By: Regina Teltser
Horror is one of the most maligned, dismissed, and misunderstood genres in all of literature, especially in children’s literature. It is also one of my favorite genres, especially in children’s literature. Parents frequently do not want their children going anywhere near the scary stuff, even as their children reach for it with both hands. The concerns are age-old: What if they have nightmares? What if it traumatizes them? What if it desensitizes them? And the big one, the one deep down under most of the other concerns: what if it corrupts them? What if reading about monsters and bloody deeds turns my child into a monster who wishes to commit bloody deeds? What if reading about witchcraft turns my child into a Satanist?
First of all, that last one is about as likely as your child becoming a pagan because they read Greek mythology. Horror novels giving your kids nightmares? Totally possible. Desensitizing them? Also possible. Corrupting them? No. Reading Catcher in the Rye isn’t what actually made Mark Chapman shoot John Lennon, and your child reading Thickety will not make them a witch—at worst, they’ll go through an annoying Goth phase. As to traumatizing or desensitizing, both things can be easily avoided by making sure your child doesn’t read something too dark at too young an age, and that you’re there to talk to them about what they’re reading. As with all genres of movies or books, they need to read/watch the right things at the right time.
But as to why horror is good for children—and, yes, I feel horror can be very healthy for children—fear is a very valuable teaching tool. For starters, half of all horror stories are cautionary tales in one way or another: don’t do x, or beware of x, and here’s why. Horror stories can teach children to perceive danger more quickly and acutely, and even give them ideas of what to do and what not to do. Another reason horror novels can be good for kids is that they can force children to confront frightening ideas and scenarios, analyze them, and maybe show them that the frightening thing is surmountable. There’s that G.K. Chesterton quote about fairytales “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” This perfectly applies to horror. And finally, the horror genre is, for reasons that could fill a doctoral thesis, a genre uniquely perfect for social commentary and psychological analysis. Horror can even allow us to examine the scary dark things within ourselves-monsters make for great metaphors.
SO! Here is my top 10 list (with honorable mentions) of horror novels that are actively good for children’s minds and souls. Hope you enjoy getting the shivers.
First up, we have a tie between two books which are both by one of my favorite living writers. Both of these are great introductions to the horror genre, being more creepy than scary overall. The Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery Medal for 2008) is a reimagining of The Jungle Book, but about a boy raised by ghosts (and other things) in a cemetery, rather than animals in a jungle. In fact, a great thing to do is to read both books as a family and then compare them. Like most of Gaiman’s best work, the tone continually shifts between humorous and unsettling, cheerful and darkly twisted, in a way that you would think couldn’t possibly work, and yet somehow does. Coraline (which was made into a fantastic stop-motion movie) is darker, yet written for a slightly younger audience (parents will probably find certain aspects of this book more frightening than their children will). Coraline and her parents have moved to a new house, and Coraline is bored, lonely, and generally feeling pretty sorry for herself—especially when the super-cool tiny door she discovered in the house turns out to just open onto a brick wall. But one night, the tiny door opens on its own, and there is no wall—there’s a tunnel. And on the other side of the tunnel is a house just like Coraline’s, but nicer. And in the kitchen, there’s a woman who looks and talks like her mother, but nicer—minus the black buttons where her eyes should be. She claims to be Coraline’s “Other Mother”, and she’s been waiting for Coraline, and she wants Coraline to stay and have fun with her forever. Coraline is good for 8 and up, The Graveyard Book is good for 9 and up.
This book is excellent, but the set-up is a bit complicated; bear with me. Brilliant but troubled Olivia (Ollie for short) finds solace only in books ever since her mother’s death, so when she comes upon a distraught woman in the woods about to destroy a book, she reacts instinctively and steals it from the woman. The woman begs for the book back (Ollie refuses), then offers some unsettling advice: stay away from open spaces at night. The book turns out to detail the curse on a local farm—the one her 6th grade class takes a field trip to the very next day, and the one the weeping woman in the woods turns out to own. On the way back, the school bus breaks down, the teacher leaves the class to go get help, and the bus driver (a man none of the children have ever met before today) warns the children: "Best get moving. At nightfall they'll come for the rest of you." Unfortunately, only Ollie and two of her classmates heed this warning and leave, and as they do, the bus driver says one more thing to them: "Avoid large places. Keep to small." This scary story is largely about loss, and people’s reactions to loss. Ollie is still in the denial and anger stages of grieving her mother, and Ms. Arden depicts a child acting out due to pain with sophistication. She also shows the desperate lengths people will go to avoid loss, or at least avoid the resultant emotions. A satisfying mix of frights and feels; good for 10 and up.
Sometimes, you have to go with the classics. While it is a bit dated (it was published in 1962, after all), once you get past that and look at it as a period piece, or as historical horror, you have a top-notch be-careful-what-you-wish-for story, as well as a really good bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale). This novel is the origin of the evil carnival/circus/sideshow/freakshow trope; Something Wicked… did it first, and Something Wicked… did it best, with its evil (or are they just enslaved?) freaks, haunted games and attractions, and a carousel that can make you grow young or old depending on the direction it’s moving. While the novel’s protagonists are a pair of 13-year-old boys, this book can still be enjoyed by a younger audience, if they are mature for their age and like older works. Good for as young as 10, if the child in question is a classics reader with a large vocabulary (they need to be comfortable with a bygone style of writing and storytelling).
Clive Barker is an adult horror writer (The Hellbound Heart, Cabal, the Books of Blood series) who leans towards the gory and lurid, and I’m honestly not a huge fan of most of his work. Then he decided to write a horror novel for children—and he knocked it out of the park. I love this book, and I have recommended it to dozens of kids, and I literally can’t recall one who didn’t like it. 10-year-old Harvey Swick is bored out of his mind one stormy February day and says the words “I’ll die if I don’t have some fun.” Seconds later, a small man with a large grin named Rictus (look up the definition) is in his bedroom offering him a chance for adventure. Come to Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, where every day is magical and the nights are filled with wonder! The only catch is that Harvey can’t ask any questions. Well, we wouldn’t have a story if Harvey listened to his better judgment every time, so he says yes. And Mr. Hood’s Holiday House is indeed everything promised, every wish fulfilled, but of course the house has secrets, and nasty things hiding in its dark places. A great cautionary tale about the importance of asking questions and looking a gift horse in the mouth, it also features a hero who is confronted with challenges both moral and logical, and who repeatedly succeeds by thinking outside the box. Good for 10 and up.
Not to be confused with The Night Gardener by Terry Fan OR The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos (what can I say, it’s a catchy title). Much like Something Wicked… and The Thief of Always, we have here a deal-with-the-Devil/be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario: someone or something offers you whatever you think you want most, at a terrible price (I confess, I love this trope). Irish siblings Molly and Kip have fled Ireland’s Great Famine—and lost their parents in the process—in the dubious hope of a new life in England. Molly, a gifted storyteller, manages to finagle the two of them servant work at a remote manor. All the locals they meet on the way try to dissuade the pair of having anything to do with the Windsor family, their manor, or even the surrounding forest, but Molly and Kip have nowhere else to go, and no one else to turn to for help. And as if the housework, the nightmares, the threatening visitors, the very creepy tree growing in the middle of the house, and the mysterious muddy footprints Molly has to clean up every morning weren’t enough, something is slowly sucking the lives—or maybe souls—out of the Windsor family. A very atmospheric tale with references to both classic literary horror and historical horror (the Great Famine was scary in its own right), it also deals with an unusual issue: the fine line between stories and lies. Good for 11 and up.
Dan Poblocki is a pretty big name in young horror. I could have put any number of his books on this list: The Stone Child, The Nightmarys, The Shadow House series, The Ghosts of Graylock, The Haunting of Gabriel Ashe (these last two are YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selections). But the Poblocki book I have chosen to high-light is a lesser-known one that I am nonetheless very fond of—and is set in my home state of New Jersey, no less! The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean: a girl with PTSD and a bad homelife who has spent the last two years in a program that places city kids with suburban families for the summer. When she joyfully comes back to her host family for the third summer, she finds things have changed. The family is hesitant to have her back, their son—who she considers a dear friend—is sullen and cold, and the local crazy hoarder (with whom she and the boy have bad history) has mysteriously died. Now, the whole town has turned out to scavenge through the dead woman’s things, but grave-robbing is never a good idea, and someone or something really doesn’t want to part with any of their possessions. A haunted house book that features not only ghosts, but demons, curses, and zombies, it is all about greed and fear, and how both of those things can imprison a person in different ways. It also touches upon completely real-world fears, like injuries and insects and the source of Cassidy’s post-traumatic stress (no spoilers here!). An intense and genuinely thought-provoking scarefest for 11 and up.
This book is so good I am STILL mad at the 2014 Newbery Medal Selection Committee for giving that year’s Newbery to Flora and Ulysses (by Kate DiCamillo) and only giving this book an “honor.” Doll Bones is about three middle schoolers named Zach, Alice, and Poppy, and for years their friendship has primarily consisted of one elaborate, continuous game of make-believe (they’re kind of like the loneliest LARPers in Ohio). At the center of their made-up world is the Great Queen, the incredibly creepy porcelain doll owned by Poppy’s mother: the doll never leaves its glass case and the Great Queen never leaves her tower. Then, one day, something terrible happens to Zach, and it looks like he might stop playing the game, and even stop being their friend, so in desperation, Poppy takes the Great Queen out of her case as a bargaining chip. But, spoiler alert: it turns out that porcelain doll is really haunted, and really angry, and the ghost haunting it promises doom and destruction upon the three unless they do her bidding and put her bones (which are in the doll) back in her grave. This book is about growing up, and what we give up when we grow up, and what we should hold onto. It’s also a good creepy story for kids who want only a mild scare but a lot to think about. Difficulty of vocabulary and intensity of scares make it 10 and up, but complexity of themes and ideas make it 12 and up.
Not to be confused with The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Yes, this book is back, and it’s one of the scariest books on this list. To recap, Steve, who has serious anxiety and OCD (clearly demonstrated though never named), worries about a lot of things. He worries about sleeping at night and getting sick and appearing normal when he knows he isn’t. He worries about the big wasp nest on his roof and getting stung (he’s very allergic). And he’s really worried about his newborn baby brother, who is seriously unwell. So, when he starts dreaming about angels who claim they have come to “fix” the baby and all he has to do is say “yes”, he does what any worried kid would do: he says yes. But he soon comes to realize that these beings are not angels, and their idea of “fixing” is very different than his. As I mentioned in the previous list, this book is about the value and nature of normalcy, perfection, and weakness, but it’s also about fear—and courage. Steve is handicapped by his myriad fears, but when something truly frightening happens and his baby brother is put in grave danger, suddenly, none of Steve’s every-day fears matter anymore. All that matters to Steve is saving his brother. A terrifying read featuring acts of great heroism from an unlikely hero, and a seriously “metal” climax. 12 and up, but a brave 12.
This might be the actual scariest book on this list, although it isn’t for the oldest age group. Set on an island populated by a demonic forest (the eponymous Thickety) and a religious cult clearly meant to mirror the Puritans, we meet our protagonist, 5-year-old Kara, on the night her mother dies. More accurately, we meet Kara when she is violently dragged from her bed in the middle of the night to watch as her mother is hanged for witchcraft, and then Kara herself nearly meets the same fate at the hands of her neighbors, all while her father watches helplessly. And the story doesn’t really lighten from there, folks. For the next seven years, Kara is treated as the town pariah, constantly reminded by everyone that her mother was an evil witch who got what she deserved, and that Kara must be a witch, too, and that they’ll kill her just as soon as they have proof of that. All that time, Kara has tried to keep her head down and her nose clean, taking care of her broken father and little brother, telling herself that she is not a witch, she is good, and one day people will see that. Except one day, she discovers that she IS in fact a witch, and that casting spells feels incredible, better than the highest high, and her craving to do magic quickly begins to control her. This novel deals with addiction, religious fanaticism, and most importantly, the very nature of evil. Is a thing inherently evil, or only because society says it’s evil? Can something bad be used for good, and if so, is it still bad? Should you “be yourself” if yourself turns out to be a monster? In addition to the philosophical quandaries, this book packs some serious chills and thrills, including mob mentality, pits to hell, and one heck of a witches’ duel. Violent and twisted, but utterly phenomenal, and the beginning of a series; good for 13 and up.
Part ghost story and part historical fiction, In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in San Diego 1918, during the last year of WWI, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, and the Spiritualism trend. Anyone who reads this book is in for a fascinating history lesson, at the very least. Scientifically-minded 16-year-old Mary Shelley Black (yes, named after that Mary Shelley) has fled the chaos caused by the Spanish Flu (and by her father’s violent arrest for being a conscientious objector) in her hometown of Portland, OR to stay with her Aunt Eva in San Diego, where she hopes to reconnect with the family of her childhood sweetheart (said childhood sweetheart, Stephen, is off fighting in the war). But things don’t go well for Mary in San Diego. The Flu is just as bad there as it was in Portland, desperate grieving people are turning to seances and spirit photographers like Stephen’s conniving older brother Julius, and then the report comes that Stephen has been killed in battle. Just when Mary is at her lowest point, things get much, much worse—because Stephen comes back to haunt Mary, and his visits aren’t sweet and friendly. They’re terrifying and lethal. Something has scared poor Stephen right out of his grave, and it might cause him to put Mary in one. A great piece of historical fiction that deals with rationalism versus superstition, the at-home costs of war, and the things grief, shame, fear, and jealousy make us do. Good for 15 and up (seriously, 15 and up—not only is it scary, there’s a scene where Mary engages in heavy petting with a ghost).
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Very well known, and a good introduction to horror, but it’s a collection of stories—not a novel—and they have no life lessons, deeper meanings, or substance to them. Good for 8 and up (don’t let the illustrations fool you; they’re way scarier than the text).
Anna Dressed in Blood
Excellent scary story for teenagers (14 minimum), but more witty than deep. Interesting look at different cultures’ monsters and witches. Very gory.
Coldest Girl in Coldtown and Darkest Part of the Forest
Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a great gory teen-read, but I can’t help it: I’m so over vampires, even well-portrayed vampires. Plus, Doll Bones has more heart. Darkest Part of the Forest is AMAZING and deep (go read it right now), but more a dark fantasy than a straight-up horror novel. Both for 15 and up.