Horror: It’s for Kids!
Hello, friends and foes!
Do you remember the book that got you into reading? Or, if you’re a writer, the book that made you want to write your own stories? I remember mine, and they’re all books from my childhood – and almost all of them were scary. I decided to put together a list of ten scary stories for budding horror fans, ranked from least terrifying to absolute nightmare fuel. If this list inspires you to re-read some of your childhood favorites or share these with your spooky little kids, let me know in the comments below!
10. Bunnicula by James & Deborah Howe
We’re tarting off strong with the tamest book of the bunch. Bunnicula is a delightful seven-book series about a “vampire” rabbit that sucks the juice from vegetables. He was found by the Monroe family in a movie theater during a screening of Dracula. The stories are told from the perspective of the family dog, Harold. These are at the bottom of our list of childhood frights because, well, they’re just not very scary. There are some light horror elements like creepy noises in the shadows and the paranoid enemy of Bunnicula, Chester the cat, but nothing to keep young readers up at night. All in all, it’s still a fun read as an adult and, in my opinion, great for elementary and/or middle grade readers looking for some silly, spooky fun.
9. Edgar & Ellen by Charles Ogden
I’ve never met another person who has read these books. I don’t even remember where I got the copy of Tourist Trap that’s haunted the back of my bookshelf for over a decade. But it’s there, and I read it and re-read it faithfully as a kid, eager to follow the creepy twins Edgar and Ellen and their devilish doings. This is a six-book series about a pair of unsupervised and bratty children that live beside a junkyard in a small town and use their whimsical inventions to wreak havoc on their neighbors (especially the grown-ups). Aesthetically, these books are Tim Burton lite; ideal for young, curiously creepy minds.
8. How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found by Sara Nickerson
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I told you I can remember every book that inspired me to get into reading and writing? This book is one of them. I still consider this to be one of my favorite stories of ALL TIME. It has everything a budding horror fan could ask for – mystery, monsters, and creepy comics! The story follows Margaret and her quest to unravel a family mystery after her mother takes her to an abandoned mansion and says they’re going to sell it – and she’s not even allowed to peek inside. With help from the boy next door, Margaret investigates a charming small-town bookstore, handmade comic books about a half-man, half-rat, and the case of her disappeared dad. This story deals with heavier topics of depression and loss while remaining charming and humorous. There aren’t any jump scares, but some of the Rat Man comic illustrations live in my head rent free to this day.
7. The Ghosts of Mercy Manor by Betty Ren Wright
Another childhood favorite of mine and probably the origin of my obsession with ghost stories. There are over 30 of these paperbacks to choose from and they are all charming, spooky mysteries. Mercy Manor is my favorite one to recommend to young readers, probably because it’s a classic haunted house/ghost story where our protagonist, Gwen, must face her fears and help the ghosts reach their ultimate goal of peace on the ‘other side’. While the ghosts that appear in this book aren’t violently scary, Gwen faces other, more real haunts – she lost her parents, she’s been displaced to a creepy old house, and no one believes her when she admits to seeing ghosts. This would be a great introduction to any growing reader looking to talk to ghosts and solve a mystery. It’s also a great example of an independent young girl who faces her fears to do what’s morally right, despite the disbelief of those around her – a recurring theme in most of Wright’s books.
6. Something Upstairs by Avi
This one might bring back memories of assigned reading in English class. It’s a big part of my middle school memories because it’s set in Rhode Island and includes historical depictions of the 1700’s and, believe it or not, the Rhode Island Historical Society hosts The Avi Tour which walks guests through some of the locations mentioned in historic Providence. It also inspired me to write my first historical ghost “book” at 11 years old (the term book is used loosely here because it was only about 50 pages long and contained little to no plot, only vibes). This book is ranked higher on the scare-scale than the ones previously listed because, this time, the ghost is angry and vengeful and terrorizes our main character, Kenny. Kenny is new in town and already hates his new crummy New England house, so you can imagine his shock when Caleb, the very (and rightfully) upset ghost of a former slave, appears and demands his help. There’s time travel involved in an attempt to avenge Caleb’s death and, well… no spoilers. It’s certainly spooky and deals with some heavy historical concepts that stuck with me well after reading. And it’s been a long damn time since middle school.
5. Goosebumps by R.L. Stine
Rounding out our top 5 spooky reads for kids is the classic Goosebumps series, of course. This blog is basically an R.L. Stine fan site. There are 235 of these paperbacks to choose from, ranging from werewolves to scarecrows to ghosts and dummies (seriously, why are dummies so scary??). I consider these a must read for any budding horror fan. My favorite, one of the first ten Goosebumps books ever published, is The Ghost Next Door. Hannah meets the boy who moved in next door and slowly begins to suspect that he’s a ghost. This is sincerely one of my favorite books with a killer plot twist that’s sure to stun young and old readers alike. Some of these books are scarier than you might assume based on their colorful covers. The TV show (available on Netflix) is a faithful adaptation of the most popular stories and a great way to introduce kids to other forms of spooky media. A personal anecdote: we watched a Goosebumps movie at my birthday party every year for about a decade. We used to pile in the car and pick one out from Blockbuster. Yeah, I know. I’m old.
4. The House with a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey
I didn’t discover this book until I was a teenager and in my “I only consume untraditional media” phase. Bellairs is widely regarded as a cooky author with a knack for strange storytelling, and this book does not disappoint. This tells the story of orphaned Lewis Barnavelt and his time living in a strange old house with his strange warlock uncle. This one ranks a little higher on the scare-scale because it deals with resurrection, black magic, and the impending end of the world. It’s delightfully creepy, even re-reading it as an adult. It’s great for young fans of mysteries, magic, and necromancy – and a ticking clock counting down to the magical destruction of the world as we know it. It’s also a great example of a young main character who makes catastrophic, apocalypse-ushering mistakes and has to face his fears to make it right. The 2018 film adaptation starred Jack Black and was surprisingly directed by Eli Roth (think Hostel, The Green Inferno) and was the first of his films not to be rated “R”.
3. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
This wouldn’t be a good list of scary books for kids if it didn’t include Coraline. Have you re-read this as an adult? It’s still scary as all Hell. It’s an unnerving tale of a girl named Coraline who finds another world (aptly named the Other World) behind a strange door. Things are perfectly lovely on the other side… until they’re not. Coraline must escape her murderous Other Mother and her plan to sew black buttons over Coraline’s eyes. It’s sort of an Alice in Wonderland plot on the surface, but the way this book is written will have you (or your child) on the edge of your seat. It’s full of creepy imagery, the impending danger of being in the Other World forever, ghosts of children who suffered the same fate and, my personal favorite, life-or-death riddles. It won a Bram Stoker award in 2002, so you know this story is sure to deliver. The 2009 film adaptation, directed by Henry Selick and produced in stunning stop-motion, is an absolute must-see. Some parenting blogs deem it too scary for children under 12 so… beware.
2. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
I know what you’re thinking. “Allison, this list is for kids. Just because you read Stephen King way too young and still can’t walk past a sewage grate without looking for red balloons doesn’t mean you can recommend his books to kids.” Well, this one actually IS for kids. It was reviewed as a children’s book by Publisher’s Weekly and everything. The story follows young Trisha as she becomes lost in the woods during a family hike with few provisions, none more sacred than her Walkman that she uses to listen to the Red Sox game and her crush, star player Tom Gordon. It’s a truly terrifying tale told in hallucinations (or are they?) as Trisha loses her grip on reality. She is in the woods for days, facing a miriad of enemies (a wasp-faced entity she dubs ‘The God of the Lost’, being one) as she tries to get home, all the while listening to Tom Gordon and the baseball game. This was a staple in most Rhode Island classrooms (enough about New England already, I know I know). It’s a really scary read, hence it’s position near the top of the scare-scale, and would be great for kids or young teens interested in psychological thrills. And it serves as an age-appropriate entry into the vast world of Stephen King.
1. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell
You saw this one coming. You must have. These stories have haunted me since elementary school – the eerie rhymes, riddles and prose accompanied by the blood-chilling illustrations are absolute nightmare fuel, landing this 3 book series at the top of the scare-scale. Each story stems from established folklore and urban legends which makes them feel true – and infinitely scarier. They were the most challenged book series in school systems in the 1990’s and made the list again in 2012, citing disturbing and macabre subject matter, including but not limited to: murder, cannibalism, and disfigurement. They are truly a must-read for any budding horror fan who isn’t afraid of sleeping with the lights on afterward. I remember memorizing what pages to skip when re-reading so I could avoid nightmares as a kid (The Girl Who Stood on a Grave and The Bride come to mind). While they’re absolutely chilling and sure to terrify young readers, they’re also a whole lot of fun to read in the dark, under the covers with a flashlight, way after your mom told you to go to bed.
Well, what do you think of my list? Have you read any of these books? Do they still give you nightmares? Let me know in the comments below. Also, I feel obligated to address the Scary Stories 2019 film adaptation, even though I’d rather not. It’s a heap of wasted potential that might be worth a watch if you don’t mind an unfaithful adaptation of some of the best stories of the series. But, maybe I’m biased. Maybe I’m searching for the perfection of the Goosebumps adaptations that simply set the bar too high.
Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.