Sometimes it’s nice to reflect on books we enjoyed as kids or teenagers. For me, that often means looking back over a list of books that my mother would never have allowed me to read had she realized what they were. Everything from Stephen King and R.L. Stine to Bram Stoker graced my shelves when I was a teenager, but the books that shaped my earlier childhood were even more startling. This list is dedicated to my favorites from my own childhood, and to the contemporary titles which have taken their place as horrifying kid books that might not actually be appropriate for kids. Whether it’s because their content is a little too adult for the audience or because the stories are too unsettling, this list shares a few of my favorite books that are technically for kids… but should probably be read with the lights on.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
This book is the quintessential “Mom clearly isn’t paying attention right now” book of my youth. It was originally published in 1981, and featured horrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz. Anyone who read the books, however, can honestly report that what really solidified the book as a thing of nightmares were the disturbing illustrations Gammell created to accompany them. He had a knack for bringing the dark and disturbing to life before your eyes.
Ask the Bones: Scary Stories from Around the World Adapted by Arielle North Olson and Howard Schwartz, illustrated by David Lim
The stories enclosed in these pages are retellings of fables, myths, and legends with a disturbing or creepy feel from all around the world. Although the age range for this book is 8-12 years, older children and adults may enjoy this title, too!
They’re Coming For You: Scary Stories That Scream to be Read by O. Penn-Coughin
This book was published in 2011, so it’s more contemporary than some of the others on this list. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing! This series was meant to emulate the Scary Stories series. Kids love it! I was hooked the moment I realized “O. Penn-Coughin” stood for “Open Coffin.” (Sometimes it’s possible to recognize good people right away.) The book promises legitimate scares, something that is largely missing from children’s fiction.
A Monster Calls: Inspired by an Idea from Siobhan Dowd by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay
A thirteen year old boy awakens to find an ancient monster outside his window. It wants something terrible. It needs the truth! This horror book, unlike the others at the beginning of this list, is a novel rather than a short story collection. In addition to being creepy and unsettling, it also is incredibly depressing. …Just what every 12 year old needs!
Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares: Tales to Make You Scream by Bruce Coville
This book is more frightening for children than it is adults, but it is still weird enough to be on the “questionable” list. This book features 13 chilling tales which promise to give the young nightmares and the old reason to glance over their shulder before they head out into the darkness.
Bony-Legs by Joanna Cole, Pictures by Dirk Zimmer
This story is an Americanized novelization of Baba-Yaga from Slavic mythos and Russian folklore. In this story a young girl happens upon an old woman’s home and must escape before she is devoured. (A fairly dark subject matter for the same writer who brought us The Magic School Bus.) The illustrations are equally unsettling and perfectly accompany this bizarre tale.
The Thing at the Foot of the Bed and Other Scary Tales by Moia Leach, illustrated by Kurt Worth
This ghost stories collection gathers inspiration from folktales from around the world. Although there is a chance you will have heard or read some of the tales before (the stories featured were very popular and were put on story records), it’s still worth a read.
Graveyard Scavenger Hunt by Brian Barnett
This short novel follows Pete as he visits his weird grandparents. That would, in and of itself, make for a fairly dull story if not for the graveyard next door. When Pete’s trip to the graves ends with him going on a scavenger hunt to keep the dead from walking the Earth, the story becomes anything but typical.
The Doll in the Garden by Mary Downing Hahn
Ten year old Ashley has been warned to stay out of the garden. When she follows a white cat through the bushes and into a mysterious place, she hopes to find answers as to why. It’s a genuinely spooky book and is worth checking out. The book touches on several themes and concepts, but delivers them in a haunting and unsettling manner that isn’t characteristic or typical of youth literature. Not to mention the fact that the turn of the century doll she finds is a bit eerie in and of itself.
The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright
This book is one of the few that kept me up at night when I was younger. The book won numerous awards when it was first published, and features the story of a young girl whose doll house holds dark secrets. Amy’s great-grandparents were brutally murdered, and shortly after her dollhouse begins to glow eerily at night. Each day she finds her dolls in different positions than the ones she left them in, and she can hear odd scratching sounds once the lights go out. If there’s one disturbing kid’s book on this list that you check out, make it this one!