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Enjoy the actual most wonderful time of the year with our Halloween kids’ guide

Graphic: Allison Corr
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Christmas may be a fun time of year, thanks to the snow and presents and all, but kids get an awfully fun-filled month right before that. It seems like there are more Halloween-themed treats every year, and instead of eight nights of presents or stockings full of gifts, all parents are responsible for is a decent costume for your kids and some candy to hand out at the door. So enjoy the relative downtime before the upcoming holiday deluge with our annual plethora of mild scares from pop culture, including books, movies, and even a new Netflix series. Curl up with these classic Halloween treats with your kids before you have to pile on the long underwear and ladle extra debt onto your AmEx account, making this “most wonderful time of the year” you can actually enjoy. When in doubt, just head for another rewatch of Over The Garden Wall (now on Hulu!); it remains the golden standard against which all other Halloween pop culture is measured.


My almost-4-year-old has liked The Nightmare Before Christmas since she was 2, loves “pups” thanks to Paw Patrol, and has also recently started asking questions about death (thanks, The Lion King). So I thought maybe she’d enjoy ruminating over Tim Burton’s stop-motion movie about a ghoulish yet cute reanimated puppy. I was very wrong, and she bailed after half an hour. But Frankenweenie is still better than I remembered, and strikes me as a fine Halloween choice for slightly older kids. Although initially well-reviewed, it seems like it’s been subject to the usual more-of-the-same dismissal that greets every later-period Burton movie, good or bad. But after so many kid-inclusive horror-adventure movies that take their inspiration from a handful of ’80s Amblin adventures (even great ones like ParaNorman play in this sandbox), Burton’s familiar frame of reference starts to feel fresh again. Here he evokes Universal monsters, ’50s suburbia, and kaiju movies, among others, without the frenetic pace of a Hotel Transylvania cuddly-monster mash—and with acknowledgement of actual death (albeit eventually backtracked to some degree). If your kid might be on the monster track, throw on Frankenweenie and gauge their reaction for a sense of whether Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Gamera, or Gremlins should come next. [Jesse Hessenger]
Suggested age: Older than 4. Maybe 5 and up?


The Last Kids On Earth

Somewhere along the line, the zombie apocalypse transitioned from something to be avoided to a blast-and-a-half. Taking up that recent trend in kids’ programming is The Last Kids On Earth, narrated by Jack Sullivan, as he provides the ins and outs of how to survive in a world gone wild. Downside: zombies and monsters; upside: no grown-ups. Based on a popular string of YA novels, the Netflix series has already released Book One, as Jack (appealingly voiced by Nick Wolfhard, brother of Stranger Things’ Finn) ventures out from his treehouse to find his other friends, with Mark Hamill, Catherine O’Hara, and Bruce Campbell on board voicing various post-apocalyptic creatures. There’s no shortage of imagination displayed in the various monstrous creations, and Jack makes for a perfect hero to guide kids through this potentially bleak landscape, finding no small victories in locating a lost pal, raiding a grocery store, and tabulating all the monsters’ various strengths so as to be better prepared for the next showdown. Even though a happy ending seems unlikely, Jack takes his unconventional fun times where he can, while kids remain riveted by his unusual plight. The fifth Last Kids novel has just been released; if we’re lucky, Netflix will adapt them all. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested age: 7+, says Netflix

Little Blue Truck’s Halloween


If you’re a car in a children’s book or cartoon and you don’t have eyes and a personality, then what are you even doing there? Since Cars—heck, since Thomas & Friends—there’s no going back. The children demand anthropomorphic vehicles. And among them, none is as adorable as the vintage blue pick-up in the Little Blue Truck series, written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Driven by a toad, surrounded by wide-eyed farm animals, written in rhyme… the only thing that would make these books cuter is if the truck only ever spoke in “beeps”—and he does! In Little Blue Truck’s Halloween, the little blue truck and his amphibious chauffeur cruise through the autumnal countryside, picking up masked animal friends along the way, their identities revealed when you lift a flap (“Under the mask, who do you see / ‘Moo’ says the cow, it’s me! It’s me!”) It all ends with a folksy Halloween party in a barn and a multi-page foldout that reveals exactly who is under that suspiciously truck-shaped white sheet (“Beep! Beep! BOO!”). [Marla Caceres]
Suggested age: 2-7

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

As my kids are on the brink of teendom—a concept scarier than any demon the slayer ever battled in the crypt—it turns out that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is our perfect family watch. They think the plethora of one-liners are hilarious, while the scares are plentiful enough to make them believe the show is darkly cool. We are not going painstakingly through every single episode. In the bumpy season one, really all you need is the premiere and the finale; in season two, I am bypassing lame monster-of-the-week episodes like “Inca Mummy Girl” and “Reptile Boy” in favor of focusing on Spike’s entry into Sunnydale. I hope my at-the-moment-still-tweens will absorb the all-important Buffy message: The dorkiest kids at your school are probably the coolest, and there’s no monster in adolescence you can’t defeat with solid friends (and extensive research at the library!). [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested age: 12 and up


Peanut Butter And Brains


Here’s a good option for baby’s first zombie book. Peanut Butter And Brains, written by Joe McGee and illustrated by Charles Santoso, combines a spooky Halloween theme with one of parents’ worst nightmares: picky eaters. Zombie Reginald just isn’t as into the brain-eating as every other zombie (who cry out for “brainsss”). He’s dead-set on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches instead, to the consternation of just about everyone, including his fellow blue-skinned zombies and non-zombies who freak out when he pounces on their lunchboxes. But if he can get his fellow zombies on board with this menu shift, it will also solve the pesky problem of everyone always having to find brains to eat. We can’t guarantee that kids will automatically absorb the message to try new foods, but they’re bound to enjoy this friendly volume that safely skirts around horror but adds just enough appealing grossness. And just try to find a cuter patch of zombies. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested age: 4-8


The whole time I watched Coraline with my daughter, I expected a freakout. There’s an awful lot of unsettling imagery in the movie. Perhaps it’s perfectly calibrated to go right up to the edge of super-freaky-disturbing without actually tumbling over into the pit of trauma. Sure there are wheezing rat men and ghost children and the constant threat of someone poking needles into eyes, but before the film takes the dive into horror, Coraline’s alternate world is one of the most gorgeous and enticing fantasy worlds put to film. When a lonely girl moves with her parents to a rickety boarding house in a perpetually gray, mud-caked Oregon, it’s only natural she would be tempted by a magical world she discovers through a hidden door. But director Henry Sellick made a place sufficiently compelling to draw in even those of us who are relatively happy with our lives. One unexpected insight emerged from rewatching Coraline as a parent. Coraline’s alternate parents are witty, patient, and attentive, a stark contrast to their dull and distracted counterparts in the real world. As a parent who often more closely resembles the latter than the former, there’s a compelling fantasy to being so present, quick with a song or an affirmation, and always having just the right thing to delight your kid. It’s a slightly more subtle fantasy, maybe, than a chandelier that dispenses mango milkshakes, but no less compelling for it. [Nick Wanserski]
Suggested age: Common Sense Media says 9 and up, and they oughta know


Creepy Carrots


Halloween is a great time to address your kids’ fears: like storms, clowns, or even just the plain old dark. Sometimes the bathrobe crumpled up on the floor looks like the Loch Ness Monster; sometimes a creak of the house in the middle of the night sounds like a skeleton’s rattle. A great gateway to open up a discussion on fear is Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown’s Creepy Carrots, a Caldecott Award-winner that adds a twist to the familiar “nothing looks as scary in the morning” premise. Jasper Rabbit prefers munching on the fat, crisp carrots from Crackenhopper Field, but then he believes that the carrots are starting to follow him. In the bathroom. In the shed. Almost everywhere he looks, he sees the carrots, thanks to the book’s cunning use of orange against a black-and-white backdrop. Although his parents attempt to assuage his fears, Jasper can’t shake his creepy-carrot phobia—until he comes up with a solution that’s an unexpected win-win for everyone. Creepy Carrots makes for a read-aloud classic that’ll likely be a favorite all year round. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested age: 4-8

Nailed It!,Cake-O-Phobia”

Screenshot: Nailed It! (Netflix)

“Cake-O-Phobia” (season three, episode two) is the ostensible Halloween episode for Nailed It, Netflix’s premiere ugly desserts show, a series that traffics in frightening culinary abominations. The challenges for this episode push the horror by focusing on creating the subjects of common phobias. First, the contestants have to select from a trio of spiky insect cookies to recreate. Then they’re tasked with making a towering evil jack-in-the-box cake. Obviously, no one succeeds. Even if you’re a talented baker, the skills required to sculpt fondant and icing into elaborate shapes is both specific and exacting. But that’s not the point. The point is to watch three people sincerely try to create a cockroach’s glossy carapace out of melted chocolate chips, while you learn host Nicole Byer is still afraid of the dark, and co-host Jacques Torres fears nothing more than Southern accents. [Nick Wanserski]
Suggested age: All ages

Rankin-Bass’ Mad Monster Party?; Mad, Mad, Mad Monsters; and Festival Of Family Classics: “Jack-O-Lantern”

Rankin-Bass animation is all the rage at the end of the year, but its Halloween productions are a bit under the radar, even though they’re now available for viewing on Amazon. Mad Monster Party? came out a few years after the popular Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer in the 1960s, as Baron Henry von Frankenstein, voiced by Boris Karloff himself, calls all his friends together on a dark and stormy night to celebrate a destructive discovery. Due to licensing issues, Frankenstein’s monster is “Fang,” the Bride Of Frankenstein is the “Monster’s Mate,” and the oft-mentioned visitor “It” is some version of King Kong. We’re not sure what comedian Phyllis Diller is doing there as “the hostess with the leastest,” but Mad Monster Party? gets vintage points for its swinging ’60s soundtrack, and pushing a skeleton band with Beatles haircuts. In the shorter and brighter “Mad Mad Mad Monsters,” made for a Saturday morning TV show in 1972, but now available on Amazon for 99 cents, Rankin-Bass uses 2D animation to depict another ghoulish gathering, this time for the wedding of Frankenstein and his bride. It’s followed by an origin story for Jack-O-Lantern, a kind of autumnal version of Frosty The Snowman. Kids used to CGI may find the animation rather primitive, but there’s a certain retro charm about them, as they offer an intriguing peek at what Halloween cartoons looked like four or five decades ago. [Gwen Ihnat]
Suggested age: 10 and under and nostalgia-minded parents


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