The best picture books with scary things

The Books I Picked & Why

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

By Michael Rosen, Helen Oxenbury

Book cover of We're Going on a Bear Hunt

Why this book?

As a performance storyteller myself, I love books that play with language and allow you to ‘ham it up’ when reading aloud. The way this book builds suspense is such fun! We know we’re going to meet a bear – a big one – and we keep repeating that we’re not scared, but actually we are, or at least the children listening are. We have to travel through fields, rivers, woods, and even a snowstorm to reach the bear’s hidey-hole. Will he be there? Of course, he will, and when we do meet him the only thing to do is to run back the way we came all the way home. Shut that door!

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The Gruffalo

By Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler

Book cover of The Gruffalo

Why this book?

How can I not recommend The Gruffalo in a list of best picture books with scary things? While some young readers may find this story a little scary, it’s actually a mouse that is constantly in peril. But this is a mouse with brains and he uses those brains to outwit a succession of characters intent on eating him until we meet the great big, scary Gruffalo himself. He’s no match for the mouse, though. Julia Donaldson tells her story in verse, always a joy to read out loud, and Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are perfect. I love reading this to my granddaughter. It’s definitely a book I wish I had written.

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Where the Wild Things Are

By Maurice Sendak

Book cover of Where the Wild Things Are

Why this book?

This is an absolute classic, both for its spare but extraordinarily imaginative text and its wonderful illustrations. Max puts on his wolf suit – as you do – and gets up to no end of mischief, so his mother calls him ‘Wild Thing’ and sends him to bed. That’s when the adventure begins. Max’s room turns into a forest and an ocean flows by with a boat to take him to where the wild things are. When they see him, the wild things – fabulous, great big goggle-eyed monsters roar at him threateningly, but Max tells them to be still and they obey. He becomes their king and together they indulge in a huge rumpus, but Max tires of it and soon wants to go home to mum. It’s ok to be a little bit wild sometimes, but it needs to be controlled otherwise things can get out of hand.

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On the Way Home,

By Jill Murphy

Book cover of On the Way Home,

Why this book?

This book is another great classic full of scary characters dreamed up by a young girl to explain her hurt knee. On the way home, she bumps into one friend after another and to each of them she provides an even more dramatic description of what happened. Did a wolf try to snatch her for his tea? Did a crocodile knock her over? Was it the witch, the snake, the dragon, the flying saucer that was responsible for her injury? This is such a great story for encouraging children to fire up their own imaginations – and to think about description. It encapsulates how they sometimes exaggerate events to make them appear more impressive or to feel better about what has happened to them. Finally, when the young girl gets home to Mum we discover how she actually hurt her knee, and Mum supplies the all-important plaster to make everything all right.

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A Dark, Dark Tale

By Ruth Brown

Book cover of A Dark, Dark Tale

Why this book?

Scary is sometimes what we anticipate rather than what is actually there, and that’s definitely the case in this wonderful tease of a story. The text is simplicity itself and the accompanying illustrations are beautifully gothic and atmospheric. We follow a black cat across a dark, dark moor, through a dark, dark wood, into a dark, dark house – you get the drift? – but just what is at the end of this dark, dark journey? The surprise is genius and has children tumbling over themselves to go back to the beginning once they are in on the secret. This is a book I must now find for my granddaughter because I know it will be a firm favourite.

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