When I was a kid, I watched a lot of Scooby-Doo, and I wanted to love it. The show had so much going for it—a giant talking dog, a cool van, creepy caretakers, haunted carnivals, lots of hiding in barrels and chase scene montages—but there was a problem. At the end of every episode, the ghost or ghoul always turned out to be some boring person wearing a disguise and complaining about “meddling kids.” I was so disappointed. Stop unmasking my monsters! I wanted to yell at the Scooby-Doo gang. I wanted real ghosts, real phantoms, real horror, not some grouchy hotel manager in a sheet.
The same thing kept happening in the books I read. Banshee shrieks became screech owl calls, footsteps in the attic turned out to be rats, and skeletal figures were revealed as shadows of tree limbs. Where were all the real monsters hiding?
Eventually, I found them.
Following are ten of my favorite horror* books for children and young adults. These books contain real witches, real magic, real ghosts, and (in a few cases) real terror. While some of the stories are more funny than scary, others will have you checking over your shoulder as you read and leaving a light on at bedtime, no matter how old you are.
* [Note: Most bookstores do not have a specific horror section for kids. In fact, some have removed their horror sections for adults as well, filing Stephen King’s haunting volumes on the same row as Barbara Kingsolver’s poignant prose. I’m a big fan of both authors, but I’m not sure how I feel about them sharing shelf space. Plus, I just think bookstores are missing a golden opportunity when it comes to kids’ horror. I recently started working in the library of an elementary school, and every week students ask for help finding the scariest books. I think if bookstores dedicated an area to those titles, they’d have a hard time keeping it stocked.]
My 10 Favorite Horror Books For Kids
1. Dorrie and the Blue Witch by Patricia Coombs
“This is Dorrie. She is a witch. A little witch. Her hat is always on crooked and her stockings never match.”
Thus begins each book in Patricia Coombs’ magical series about Dorrie, the little witch. These were my favorite books when I was a little girl. I checked them out over and over from the Richardson Public library—in fact, I can still remember the exact location of the shelf that housed them. Being born on Halloween, I considered myself a little witch too, and I loved Dorrie. I also loved her mother, the Big Witch, who was both stern and loving, and I loved their house with the loooong staircase up to the tower where the Big Witch made her magic, and I loved the way Dorrie always seemed to accidentally get herself into trouble and then, usually, also get herself out. But I think most of all, I loved Dorrie’s black cat, Gink, who always followed her up, up, up the stairs and into whatever trouble she was getting into at the time. Gink didn’t talk, but Patricia Coombs, who also illustrated the books, did a wonderful job of capturing his feline expressions. After reading these stories, I always wanted a black cat to follow me around everywhere.
It took me a couple of decades, but in 1999 I finally got my Gink. He’s currently meowing for me to feed him dinner. 🙂
Although I love them all, Dorrie and the Blue Witch is my favorite of the twenty books in the series. In this story, Dorrie accidentally lets a very powerful and very evil witch into her house while her mother is away. Dorrie’s smart though, and uses shrinking powder on the nasty old witch to reduce her to the size of a bug. Then she does the same thing I do with scorpions—she traps the blue witch in a bottle until her mother comes home.
Unfortunately, these adorable picture books are out of print and a little difficult to find these days, but used copies can still be obtained here and there. If you ever find one at a reasonable price, grab it. You won’t be sorry.
2. Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe
From the back of the book:
“It looked like an ordinary bunny to Harold. But Harold was a dog by profession, so his judgement wasn’t reliable — as he was the first to admit. But Chester, Harold’s good friend and house-mate, was a very well-read cat and he knew there was something strange about Bunnicula. For one thing, he seemed to have fangs. And the odd markings on his back looked a little like a cape. But when Chester started finding white vegetables, drained dry, with two fang marks in them, he was sure Bunnicula was a vampire bunny.
So it was up to Chester — with Harold’s help — to alert the members of their household before another carrot was lost. Because as Chester warned, “Today vegetables, tomorrow the world!”
I have such fond memories of reading Bunnicula with my mom when I was a little girl. I think bedtime stories are supposed to make you fall asleep, but the adventures of Harold and Chester and the poor little vampire bunny always made us laugh until the giggles prevented us from reading anymore.
I re-read Bunnicula a couple of years ago, and loved it all over again. It’s the first in a series. I enjoyed Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight as well, and there are many more that I still haven’t read.
3. My Haunted House by Angie Sage
I just discovered Miss Araminta Spookie and her delightful haunted house this summer, and it is so much fun! I was hooked from the very first paragraph:
“It all began when I was in my Thursday bedroom doing my ghost practice. I have always done regular ghost practice, as I was sure it would be much easier to find a ghost if the ghost thought that I was one too. I have always wanted to find a ghost, but you know, even though our house is called Spookie House, I have never, ever seen a single ghost, not even a very small one.”
Poor Araminta reminds me of myself as a little girl, because she desperately wants to see a ghost or discover a secret passage or live in a haunted house. The difference is, she actually gets to do these things. When Araminta’s Aunt Tabby decides to sell their house (which is so big that Araminta has a different bedroom for every day of the week) the desperate little girl tries to pretend the house is haunted to scare off prospective buyers. The problem is, the house really IS haunted. Araminta just doesn’t realize it yet.
My Haunted House, which is the first book in a series, is such a fun little story. I also recommend the audio version because Katherine Kellgren does a wonderful job bringing Araminta’s voice to life. However, if you only listen to the book, you’ll miss out on Jimmy Pickering’s wonderful illustrations.
4. Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
I read Wait Till Helen Comes in the sixth grade. It’s the the first novel I ever remember reading that had a REAL ghost in it.
The back of the book says:
“ Twelve-year-old Molly and her ten-year-old brother, Michael, have never liked their younger stepsister, Heather. Ever since their parents got married, she’s made Molly and Michael’s life miserable. Now their parents have moved them all to the country to live in a house that used to be a church, with a cemetery in the backyard. If that’s not bad enough, Heather starts talking to a ghost named Helen and warning Molly and Michael that Helen is coming for them. Molly feels certain Heather is in some kind of danger, but every time she tries to help, Heather twists things around to get her into trouble. It seems as if things can’t get any worse. But they do—when Helen comes.”
This makes the book sound like a lighthearted, spooky tale, but it is actually much more serious than the summary lets on. The story deals with difficult family dynamics, tragic deaths, and even touches on the subject of suicide. It’s a great book with a suspenseful and touching ending, but it’s not one of the ones on the list that will make you laugh.
5. Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson
Arriman the Awful, darkest of all dark wizards, is searching for a wife. But his wife must be a witch, and not just any witch, but the most evil, dreadful witch he can find. He invites all the local witches to participate in a spell-casting competition, and whoever wins will earn his hand in marriage.
Basically, Which Witch? is a cross between The Witches of Eastwick and The Bachelor, except it’s for kids.
And don’t be fooled by the cartoony cover. This classic tale of dark magic, originally published in 1979, has everything you’d ever want in a horror novel—witches, wizards, ghosts, ogres, genies, bottomless pits, sea monsters, and one really gruesome scene involving rats. I won’t give away the details, but I will say this: Do not read chapter thirteen during lunch.
6. Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp
Louisa, the 18-year-old narrator, and her 9-year-old niece, Jane, go to spend the summer with Jane’s grandmother. Jane is a quiet, subdued child ever since the death of her parents, and her grandmother, Mrs. Canfield, is a stoic old lady who has experienced a lot of grief in her life. Not only has her son (Jane’s father) just been killed in an accident, but her husband has passed too, and her other child, Emily, a selfish, hateful girl, died when she was only twelve years old.
Upon arrival at her grandmother’s house, Jane’s mood and energy begin to improve, but the motivation which coaxes her out of her shell disturbs Louisa. Jane is obsessed with the reflecting ball in the garden and with information about Emily, the long-dead child. She insists that Emily is still around, that she can “feel” her.
I like this story because it has plenty of creepy, foreboding elements but just enough mystery and doubt to keep it realistic too. And the characters are great. I love old Mrs. Canfield and the depth of tragedy that the author finally reveals about her, and I find Louisa’s over-the-top teenage romance to be very amusing as well.
Although this novel was written in 1969 and is set in 1912, I still think kids today would enjoy it. After all, good ghost stories don’t really go out of style.
7. A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
“Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”
Thus begins this delightfully harrowing story.
Told from the perspective of a snarky narrator who frequently interjects warnings, explanations, and apologies, A Tale Dark and Grimm follows Hansel and Gretel as they wind their way through several of Grimm’s fairy tales. Though Gidwitz’s book is not a traditional horror story, it has more than enough blood and gore to earn its spot on this list.
I loved everything about this book, from its gorgeous cover, to the sarcastic narrator, to the powerful us-against-the-world bond Gidwitz creates between the brother and sister. It made me laugh out loud multiple times, and even though the narrator warned me about the violence in the book, some of the scenes still took me by surprise.
A Tale Dark and Grimm is the first in a trilogy. I enjoyed the second one, which stars Jack and Jill, but did not love it as much as the first. The narrator played a smaller role, and I missed him. I have yet to read the third.
8. The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
From the book flap:
“It’s wartime, and the Carver family decides to leave the capital where they live and move to a small coastal village where they’ve recently bought a home. But from the minute they cross the threshold, strange things begin to happen. In that mysterious house there still lurks the spirit of Jacob, the previous owners’ son, who died by drowning.
With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia Carver begin to explore the suspicious circumstances of that death and discover the existence of a mysterious being called The Prince of Mist—a diabolical character who has returned from the shadows to collect on a debt from the past. Soon the three friends find themselves caught up in an adventure of sunken ships and an enchanted stone garden, which will change their lives forever.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, who also wrote The Shadow of the Wind, one of my favorite novels for adults, has a great gift for language and story-telling. This book is not for those who want a fast-paced ghost story full of action and dialogue. This is more like the kind of story your grandfather might tell you over a campfire. And, as with some of granddad’s stories, I’ll admit that it’s a little slow in some parts. BUT… the other parts provide enough eerie shivers to make up for that. This story includes both a clown and a heart-thudding scene inside a mausoleum. Need I say more?
9. All Hallows’ Eve: 13 Stories by Vivian Vande Velde
There are some seriously creepy stories in this book!
I’ve already recommended this collection of horror stories once in my post “10 YA & MG Books That Deserve More Readers” but it would be a mistake not to include it here as well. As I said before, I enjoyed almost all of the 13 stories, but it was the third one—”Morgan Roehmar’s Boys”—that made me sit up and take notice. It reminded me of when I first picked up The Hunger Games back in 2009 and thought, Is she REALLY going to have kids killing kids? Oh, yep. She is. These stories hit me the same way. Is this real horror or kid horror? Oh, real horror. Got it. Now to check behind me before I keep reading. The stories are both scary and clever, and Velde’s twists will keep you on your toes.
My favorites were “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys,” “Pretending,” “When and How,” and “Holding On.”
10. Horror Stories chosen by Susan Price
I bought this book at a used book store for fifty cents and got WAY more than my money’s worth.
This is one of the best horror anthologies I’ve ever read. It contains twenty-four stories from twenty-four different authors. It includes some of my all-time favorites, such as “The Room in the Tower” by E.F. Benson and “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, and some of the weirdest stories I’ve ever read, like “Something” by Joan Aiken and “The Famous Five Go Pillaging” by Terry Jones and Michael Palin. It also includes stories by Stephen King, Guy de Maupassant, and Charles Dickens, among others.
Come to think of it, I’m not sure this collection was actually meant for children. But I found it in the children’s section of that used bookstore, and really, what child wouldn’t benefit from a tale by Edgar Allan Poe or a nice little story about a severed hand with a mind of its own?
These stories make for great read-alouds, so gather any children you can find and open up this spine-tingling volume. I suggest you start with “The Affair at 7 Rue de M—” by John Stienbeck, which is about a sinister piece of bubble gum.
What’s Next On My Reading List?
- The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
- The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco
- The Grimm Conclusion by Adam Gidwitz
- Deep and Dark and Dangerous by Mary Downing Hahn
- Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
- The Only Thing Worse Than Witches by Lauren Magaziner
- Fiendish by Brianna Yovanoff
- Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
- The Cabinet of Curiosities by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne