Then a spooky voice calls out on the breeze, "Cracklety-Clack. Bones in a Sack. They could be yours -- if you look back."
The boy is so scared by the wind, his voice squeaks. "Who?" he asks, "Do you mean me?" On the opposite page, an owl with glowing orange eyes hoots, "Whooo else?" as an owl-like cloud dives down from the sky.
Next, the wind whips up rusty leaves into a ghostly swirl and it feels as if a ghost's tail is brushing past his face. The boy panics and race through the trees, holding his ears as the haunting voice grows louder.
As he looks up into a circle of towering bare trees, the upper branches seem to contort into ghosts. Their arms are raised as if to pounce as a ghostlike cloud looms over the boy with a gaping mouth.
Leaving the woods as fast as he can, the boy crosses a corn field where stalks and leaves flop and whip around like skeletons, evading their clutches.
As the wind shrieks its loudest warning yet, the boy tears out of the cornfield, his mouth wide open in mid-scream.
"The boy runs blindly," Day writes, as readers pick up their pace. "Fast seems slow. / Then -- suddenly -- he stubs his toes. / He reaches out and feels…a head!"
A pumpkin on the ground stares his way as the wind warns the boy once more not to look back.
The boy now runs so fast he barely touches the ground. His heart pounds. A shadow leaps out to him with elongated claws. But how will he get away this time?
Bates captures how things in the dark are indistinctly seen and how easily mundane objects can be misconstrued for scary ones when shadows come into play.
There were so many fascinating ghouls and I loved how quickly the boy's perception shifted and scary things transformed back into things that were recognizable and harmless.
Day's rhyme was equally playful and witty. Well-paced with short staccato lines, it's one of those sing-song gems you'll want to reread aloud for Halloweens to come (if you don't wear out the pages first).
If I were Caldecott judge, this would be on my list of the very best.