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Scary books made to give readers the chills may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of “children’s literature.” Horror, whether it be books, shows, or movies, is often thought of as a more adult genre, especially when it depicts violent situations of terrifying outcomes. Death, dismemberment, and masked men with sharp, stabbing knives aren’t exactly the stuff of bedtime stories, and no parent could be blamed for wondering if their kid will never sleep again after reading ghost stories. But even though darker subject material may not be the most common type of children’s book, it can play an important role in the emotional development of young readers.
When children encounter new situations in books, whether scary or not, it gives them a chance to think through how they would handle such things, as well as experience new emotions from a safe and hypothetical place. As children’s author Cavan Scott puts it in his workshops on juvenile horror, “the world is a scary place.” By giving children scary books, Scott argues, young readers can be “pushed to the edge of their comfort zone,” but still get a resolution at the end. Since books for younger readers tend to end at least somewhat happily, children get the experience of being scared, but aren’t necessarily exposed to the more ambiguous endings dark books for adults might contain. If kids are not allowed to read anything frightening or shocking, then they won’t be able to develop the coping skills they’ll need when scary situations arise in their lives.
In addition to allowing children to develop skills for navigating difficult situations, scary stories can also warn young readers about dangerous situations. Even now, I can still remember moments where my favorite charcters in childhood books were put in danger, and how they reacted. Though it’s not healthy to be fearful all the time, books can impart important lessons, from the dangers of getting too close to wild animals to the need to be cautious around strangers. Kids can also think about, and discuss with the adults in their lives,how to stay safe and what kinds of choices they would make in such situations.
And, of course, dark reads can appeal to young readers simply because kids, like adults, like them. Children, in my experience, are their own best judges when it comes to what they find interesting to read and how difficult of stories they can handle. Many otherwise reluctant readers might love the Goosebumps or Tales from Lovecraft Middle School series, precisely because they are full of exciting and nerve racking characters and events, and reading these kinds of books can set children up as lifelong lovers of horror. When kids find books that engage them and that they enjoy, they are more likely to view themselves as readers and to feel like they have a place in the world of books.
No matter how much we might wish otherwise, children, like all humans, experience fear. We are programmed to fear new experiences and unknown things, and even if worries about monsters under the bed or shadows lurking in the dark might seem silly to grown-ups, to children they are very real dangers. Additionally, situations like starting at a new school, dealing with a divorce or death in a family, or moving to a new house can all bring up feelings of anxiety or even dread for kids learning to work through the emotions surrounding such events.
Whatever our age, books, and stories give us the opportunity to process situations outside of ourselves and to draw inspiration and comfort from how others have coped with similar, scary situations. While an adult might not immediately see the connection between being the new kid at school and a book about a kid who hunts ghosts, for a young reader, it’s an opportunity to see someone their age being brave. Just as the best horror novels play on our realistic fears, dark reads for kids can help them emotionally explore frightening situations through the safety of a book. Plus, kids might find they really connect with darker reads, and it can help set them on the path to being engaged and lifelong readers! If you’re looking for dark reads for the kids in your life, hand them some of the books below.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Nobody Owens, AKA Bod, is perfectly normal if you can get over the fact that he lives in a graveyard and is being raised by ghosts. Bod’s graveyard is full of adventure, with witches who are his friends, a portal to a ghost city, and a menacing presence called the Sleer. But, it’s the real world that truly presents a danger to Bod, since that’s where Jack, the man who killed Bod’s family, still lives.
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
This middle grade mystery features Harper Raine, whose family has just moved into a new, and supposedly haunted, house. Harper doesn’t give much credit to those rumors until her little brother Michael starts to act strangely. Somewhere, Harper knows she has hidden memories that could unlock the mystery of Michael’s behavior, but she’ll have to confront the house’s ghostly origins in order to do so.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
This book, the first in a series, uses Caribbean folklore to craft a spooky tale. All her life, Corinne has been told about the Jumbies, tricksters who exist in the stories parents tell their kids. One day, Corinne sneaks into the forbidden part of the forest and spots what she believes may be one of these frightening beings, and her suspicions are confirmed when the beautiful Severine turns up at her house and bewitches Corinne’s father. Can Corinne and her friends help her father, and the rest of the island, see what Severine is up to before it’s too late?
The House With a Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs
The orphaned Lewis Barnavelt has come to stay with his Uncle Jonathan, a distant relative he’s never met. When Lewis arrives at Uncle Jonathan’s house, he’s thrilled to find that both his uncle and the next-door neighbor are magicians and before long, Lewis decides to try magic for himself. Unfortunately for him, this means he resurrects the house’s former owner, Selenna Izard, who had installed a clock in the home’s walls that can destroy humanity. Now it’s up to Lewis and Uncle Jonathan to stop it before time runs out!
Took by Mary Downing Hahn
Daniel Anderson doesn’t believe his classmate Brody’s stories about the ghost witch that lives on Brewster’s Hill with Bloody Bones, a man-eating hog, figuring Brody is just teasing him for being the new kid. Meanwhile, his 7-year-old sister Erica is becoming more and more obsessed with a lookalike doll that Daniel finds more than a little creepy. One day, Erica disappears into the woods, and Daniel is forced to reckon with the chance she’s been taken by the ghost witch.
Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
A chilling story that’s the first in a series. Ollie is an 11-year-old reeling from a tragic loss when she steals a book from a woman threatening to throw it into a river and reads its story of a family with a scary loss of their own. The next day, her class takes a trip to Smoke Hollow, a farm with a haunted history, and her teacher mysteriously disappears from the bus ride back. Soon Ollie and her friends find themselves running through the woods after being given a stern warning by the bus driver that something is coming for them once it gets dark!
Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon
A chilling story for young horror fans, this book involves a missing boy trapped in a nightmare world. Zee has been missing for a year, until the day he suddenly comes back. At Zee’s return party, his friend Justin and the rest of their crew decided to play hide and seek, only to find the players are being taken away one by one to the horrifying world where Zee was being held for the past year.
Suee and the Shadow by Ginger Ly and Molly Park
When Suee transfers to Outskirts Elementary, two very unexpected and scary things happen. First, she hears a voice that turns out to be her shadow come to life. Then, the other students start turning into zombies! This graphic novel is a great intro to the world of creepy, zombie stories for younger readers.
Nightbooks by J.A. White
Every night Alex must tell Natacha, a witch, a different scary story or he dies. Alex, as a lover of scary stories himself, knows that, eventually, he’ll run out of stories to tell and that the terrifying tale he’s trapped in probably won’t have a happy ending. This contemporary retelling of the story of Scheherazade weaves in storytelling tips alongside Alex’s quest to save himself.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
When two siblings come to work at a creepy manor house after being abandoned, nothing is as they expected. The house has a creeping sense of dread, the family they work for acts oddly, and there’s a shadowy figure creeping through the gardens at night. Soon enough, the pair discover an ancient curse on the manor that might doom them to certain death if they can’t break it in time.
Looking for more spooky season reads (yes, it’s spooky season)? We’ve got you covered with Halloween books for babies and toddlers, as well as 50 must-read scary books for kids. Happy (spooky) reading!