Once my first book came out last month, I braced myself for reader reactions. One thing that I was surprised to hear is that Deadwood can be scary for the youngest middle-grade readers. I didn't know I was writing a scary book -- suspenseful, yes, but scary? It's not violent or graphic by any means, and I have a low tolerance for gore even as an adult. And it's about a tree -- not high on anyone's list of spooky things.
Then I realized that the scariness comes from the supernatural occurrence in an otherwise realistic setting. A book is scarier if it seems as if it could really happen in the reader's world. At 2 a.m., what seems scarier: a tale of a harmless ghost that hums sweet nursery rhymes in the hallway, or a book about a ferocious dragon that terrorizes a medieval village? (Trick question: nursery rhymes are naturally scary.)
But as a principle of spooky tales, familiarity makes frightening, whether the suburban school settings of R.L.Stine or "it happened to someone my cousin knows" of urban legends and campfire tales.
In honor of campfires and short summer nights that seem long, here are ten scary tales for middle grade readers.
The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill
What makes it scary: Normal Iowa town with strange magic just below the surface? Yes please!
Doll Bones by Holly Black
What makes it scary: A doll made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
What makes it scary: Bod is a boy raised by ghosts -- but it's the living humans that are really dangerous.
All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn
What makes it scary: Spiteful spirits awaken in an isolated inn when Corey and Travis play practical jokes.
Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
What makes it scary: Ryan, Josh, and Chelle steal a coin from a well. Now the witch of the well is making them pay it back, and the price may be too high.
The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
What makes it scary: Every kid has a weird teacher now and then. But Sophie and Grace's is really up to something creepy.
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
What makes it scary: Ravenous teachers and memories that fail in a truly nightmarish scenario.
In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar
What makes it scary: Can you laugh when you're scared? Yes. In these warped campfire tales normal kid situations take abnormal, Twilight Zone twists.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
What makes it scary: A monster shows up at midnight. But he's not the most terrifying thing Conor must face.
The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
What makes it scary: One of the creepiest things about this modern gothic tale is a narrator so unreliable, we're not even sure which of the Hardscrabble children it is.
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
What makes it scary: Phony spiritualists enlist orphan Maud in their scheme -- but the danger and ghosts turn out to be real.