Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Scary Tales for Summer Nights by Kell Andrews

Anybody can scare a middle-grader with age-inappropriate scenarios. But what makes a book frightening within a strictly middle-grade world view?

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.

What are your favorite scary middle-grade books, new or old? 

I'm offering a special shout-out here to Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp, which was the ghost story that scared my childhood friends and me no matter how many times we read it.


  1. When I was a kid, middle grade age or even younger, I read the Scary Stories books--Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones. And these were not whimsical tales. These stories by Alvin Schwartz were terrifying, and the illustrations by Stephen Gammell were outright disturbing. They were seared into my memory. They still are.

    Frankly, I don't think the contemporary book industry would market such stories to children. I do know that the most recent versions of these books feature a new illustrator--a perfectly good one, too, but the intent is clearly to stop scarring children for life. I don't know how I feel about that. I came up on these books, and I turned out okay.

    Then again, I did end up writing a horror novel, so who knows?

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

  2. There is something so match-made-in-Heaven about MG and scary.

  3. I remember reading R.L. Stine's Fear Street books and delightfully scaring myself. Great list!

  4. What a great list! I LOVE spooky MG!

  5. Thanks so much for including WIG! Jane-Emily scared the pants off of me, an adult! I'm living in the haunted James Thurber house in Ohio this month, and even the thought of it gives me chills.

  6. Great list! I was obsessed with Goosebumps as a child. Stared me stiff!

  7. I'm a total wimp usually, but a good fairy-tale-inspired scary story always works for me (like Nikki Loftin's book which I really enjoyed). When people told me my first UnFairy Tale book is a little scary, I was surprised because of my aforementioned wimpiness, but I guess it goes back to the fairy tale thing!

  8. Kristen, I always thought Jane-Emily was so obscure, but I've found so many middle-grade writers who loved it. Great book!

    Thanks for the comments. For Harrison's point, I think scariness in kidlit swings up and down. Fairy tales and Victorian and Edwardian kidlit were often more terrifying than current books.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!