My younger daughter, Leda, has asked for a scary story every day since she started talking. “Tell me a scary story,” she demands. “And not with a Leda in it!” (Apparently that’s too scary.) Leda also likes to inspect roadkill, so it’s not surprising that her tastes lean macabre, but most of the kids I’ve met enjoy a spooky story hour now and then.
This list is for the children who like getting goosebumps, who love monsters, and who are still young enough to believe in magic — and for parents who feel the same. Read a scary story together tonight… or maybe this afternoon. Let’s not push it.
This book is such a hit in our house that my husband gives it time-outs to punish bad behavior. It’s also sufficiently scary that our kindergartener and third grader both insist it spend the night in the living room. A glorious pop-up and lift-the-flap exploration of a creepy house full of creatures, skeletons, and funny surprises like a monstrous toilet, The House of Madame M appeals to a broad age range, from pre-readers who will want to open every drawer and closet, to older kids and parents who will enjoy the cheeky horror tropes scattered throughout.
Precious’s mother and brother warn her not to open the door for anyone when she’s home alone, especially not Pruella the Boo Hag. When the crafty Boo Hag comes calling, clever Precious is able to see through all her tricks… until the Boo Hag’s last-ditch effort to get inside tests even Precious’s (and the reader’s) detective skills. Precious and the Boo Hag is lively, fun, and only a touch creepy.
Jasper Rabbit is thrilled to be wearing big boy underpants. But once the lights go out, their glowing green grin starts to feel more freaky than fabulous. Jasper’s determined to get rid of his creepy underwear, but no matter what he does to destroy them, they always return home in one piece. A silly, slightly scary story about overcoming fears, Creepy Pair of Underwear! will delight preschoolers and younger elementary school students, as well as parents who still laugh at the word “underwear.”
Rev up your reading engines, because Anika Denise’s literal manifestation of a monster truck rally — wonderfully illustrated by Nate Wragg — will excite any kid who loves to play cars, monsters, or just really appreciates a good Halloween pun. When Frankentruck, Vampire Truck, Werewolf Truck, Ghost Truck, Zombie Truck, and an unassuming VW van have a race, the results are hair-raising.
In Julia Donaldson’s modern classic, a little mouse outwits every predator in the forest with his gruesome tales of the Gruffalo. Imagine the mouse’s surprise when the Gruffalo arrives, ready for a mouse-flavored snack! Nervous but undeterred, the mouse finds a way to evade the Gruffalo. The prospects of being eaten and having an imagined monster come to life make this a shade scarier than the average picture book, but the mouse’s bravado and Donaldson’s clever rhymes keep the fear factor low enough for very young readers.
It can be hard to track down a copy of this wonderful book, but the search is worth it. Author Virginia Hamilton draws on her expertise in African American folklore to tell the tale of James Lee, who must rescue his uncle, Big Anthony, from the terrible Wee Winnie Witch, who is using him as a broom! Luckily, Mamma Granny has a trick up her sleeve to rescue James Lee and Big Anthony… and put a permanent end to Wee Winnie’s joyrides. A cautionary note: This is a legitimately scary picture book, made even more so by Moser’s detailed illustrations. It’s also written in a Southern vernacular that takes a couple of readings to get used to, but which adds wonderful atmosphere for those with the patience to give this unusual book a try.
You’re either into Gorey, or find his work irrepressibly weird. Leda (the roadkill enthusiast who lives in my house?) has always loved Gorey’s stories of unpleasant things happening to innocent children, and the extra frisson of spotting the random little monster-creatures often lurking in the dark corners of his drawings. The Gashleycrumb Tinies is an alphabet primer for the unusually morbid preschooler, or anyone with a dark sense of humor.
I don’t know anyone raised in the 1980s and ’90s who didn’t read this illustrated collection of gruesome folktales and urban legends, or its equally frightening sequels. From the corpse hunting for his big toe to a girl murdered by secondhand fashion, Schwartz and Gammell’s short stories will send little thrills of horror and fascination through elementary and middle school readers.
The Jumbies is a fantastic pick for kids into the Goosebumps series, and parents trying to nudge those kids into more literary territory. An imaginative fantasy based on Haitian folklore, The Jumbies follows the adventures of 11-year-old Corinne La Mer, who unintentionally lures the “jumbie” of her deceased aunt, Severine, out of a haunted forest. Severine is bent on turning the rest of the family into jumbies, and it’s up to Corinne to save them. The combination of girl power, ghost story, and Caribbean setting makes for an absorbing, unique, and perfectly bone-chilling reading experience.
Set in a largely Black community in 1930s Alabama, Hoodoo tells the story of 12-year-old orphan Hoodoo Hatcher, born into a magical family, but without any powers of his own. Until, that is, a stranger comes to town suggesting that Hoodoo’s long-gone father is in deep trouble with the supernatural. This engaging story is fun, highly original, and quite scary. Smith’s characterization of the Stranger, especially, will have some readers running to lock their front door.
Another ’80s childhood classic that deserves to terrify several more generations of children! Molly and Michael are struggling to come to terms with their mother’s recent remarriage, and their new, awful little stepsister in particular. Heather is always getting them into trouble; but when she befriends a vengeful child ghost, she goes from pest to possessed. The book’s realistic exploration of issues like grief and blended families makes the ghost story feel relatable, and all the more chilling. A note for parents: With themes of death, suicide, and murder, Wait Till Helen Comes may be the most mature story on this list, but it’s nothing most elementary and middle schoolers haven’t seen implied in the average kids’ movie.