Our A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop-culture takes parents should know, saving you from the mountains of kids’ dreck out there.
Call us crazy, but Halloween may be quickly overtaking those year-end holidays as our kids’ favorite season. Sure, no presents, but much more candy! Also there’s something slightly more fun about spooks and scares than frequent lame messages about having Christmas spirit and spreading goodwill to all.
Even if your kids are still little, it’s never too early to start sharing the spooky season with them. Below are suggestions from some of our A.V. Club parents to start your kids on the proper fright-filled path, with varying degrees of scares: from a generally benign Wallace and Gromit movie to the considerable terror involved in Goosebumps reruns. (Also: If your kids are super tiny, take advantage of the fact that they have no say in how you dress them, so you can pick the most outrageous costume of your choice at the Old Navy or Costco. Once they hit middle school, they’ll refuse to dress up as a box of popcorn or a little lobster, no matter how cute you might think it is.)
How young is too young for Young Frankenstein?
My husband has a much higher bar for childhood scares than I do—probably because his father took him to see Alien when he was only 9. Meanwhile, I grew up running out of the living room to avoid TV commercials for the Amityville Horror movie. So I was somewhat conflicted about exposing my offspring even to Young Frankenstein, as Madeline Kahn’s Bride Of Frankenstein character freaked me out as a kid. Fortunately, my children seem to be more like-minded with my husband than myself about scary movies, so we started our Young Frankenstein Halloween viewing tradition when they were about 8 years old. Yes, YF has its freaky moments, but they are completely eclipsed by the hilarious ones: I had forgotten that “Put… the candle… back” are the four funniest words in the English language. And corrected pronunciations of the name “Frankenstein” never get old. Hopefully our annual YF viewing will lead the way for other parody family films like Spinal Tap. But I’m still not down for Alien. [Gwen Ihnat]
The mysterious songwriter behind KidsTV123
Halloween is technically October 31, but it’s been Halloween in my house every day of 2017. That’s because the kids’ music we most like to play—indeed, the only kids’ music we can really stand—is made by the mysterious, elusive songwriter named A.J. Jenkins. Under the completely unremarkable moniker of KidsTV123, Jenkins has released somewhere around 200 songs for free, directly to YouTube, and I’m here to tell you that the jaw-dropping millions of views they’ve racked up (more than 490 million on “Phonics Song 2” alone) is no fluke. Jenkins has a way of crafting catchy kids’ tunes that are somehow not completely maddening—simple songs he self-records on just guitar and keyboard that come accompanied by crude animation (which he also does himself), and are sung in a voice that’s supernaturally soothing, like a heavily Xanaxed Raffi. Also, Jenkins fucking loves Halloween; he’s written at least seven songs about it, including my twin 2-year-olds’ favorite, “Spooky Spooky.” It’s why all four of us have spent the last year walking around softly singing, “Spooky, spooky, very spooky / Watch out, it’s a monnnn-ster,” and now that Halloween is actually here, we’ll surely be listening to it a whole lot more. Better investigative journalists than I have tried to track down Jenkins over the years, who prefers to remain the J.D. Salinger of internet-based children’s songs. But if I could find him, or he’s reading this, I would thank him for giving my family so much universally tolerated entertainment—and for making it feel like Halloween year-round. [Sean O’Neal]
Run, don’t walk, to Gravity Falls
We talk about this series a lot around here, but that’s because it is nothing less than spectacular. It also happens to be absolutely perfect for this time of year and households with grade-schoolers who like a little mystery with their humorous animation. Alex Hirsch based a lot of Gravity Falls on growing up with his twin sister, Ariel, and their own version of grouchy-yet-hilarious Gruncle Stan, but he translates all of that to a spooky, wood-filled town where bottomless pits, time travelers, and demons pop up with alarming regularity. The first season followed a bit of a “monster of the week” format; then the Gravity Falls conspiracies started stacking up like the town was Twin Peaks, resulting in “Weirdmageddon,” a three-part culmination in which an evil sentient being named Bill Cipher bends reality as far as he can without breaking it, featuring some of the most inventive animation and voice work ever. But at the heart of the series is the same theme that Buffy The Vampire Slayer did so well: Growing up is a scary time, and terrors come at you fast and furiously. Why not use monsters as allegories to learn how to deal with those changes? Featuring stellar voice-over work by Jason Ritter as curious Dipper and Kristen Schaal as his delightful, rainbow-fueled sister, Mabel, all 40 glorious GF episodes are now available on Hulu. We may never mean anything more here when we say to you, parents: Your family should watch this show. [Gwen Ihnat]
The monster at the end of this paragraph
As the father of a 2-year-old, I can’t say horror is a big part of my child’s media consumption. However, one book of ours in particular talks about fears and monsters in a way that many of us adults could learn from. It’s called The Monster At The End Of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover. In just 22 pages, Grover goes through a wave of emotions, warning the reader of what’s to come. He pleads with the readers to not turn the page. When that doesn’t work, he uses ropes, boards, and bricks to try and prevent the inevitable from coming. Is this a parable about accepting our inevitable death? Or is it a reflection on us, a society of people scared of a “monster” that was us all along? Or maybe it’s a book about conquering your fears and showing them who’s boss? Wow, Grover, that is some deep stuff. I’m going to watch an episode of Black Mirror to feel better. [Eric Munn]
Join Wallace and Gromit on a search for a fuzzy Halloween monster
Hopefully your kids are already familiar with the wonderful world of Aardman Animations’ Wallace and Gromit shorts (our personal favorite: Oscar winner “The Wrong Trousers”). But the pair’s first full-length feature, is, fortunately for us all, Halloween-themed: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. The stop-motion clay animation that makes up the charming world of this daffy inventor and his silent but smarter dog is nothing short of astounding, offering any number of fetching details in every single frame. As Wallace and Gromit search for a mysterious were-rabbit that’s ransacking their village, they learn that the true culprit may be closer to home than they realize—resulting in a Halloween classic for your annual must-watch list. [Gwen Ihnat]
The best Halloween picture books
I think I used to buy picture books and visit the library more in October than any other time of the year, as there were so many awesome Halloween selections to choose from. Sadly, my kids are a bit too old for them now, so I asked them which ones they remembered the most. Only A Witch Can Fly is an absolutely beautiful muted palette book done in block print and a medieval poetic form called the sestina, making for a lyrical read-aloud about a magical journey as a young girl sneaks out of her house in the middle of the night with a broomstick. Also fun for a read-aloud is Room On The Broom, as Julia Donaldson’s lively rhyme scheme almost musically tells the story of a witch adding passengers onto her airborne journey. The Bears In the Bed And The Great Big Storm will help you with your own “scaredy-bears,” who may get a little spooked this time of year. But my kids maintain that their hands-down favorite of all those Halloween books from our neighborhood bookstore and the library is The Monsters’ Monster, by Mutts creator Patrick McDonnell. When a group of little monsters (Grouch, Grump, and Gloom ’N’ Doom) decide to make the most gruesome monster of all, he surprises them by just being thankful to be alive. It might be the sweetest of all of these, and will undoubtedly get a lot of play in your bedtime reading rotation, whatever the season. [Gwen Ihnat]
Getting goosebumps from Goosebumps
My son is 7, and so far he has expressed what I would consider a lower-than-average interest in scary things. His Halloween costumes have been primarily utility-based: UPS driver, CTA driver, garbage man. But just a couple of weeks ago, he turned on Netflix and demanded that we watch something “really scary.” This led us down the road to Goosebumps, the TV series based on the R.L. Stine books, none of which I have ever read, or had any interest in reading. We watched a couple that I would consider not-at-all scary, including one episode in which the villain was a big dish sponge with shitty light-up eyes. (The effects on this show, which ran in the mid-’90s, are far less than spectacular.) But he’s found one particular two-part episode that’s actually reasonably frightening, and he’s watched it a bunch of times already. It’s about a town called Dead Falls, where, ummm, everybody is dead, and they feed off the living. My son doesn’t quite get the Goosebumps twist endings, so when the menaced family escapes, he thinks everything is going to be okay—even when their dog starts to exhibit the characteristics of the risen dead. (That effect is achieved by turning his face black and white.) It’s fun so far, and I’m glad he’s flirting with these kinds of emotions. He asked me if any movie or show really scared me, and I stupidly told him The Orphanage. Now I have to deflect daily requests to watch that… [Josh Modell]
Take a Halloween journey Over The Garden Wall
Over The Garden Wall (now available on Hulu) is another series perfect for the season, as it’s steeped in surreal beauty with a rich autumnal palette. Brothers Wirt and Gregory (Elijah Wood and Collin Dean) get lost in a thick woods, where they find a frog, and a talking bluebird, and any number of bizarre interlopers, like a dancing jack-o’-lantern and an ominous woodsman (Christopher Lloyd) with warnings about a terrible Beast. As the brothers, and the series, travel on for 10 12-minute episodes, the true nature of the Beast, and the woods (known as The Unknown) are painstakingly revealed, making Over The Garden Wall a near-perfect childhood allegory. It’s difficult to describe (Why does the frog play piano? Why did the bluebird leave her family? What’s up with that all-important lantern?), but absolutely worth the journey, maybe to curl up with on Halloween night post-trick-or-treating. [Gwen Ihnat]
One, Two… Boo! leads to counting
There’s a special place in my heart for this book, because it was in reading this that my 20-month-old counted on his own for the first time. One, Two… Boo! is a Halloween-themed counting book for toddlers, with lift-up flaps that reveal two black cats, three cauldrons, six bats, and other cartoon ghoulish delights. My son could count to 10, but I suspect it was more him memorizing the sounds of the words than understanding the concept of counting. But when he was able to point and count four jack-o’-lanterns, I looked at my wife in shock. We have this charming book to thank. [Kevin Pang]