Jane Little. Spook. Illus. Suzanne Kesteloo Larsen. New York: Atheneum, 1967
Spook can’t remember any life but with Grimalda, the cranky witch who pushes him around and feeds him cold bat wings. If only she’d keep a cat like a normal witch, but Grimalda is allergic to cats. But one Halloween night, Spook’s wish suddenly comes true when he falls off Grimalda’s broom and into a circle of children. Now he and little Jamie have to outsmart the witch before she takes Spook back for good.
What works: The story is very fast-paced, and Jamie’s response to his final challenge still seems as clever as it did when I first read the book. The villains are scary enough without being too frightening, and Larsen’s illustrations of the scowling, Grinch-like witches are both spooky and funny.
Little’s descriptions – wind that “skirl[s] like bagpipes” and a witch’s voice that sounds “like the slow grating of chains across a gravel path” – add to the story’s spooky tone.
What doesn’t: A few passages of dialogue seem too contrived, serving as exposition rather than natural conversation, such as when Grimalda reminds Spook why she doesn’t keep a cat instead of a dog.
In addition, the Head Witch’s apparent surprise at Grimalda’s choice for a familiar makes little sense, since it’s implied that Grimalda has had Spook for a long time, and the Head Witch has had more than one opportunity to see him. Likewise, Spook is surprised at something he sees at the witches’ cave, something I thought he would have seen before.
Overall: Spook is a very entertaining story, with villains who are goofy enough to offset their scary qualities. Other than a few exposition-heavy passages, the dialogue is believable and the descriptions create vivid, tangible scenes. This would be a fun book for teachers to read to their students the week before Halloween, a chapter or two each day.