The best books to spook middle-grade readers

John David Anderson Author Of Riley's Ghost
By John David Anderson

The Books I Picked & Why

The Jumbies

By Tracey Baptiste

Book cover of The Jumbies

Why this book?

The Jumbies tells the story of a young girl on an adventure to stop a witch and save her village—fairly standard fairy-tale fare. What’s fantastic and unique about this book is how it takes the magic, wonder, and mystery of Caribbean folktales as its inspiration to transport readers (or this reader, at least) to somewhere new and refreshing. Baptiste imagines this spooky world full of monsters that are both fascinating and fearsome and then manages to elevate it all even further to ponder questions of family, friendship, freedom, and colonialism, all the while still providing the kind of nail-biting moments that earn it a place on a scary-books list. I like books that make me shiver and think, and this one does both. Plus there are two sequels for when you finish.

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The Night Gardener

By Jonathan Auxier

Book cover of The Night Gardener

Why this book?

Creepy Victorian setting? Check. Potentially haunted mansion? Check. Dynamic, fully-realized brother and sister duo to root for? Check. Ever-building tension marked by a steady stream of haunting reveals? Check. It has all these things going for it, but most of all, Auxier’s novel offers up a shadowy villain who is more than he seems and whose motives elicit some measure of sympathy. The Night Gardener is a gothic horror story, relying more on keeping you constantly unsettled rather than jolting you out of your seat, but I happen to love that perpetual sinking feeling in my stomach as I wonder what happens next. I got as much pleasure out of trying to unpuzzle the mystery at the heart of the novel as I did wondering if the two kids were going to bite it in the end (no spoilers here). Did I mention there is a tree that is literally watered by the sweat caused by nightmares? How demented.    

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The Nest

By Kenneth Oppel, Jon Klassen

Book cover of The Nest

Why this book?

I’m not sure how to classify Oppel’s haunting and thoughtful novel, except to say that it straddles the line between fantasy and reality and is much more than just a psychological thriller (though it is that). It tells the story of Steve, a boy coping with anxiety, and his quest to save his sick infant brother…by making a deal with a wasp queen to replace his brother with a “better” or “perfect” one. Bizarre? Yes. Creepy? Seriously, especially in the last third of the book. But what struck me most about Oppel’s dreamy narrative was how much I connected with the protagonist. I felt deeply for his ethical and personal struggles as well as for his family. As a kid I stepped on a hornet’s nest and was stung forty-two times, causing my heart to nearly stop. There are moments in Oppel’s novel where I felt it might burst instead—sometimes from suspense, but just as often from empathy. Also, the illustrations are awesome and add to the ambiance. 

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By Neil Gaiman

Book cover of Coraline

Why this book?

Coraline is considered a classic. A kind of foundational text for young people’s scary literature, it follows a familiar pattern (new house, weird neighbors, lonely heroine), but once Coraline ventures through the door into another dimension, the imagination and the creep-factor increase exponentially. I rank it up there with Alice In Wonderland for invoking my how-does-someone-think-of-this-stuff reflex. I love the cast of quirky secondary characters and the double climax. The talking cat and that severed hand. That it is my favorite Gaiman children’s book is really saying something as The Graveyard Book is also excellent. The film adaptation of Coraline is pretty good too (an unusual occurrence), though read the book first, of course.  

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Through the Woods

By Emily Carroll

Book cover of Through the Woods

Why this book?

First off, this one may skew towards a slightly older audience (say, young adult), but I think many mature tweens would appreciate it. Though it’s not a novel but a collection of five supernatural horror stories (graphic collection?), all of them are dark and twisted and chilling the way original Grimm fairy tales were before they got Disneyfied. It reminded me of reading Poe, if Poe was also a kick-butt illustrator, because it really was the visuals that startled and stayed with me the most. They aren’t all that graphic or explicit; most of them are suggestive and even shadowy the way good suspenseful horror should be. Best of all, this is a book that can be savored incrementally. Just read one of the stories right before bed, then stay awake for the next two hours listening to all the strange noises outside your window. 

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