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The Picture Book Buzz

Lila and the Jack-O'-Lantern: Halloween Comes to America - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

The super talented Nancy Churnin and Anneli Bray teamed up to create a truly delightful historical fiction about how Halloween got started in America. Like the traditions that melded together, Nancy masterfully weaves historical facts, numerous immigrant stories, and a touch of imagination into a wonderful tribute to immigrants and their contributions to America.

Cover of book - a girl wraped in a shawl against a fall breeze stares at a jack o- lantern ina window.

Lila and the Jack-O'-Lantern: Halloween Comes to America

Author: Nancy Churnin

Illustrator: Anneli Bray

Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company (2023)

Ages: 4-8

Historical Fiction


Halloween, immigration, family, merging traditions, friendship, and creativity.


An Irish immigrant moves to America, bringing along a now-beloved Halloween tradition.

When Lila and her family leave Ireland for the United States, Lila misses many things, but especially Halloween. Each year, she and her siblings look forward to tricking a sly spirit named Jack by carving turnips into jack-o'-lanterns and walking the streets of their small town in ghostly costumes. Now, with no turnips in sight, can she bring the spirit of the holiday to the crowded city streets of her new home?

Opening Lines:

In the cold, dark ship, Lila's hair gleamed like a flame. Her little brother

and sister, missing Ireland, drew close as she reassured them about their

new home.

"We'll have colcannon in America," Lila told Billy and Grace. They

sighed, hungry for Ma's savory mashed potatoes, kale, and onions.

"But what about Halloween?" Billy asked. "Will we have turnips?"

Lila hesitated. She remembered her father's letter from America.

Oct. 15, 1850

Dear heart, I've sent Ma money to buy tickets for you all to join me.

Love Da.

P.S. Sorry, there are no turnips anywhere.

She couldn't tell them that.

What I LOVED about this book:

What a wonderful opening text and illustration. The slightly off-center image and the swaying lanterns, and the weary, worried faces of Lila and her siblings (and the other passengers) immediately immerses the reader in the story. It's so fun to learn how the carving of turnips and wearing "ghost" costumes in Ireland were all to trick "a sly spirit named Jack, who walked the streets on Halloween, playing pranks." To make the journey easier for them, Lila promises Billy and Grace that Jack would beat them to America.

Internal spread - Irish imigrants in a boat headed for America. Three kids snuggled under a blanket in a berth.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Anneli Bray, 2023.

I love the way Nancy weaves the reason for the family's immigration - "Gorta Mor, the Potato Famine" - into Lila's dream that night, and how she and Anneli Bray leave a wonderful hint when Lila stumbles over "something round and orange." Dropped into the big, noisy, bustling New York City, Lila works to find a way to keep her promise of thwarting Jack for Halloween. I love Annelli's colorful capture of fall in 19th century New York City - the horse drawn carts and carriages, clothing, prices, and the diversity of the city.

Internal spread - on left the family's first look at the buildings and food carts in 19th century New York City. On right, tighly packed apratment buildings.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Anneli Bray, 2023.

Fortunately, while shopping for food, Lila makes a friend - Julia - at a vendor's cart. After describing why she was hunting for a turnip and inviting Julia to tag along, Julia's father gives the girls a pumpkin and admonishes it to "Just keep our girls safe."

Internal spread - two girls make friends in front of a vegetable cart, while the dad lugs a box of pumpkins.

Text © Nancy Churnin, 2023. Image © Anneli Bray, 2023.

But would this pumpkin work? It was bigger than a turnip and the insides were "as icky as a trick Jack might play." As it turns out, Julia has a few tricks to teach Lila about pumpkins. The final pages are full of new adventures and shared Irish traditions. An author's note offers insight into the line between fact and fiction and provides a recipe for colcannon. This is a wonderful ode to the Irish immigrants who brought Halloween to America,


Plate with four orange frosted, chocolate jack-o-lantern cookies
Upper  portion - three plastic cup jack-o-lanterns. Lower portion - three paper jack-o-lanterns.

- try a couple of fun ways to make a glowing jack-o'-lantern, while you wait for the pumpkins to ripen. (plastic cups) (paper)

- what special traditions does your family have for Halloween or any other holiday? Do you know when this tradition started?

- for fun books on pumpkins, pair this with Pumpkin Jack by Will Hubbell and Pick a Pumpkin by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis.

If you missed the interview with Nancy Churnin on Monday, find it (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions and resources see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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