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Gentle Frights

Children’s book reviews by Tacoma writer Rebecca Young appear monthly on Families.

“The Windigo’s Return: A North Woods Story” by Douglas Wood.

In the land of the Ojibwe, in the far North Woods, something scary is happening. The people are disappearing into the forest without a trace. A village elder realizes the people are being devoured by the Windigo, a fearsome giant who can appear in any shape he wishes.

The council meets to find a solution, but it is the elder’s granddaughter who devises the best plan: a huge pit baited with venison. The Windigo does indeed fall into the pit, and as the people set him afire he issues a curse: “I’ll come back … and I’ll eat you … and your children, and their grandchildren, forever and ever!”

All that’s left is a pile of ashes, which the people scatter to the winds. No chance of the Windigo coming back. Or is there? Ever wonder why there are so many mosquitoes in the North Woods? So many that they appear in clouds that look like swirling ashes?

“Old Turtle” author Wood has skillfully woven a suspenseful tale, with a clever ending. Greg Couch’s acrylic and colored pencil illustrations are richly beautiful. (Simon & Schuster, 32 pages, ages 4 and up, $16.)

“The Ghost of Nicholas Greebe” by Tony Johnston.

This good old-fashioned ghost story is just scary enough to share with children ages 6 and up this Halloween season.

Poor dead Nicholas Greebe. It was a frigid day, the day he was laid to rest on his New England farm. His family was shivering too hard to manage more than a shallow grave. Precisely one year later, at midnight, a little dog does some digging, finds one of Nicholas Greebe’s knobby bones and makes off with it. The dog’s prize becomes the curse of Greebe and his widow. The old man’s ghost wafts into the farmhouse chanting “Forevermore I quest, I quest, till all my bones together rest.”

Through a series of oddly plausible happenings, the bone ends up in a carriage, aboard a whaler bound for the Polar North, carved with a scrimshaw ship and under the sea. Does Nicholas Greebe get back his bone? Not for a very long time.

Johnston, writing in a updated Colonial style, has created a humorously creepy read-aloud. S.D. Schindler’s detailed, spooky illustrations add to the fun. (Dial, 32 pgs., ages 6 and up, $14.99.)

“Bat Jamboree” by Kathi Appelt.

Bats and Halloween go together like cranberries and Thanksgiving. But good news for sensitive tykes: This book isn’t the least bit scary. The audience of cows, pigs, rabbits, turtles and several farms and forests worth of other animals gathers at the old drive-in movie theater for the show. Fifty-five talented bats present 10 fantastic acts, with a wild grand finale. It’s all in rhyme, and all in fun.

Melissa Sweet’s cheery watercolors grace this witty counting book. It would pair nicely in the classroom or at home with “Fifty-Five Friends” by Abbie Zabar (Hyperion). Wonder where the 55 in each comes from? It’s one plus two plus three … and on up to 10. (Morrow, 32 pgs., ages 3 and up, $16.)

“Sign of the Dove” by Susan Fletcher.

It’s a time of queens and fierce soldiers. A time of herbal potions with magical healing powers. A time of tale-tellers, woolen cloaks and rowdy pubs. A time of dragons and green-eyed folks who can communicate with them.

This is the third novel in Fletcher’s wonderfully written fantasy series. Lyf, a frail 12-year-old, is the heroine. Her life was saved by her green-eyed sister Kaeldra in the second book, “Dragon’s Milk.” When Lyf was tiny, she contracted a horrible illness. The only cure was milk from a dragon. Brave Kaeldra got the milk, and in the process became the protector of three baby dragons on a dangerous journey. Most people hate dragons and want to see them all dead. But Kaeldra and some others have realized that the dragons are victims. Farmland has encroached on their wild territory. The dragon’s huge, fiery character does not mix well with civilization.

A grown woman in the third book, Kaeldra has devoted her life to helping dragons get to a place that is safe for them. But Kaeldra and her husband are kidnapped by dragon slayers. Timid Lyf (who, since her sickness, also has green eyes and the power to communicate with dragons) finds herself the reluctant protector of her small nephew, Owyn, a dragon’s egg and a clutch of demanding baby draclings.

“Sign of the Dove” continues Fletcher’s tradition of wonderful characters, thrilling action, moral challenges and humor. The little draclings are charming, funny creatures. Smooth writing and cliff-hanger chapter endings make this a fine read-aloud. (Fletcher lives in the Portland area.) (Atheneum, ages 10 and up, 6 and up for read-alouds, 214 pgs., $17.95.)

Briefly, here are a few more books appropriate to the season:

“Witch Mama” by Judith Caseley: What does Jenna’s little brother, Mickey, think when his mother has to dress as a witch for the school Halloween party? And when the neighborhood is filled with skeletons and ghosts? Of course he’s scared, but he has a big sister to help him through it. Fun illustrations and familiar situations make this a kid-pleaser. (Greenwillow Books, 32 pgs., ages 3-8, $15.)

“I Spy Spooky Night” riddles by Jean Marzollo: This is the seventh in the series of popular “I Spy” books. Gimmicky perhaps, but well-done, and well-appreciated by children who love search and find games. This new one doesn’t disappoint. Walter Wick’s fine photographs (he built a haunted dollhouse to make these pictures) go nicely with Marzollo’s clever riddles. “I spy a shark, three bats and a map …” Now, your turn. (Scholastic, 36 pgs., ages 4 and up, $12.95.)

“The Ghosts’ Trip to Loch Ness” by Jacques Duquennoy: This is a lighthearted little book about four friendly ghosts’ trip to find the Loch Ness monster. They stay in a castle owned by MacGhost. They listen to his stories, go for boat rides, do a little fishing. It’s great fun, but no Loch Ness Monster - until they get home and have their photos developed! Fun and not scary. (Harcourt Brace, 32 pgs., ages 4 and up, $11.)

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