You might be asking yourself what right does horror have encroaching on the middle grade space? In truth, that age group, between 8 and 12 years old, is the perfect time to introduce kids to horror. These books offer a safe space for young people to explore concepts that scare them and provide context to their emerging world experience.
Many of these stories dive deep into concepts of grief, loss, bullying and emerging independence, all issues that are very real and relevant to that age group. Kids can connect to stories that help them deal with heavy emotions they may be experiencing, while giving them emotional tools such as finding strength, courage and patience to overcome the hard things in life.
The middle grade age group is also a sweet spot of magic and understanding. Kids at this age are still able to suspend disbelief enough that they are carried away by the magic of the horror genre, where monsters both exist … and can be overcome. Most kids love the spookiness of these books, but trust that the endings will make for a good experience.
Here are some of the amazing horrors I’ve read for kids recently – and I hope this genre keeps on building!
Scary Stories for Young Foxes, by Christian McKay Heidicker
I will tell you without a hint of shame that I could not read this book before I went to bed. Scary Stories for Young Foxes is dark, and at times I found it genuinely distressing.
Seven fox kits set out at night to prove how brave they are, to find the old storyteller of the forest and ask for a tale. One by one she tells them stories that chill them to the bone, until there is only one left.
One of the general rules of middle-grade horror is that nobody dies. Guys, the rule book is thrown out the window in Scary Stories, as we read the first horrifying tale about a creeping sickness that turns your eyes to goo. The seven stories follow two fox kits as they journey through the forest, encountering terrifying creatures and losing their faith and hope along the way.
Ultimately triumphant, this is a book where you must be as patient as the bravest fox kit to come to the end. But it is a tale of loss, grief, horror and sacrifice, and it does not pull any punches. I was both aghast and entirely entertained. If this is where middle-grade horror is going, I am 100 percent in.
May I also mention that Beatrix Potter has proven to be the most terrifying of villains I have ever read. Heidicker, what did Peter Rabbit ever do to you?
The Clackity, by Lora Senf
Ever since a fire destroyed her house and her parents disappeared without a trace, Evie Von Rathe has lived with her Aunt Desdemona in Blight Harbor, the 7th most haunted town in America. Ghosts and creatures might be a part of the landscape, but when her aunt disappears inside an abandoned slaughterhouse on the edge of town, Evie must muster all her courage to find her.
She meets the Clackity, a creature of arms and teeth who lives in the darkness, and makes a bargain with him – her aunt for the ghost of John Jeffery Pope, a serial killer who murdered people in the slaughterhouse more than a century ago. She agrees and descends into a nightmarish neighbourhood where she must face terror after terror, learning exactly how brave she truly can be.
The Clackity is a good representative of middle-grade horror, I think, and boy is it spooky. I actually read this one chapter by chapter to my youngest, and was unsure if it was appropriate (I’m still not actually sure – I mean, I’m explaining to her what serial killers are …) but she loved it. She’d beg me for just one more chapter, then make me stay with her until she fell asleep because it was spooky.
Use your own judgment as to age appropriateness, but the truth is The Clackity is brilliant. It is everything that middle-grade horror should be – it shows kids how to face their fears and be brave. It allows them to dabble with their nightmares, and come out on top. I think this is a fun book for grown-ups, and great reading for younger kids, especially if you’re reading together. Good discussions come up.
Nightbooks, by J.A. White
Nightbooks is a modern spin on the Scheherazade tale. A young boy is imprisoned by a witch, and he is forced to tell a new scary story every night in order to stay alive.
Alex thinks he’s weird – he’s totally into the macabre (every weird kid who loved horror before everyone else is eagerly raising their hand right now – me too!). He just wants to be like everyone else, though, so one night he sets out to throw all of his notebooks into the furnace of his apartment building. The horror writer in me is sobbing for the loss of those stories. But before he completes his tragic mission, he’s lured into another, magical, apartment, where a witch, Natacha, demands he appease the nightmare place by telling story after story.
Alex learns his twisted imagination is a strength, because not everyone could possibly create the stories he writes. He also discovers in other horror books within the library that there is a way to escape – and he must overcome both his fears and writer’s block in order to get out.
At times suspenseful and creepy, this is a great book for kids. The interludes of Alex’s stories within the story are great – kid’s got talent, and some of his stories kept me up at night!
Small Spaces, by Katherine Arden
Wherever you go in this big, gorgeous, hideous world, there is a ghost story waiting for you.
Small Spaces, by Katherine Arden, blew my mind! It is creepy, sad, beautiful and ultimately joyful, but first it will scare the pants off of you. I adore that books like this exist for kids. I think it’s essential kids can explore the spooky side of literature and life.
Ollie, a grieving 11-year-old, surprises herself when she rescues a book from a woman’s hands before it’s thrown into the river. Little does she know that the creepy story of disappearing brothers and a deal with a smiling man will soon become her reality. On the way home from a school trip to a farm, the school bus stops on a fog-shrouded country road. Ollie’s broken watch from her mother tells her to RUN. So she starts a terrifying journey to save her classmates while unravelling a devil’s bargain that happened long ago.
So scary! Scarecrows are the worst! But I absolutely loved it, as a grown woman. I think older middle-grade kids will adore it too. Maybe keep those nightlights handy!
Spirit Hunters: The Island of Monsters, by Ellen Oh
After defeating the ghosts residing in her new home in Washington D.C., Harper Raine is coming into her own as a shaman with powers over the spirit world. But her new abilities are put to the test when her family takes a vacation on a remote tropical island. Harper begins to have visions of horrors that have occurred at the resort. She digs deep into the past of the dark island, using her skills as a spirit hunter to save everyone from murderous ghosts.
A fantastic sequel to Oh’s Spirit Hunters. These books are chilling, and some kids might find them a little intense, but on the older side of middle grade, I think this is the perfect read for a kid who likes their bedtime stories on the spooky side.
Looking for more book recommendations? I got lots. Check out these book posts, with a little something for everyone:
Books I Still Think About Years Later
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