10 Scary Children’s Books that Might Still Keep You Up at Night
My personal poison as a child was R.L. Stine. I loved his books, but I couldn’t handle them. My parents wouldn't buy them for me, so I convinced my grandmother to secretly read me The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight, and it kept me up for weeks (proving my parents completely right for keeping it away from me). There’s nothing more lastingly creepy than books with the ability to scar your early childhood, and what brings joy to some in the early years can be interpreted as abject horror to others. I recall the same grandmother reading me books from her 1920s childhood, and they were usually horrifying. One was a warning against playing too recklessly with fireworks, as the protagonist exploded a Roman candle and blew off his fingertips. As with some of the books on this list, time and changing notions of childhood safety can widen the gap regarding which stories are deemed appropriate for young audiences, and which are seen by critics as a little too frightening.
Roald Dahl is one of those children’s authors with the ability to terrify as well as delight; his work seems to serve both sides of the coin. Personally, I found Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach to be quite alarming (re: Oompa Loompas, bizarre factory accidents, a carnivorous rhino, etc.), but The Witches is much more on the nose and consistent with its horror elements. Add to that the imagery of a face-peeling Anjelica Huston from the 1990 film, and you have a perfect little nightmare recipe.
Does “A is for AMY who fell down the stairs, B is for BASIL assaulted by bears,” ring a bell? Edward Gorey’s illustrated tales are filled with children who meet rather gristly ends and, as a result, it isn’t too shocking that publishers tended to market them more towards adult audiences. The Edward Gorey House writes on their website, “while the bulk of his work never found its way into the children’s section of libraries (yet), Gorey nonetheless addressed his works to children…Truly, the voice in Gorey’s books is that of an observant child peering out from behind furs, beards and jewelry—a child who has been around the block—patiently explaining to any child who listens the ways of this hostile and unpredictable adult world.” And it’s this jarring, surreal element, a reminder that death comes for the very young as well, that makes Gorey’s work especially memorable and creepy.
Another favorite that I’m sure caused all the more sleepless nights thanks to the terrifying illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Even the original cover was scary. Not too surprisingly, the American Library Association named the Scary Stories series number one on its most challenged books list for the years 1990-1999 (Goosebumps also made the list at number 15). Apparently Schwartz loved the stir around his books and found it to be great publicity. He was probably right, as his books have definitely found their mark in the minds of all the kids they frightened.
There are so many Goosebumps books to choose from, it was hard to pick just one for this list. I selected this one because it’s tinted with both fear and nostalgia for me. I can practically smell the glossy pages and print of a 1990s Scholastic book fair just looking at the cover. The plot follows a girl who, tired of always being scared by others, decides to get revenge by buying the creepiest mask she can find, which backfires when the mask won’t come off her face. To me as a kid, there was something especially sinister about an entity taking over anything as up close and personal as your face. I think this one may also be the reason why I developed a fear of worms as a child.
The earliest volumes of the “children’s tales” published by the Brothers Grimm were criticized at the time, due to the mature themes present in many of the stories. While many of their collected stories are looked at more from the angle of preserved folklore today, they still haven’t completely shaken the image of being for early childhood consumption. A few of the darker tales include “The Girl Without Hands” and “The Robber Bridegroom.”
Dolls can be menacing at the best of times, but particularly when they look like an exact replica of your family, move around on their own at night, and are trying to tell you secrets about your murdered grandparents. There’s a reason why Betty Ren Wright’s middle grade books have stuck around to spook readers for over three decades now.
Author Lindsay Currie is making a name for herself as the writer of several recent suspenseful books for tweens. The most recent book on this list, What Lives in the Woods, follows a young girl who lives in a mansion in the woods, where something is watching her from the dark. Currie’s other offerings also include elements of paranormal suspense.
Mary Downing Hahn is well known for her supernatural thrillers for young readers, but Wait Till Helen Comes is probably her best known work. In it, the ghost isn’t just an ominous background presence; she’s a real, physical threat to the main characters and their troubled stepsister, who almost joins her in a watery grave.
Vivian Vande Velde authored a number of paranormal story collections and novels for teenagers during the early aughts. One rather gruesome tale from this short story collection that stuck with me all these years was about a teenager haunted by the ghost of a small child it turns out was the victim of her own drunk driving. Vande Velde’s writing is snappy and easy to get sucked into, and all the more memorable because of her knack for balancing fantastic situations with believable characters.
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We’re going deeper into the woods, which seemed to be filled with things that watch you, according to this list. I haven’t seen this title talked about too frequently, but the 1980 film it inspired has a very eerie quality to it, perhaps even more so with the passage of time. The film, which diverges slightly in plot from the novel, follows an American family’s move into a British country house where the spirit of the owner's long missing daughter torments the current inhabitants.
What kept you up at night when you were growing up? If we're missing anything on this list, let us know in the comments.
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