Booklist Reviews

/*Starred Review*/ Gr. 3-6. Hamilton, who died in 2002, brought us many unforgettable stories from her research in African American folklore. This original scare tale, which may be her creepiest, is a wonderful horror story that draws on traditional beliefs about witches hanging up their skins and riding people using braided hair as a bridle. Moser's framed, colored wood engravings do a great job of bringing the wild, shivery adventure close to home, their black backgrounds and strong lines lit with garish Halloween images in shades of green and red. The focus is on young James Lee, who sees Uncle Big Anthony taken by the Witch. She comes creeping like a cat, takes off her skin, hangs it on the wall next to Uncle's overalls, and rides him, holding on to his braided hair. One night she takes James Lee along for the ride. Far-seeing Mama Granny comes to the rescue, using a potion to trap the demon. Moser's realistic portrait of Mama Granny, bent over a stick but still solid and strong under the moonlit sky, is as memorable as the garish image of the skinless witch. Even better, Hamilton makes clear that James Lee enjoys the ride as much as he relishes the witch's grisly end; so will the middle-grade readers--especially at Halloween. ((Reviewed June 1 & 15, 2004)) Copyright 2004 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews

Monsters, witches and goblins join the Halloween fun

Why is Halloween such a heavenly holiday for children? Here's one answer from Barbara Robinson's The Best Halloween Ever (Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins, $14.99, 128 pages, ISBN 0060278625): "It's like you get to have all the candy there is, all at once. You get to look at it, and count it, and separate it into little piles . . . . And trade it . . . and eat it."

Halloween can be terrifying, not to mention cavity-promoting, but The Best Halloween Ever is part of a fresh batch of books that concentrate on good, ghoulish fun. Robinson has legions of fans from previous books featuring the Herdman clan, truly terrorizing children who appear in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and The Best School Year Ever. Just how bad are they? So bad that their school principal has cancelled Halloween, designing a school festival with no candy. He hopes the Herdmans won't show up, but of course, we know they will. This is a genuinely funny family read-aloud for older kids.

Monstrous celebrations

Stay in the groove with Wild Witches' Ball (HarperFestival, $8.99, 24 pages, ISBN 0060529725) by Jack Prelutsky. Prelutsky is definitely a king—if not the king—of children's poetry, and this particular verse is a counting rhyme that will give kids plenty to giggle about ("Four fat bags took healthy bites from parts of three unsightly frights").

Artist Kelly Asbury's witches all look friendly; there's even a Cinderella-like witch wearing a pumpkin gown. While this book is a short read for little ones, it could easily be a lively vocabulary lesson for slightly older kids ("Witches eight with mangy tresses danced with seven sorceresses"). That's the beauty of Prelutsky: he's a poet for kids of all ages.

Old and young alike will frolic the night away with Monsters Party All Night Long, (Chronicle, $15.95, 40 pages, ISBN 0811843041) by Adam J.B. Lane. Poor old Count Dracula is lonely, so "From 'round the world to Castle Drac/The monsters come a-knocking/And with a grin/They're welcomed in/And soon the night is rocking."

Lane calls his illustrations "sculpstrations," because he made and photographed three-dimensional sculptures. Reminiscent of Claymation meets The Nightmare Before Christmas, Lane's artwork is colorful, creative and loads of fun. Little ones won't find the scenes scary, while there are plenty of sophisticated jokes, including a mummy deejay and a cemetery with headstones such as "Ghoulvin Klein" and "Oscar DeComposa."

More Halloween festivities are in store for readers of David Costello's Here They Come! (Farrar, Straus, $15, 32 pages, ISBN 0374330514). A family of little green monsters lives in the woods, eager for their big party of the year. Cheery rhyming verse and illustrations show a parade of whimsical guests, including warlocks, ghosts, hobgoblins and werewolves. These monsters are a cute bunch, so the preschool set is unlikely to flinch. Costello has just the right combination of silliness and delightful jitters.

The skinny on witches

For a final Halloween treat, gather around a cozy fire and read Wee Winnie Witch's Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale by Virginia Hamilton. Beware—this is a wonderful story, but a bit scary, so share it only with children ages eight and up.

The late Virginia Hamilton—a great in children's literature—was fascinated by black folklore about witches who hang up their skin and ride other people through the air. In the story she creates, young James Lee describes how a black cat jumped onto his Uncle Big Anthony and wouldn't let go. The cat was actually a "Wee Winnie," a witch. Every night the witch rides Anthony through the sky, and one night the witch captures James Lee and takes him riding high.

Hamilton keeps the story simple and the tension high. Her text is perfectly paired with the work of another master: Barry Moser. His colored wood engravings offer realistic but frightening views and angles—even I cringe at the sight of the Wee Winnie shedding her skin. Yet the terror is perfect, never gratuitous. This is a suburb choice for tweens who still love Halloween but are ready for more chilling fare. Copyright 2004 BookPage Reviews.

Horn Book Guide Reviews

This story incorporates some authentically scary motifs from African-American oral tradition. The plot pits a capriciously vituperative witch, Wee Winnie, against Uncle Big Anthony, who's considerably diminished in the process. Moser's fierce illustrations reflect a reality of historical suffering. Give this book to kids who beg to be chilled and thrilled--but be sure they mean it. Copyright 2005 Horn Book Guide Reviews.

Horn Book Magazine Reviews

Hamilton took folklore seriously, and this posthumously published original story incorporates some authentically scary motifs from African-American oral tradition (Zora Neale Hurston's variant of a similar story is included in The Skull Talks Back, reviewed on page 603). The plot pits a capriciously vituperative witch, Wee Winnie, against Uncle Big Anthony, who's considerably diminished in the process. First he's clawed by a black cat, then suffers for weeks as every night a witch comes for him, hangs up her skin beside his overalls, and rides him mercilessly across the night sky. Only far-seeing Mama Granny can counter the evil with her "spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone potion" that, spread on Wee Winnie's left-behind skin, finally squeezes and destroys the Wee Winnie. A boy's observations frame the story -- he's even seized for a ride on the last night -- but his excitement and survival are barely reassuring in the face of Moser's fierce illustrations. Set against a black background, the skinless, bloody witch and broken black man reflect a reality of historical suffering; one picture of faceless children in a tree behind the bowed figure of Uncle Big Anthony casts an eerie suggestion of lynching. Visually and verbally, this is dark art on dark art. Despite a loose narrative structure, the book generates unforgettable images. Give it to kids who beg to be chilled and thrilled -- but be sure they mean it. Copyright 2004 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews

Readers who don't rest easy after being spooked should be warned away from this posthumous chiller. Billed as an "Original African American Scare Tale," it folds tried-and-true folkloric elements into a fast-paced story featuring a man afflicted by a witch who can detach her head and skin, and a too-curious lad she snatches out the window one night for a wild ride through the air. James Lee finds out what causes his Uncle Big Anthony to become so sick and frightened when he witnesses Wee Winnie Witch strip off her skin and ride Big Anthony like a horse; unfortunately, when she sees James Lee watching, over she gallops to grab him, too. But while they soar over the town (and James Lee finds himself as exhilarated as he is scared), Uncle Big Anthony's canny mother-in-law Mama Granny is coating the inside of Wee Winnie's skin with hot pepper oil. In full-page wood engravings, Moser captures the tale's moonlit horror with gloriously icky views of the witch, both skinless, and as a cat with long-nailed human hands-but he also provides welcome comic relief at the end, with a scene of James Lee, many years later, relating the tale with obvious relish to a wide-eyed young listener. Your listeners will be wide-eyed, too. (Picture book. 7-9) Copyright Kirkus 2004 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Late author Hamilton, who collaborated with Moser on A Ring of Tricksters, concocted this nightmarish tale from elements of folklore. In the bizarre events, pictured in shadowy wood engravings, rural child James Lee sees a Wee Winnie (the name his mother used "to make a witch sound small") stalking his Uncle Big Anthony. Hair-raising illustrations show a cat transforming into a hag, peeling off her "skinny" (skin) and riding through the air on the uncle's back. Meanwhile, a "far-seer" woman applies "spice-hot pepper witch-be-gone potion" to the skinny, which destroys its owner when she attempts to reinhabit her epidermis. The disjointed storytelling contributes to the suspense; the book's malevolent sexual overtones and startling illustrations will haunt readers after the last page is turned. Ages 8-up. (Aug.)Halloween Fiction Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

School Library Journal Reviews

Gr 2-5-Hamilton has transformed her knowledge of witch beliefs in black folklore into an original tale. Wee Winnie changes from a black cat into her witch shape and hounds Uncle Big Anthony so relentlessly that she reduces him from a big, strapping man into one who is "lean and bent-over tired," an "about-gone, Uncle Shrunken Anthony." And as if that weren't enough, while his horrified nephew James Lee looks on from his bedroom window next door, Wee Winnie Witch takes off her skin and hangs it on a hook. She then grabs hold of Uncle Big Anthony, puts a bridle in his mouth, and rides him through the air, pulling James Lee right out of the window and onto his uncle's back as she flies by. Only Mama Granny's quick thinking saves the day. Hamilton's language is redolent with expressions that suggest African storytelling. Moser's large, colored-wood engravings, bordered in black and white, are strong and textured with horizontal and vertical lines. Illustrations show the hag, her black pointed hat in sharp contrast to an enormous moon, with bulging eyes glowing out of a lumpy body shed of the skin she is holding in her clawlike hand. This tale is admirably suited to Halloween telling, or for any time that shivers are in order.-Marianne Saccardi, Norwalk Community College, CT Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.