In an alternate London, ghosts are on the rampage — and only squads of spirit-sensitive kids can stop them.
Halloween is coming, and we need a good spooky book to read. We loved The Graveyard Book and The Witches. What should we read this year?
I loved scary stories, the kind that are best read under the covers with a flashlight, when I was growing up. I still love them. But my kids? Not so much. So it’s a pleasure to share some of my favorite spooky stories with other people who like a few goosebumps with their readalouds. Just keep in mind that these books all have genuinely scary moments in them and share them with your younger readers accordingly.
I always recommend The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright because it was one of the first books I read as a kid that really scared the pants off me. For months, I would be afraid to peek inside my own dollhouse because I was convinced the little people inside would have moved around during the night. Twelve-year-old Amy discovers a haunted dollhouse in the attic of her family’s old home, and the dolls’ mysterious behavior spurs her to investigate a family tragedy.
One of my new favorite scary stories is Jonathan Stroud’s The Screaming Staircase, the first in his Lockwood & Co. series. Lucy Carlyle, who has the ability to hear the dead, joins forces with stolid George and mysterious Anthony at the Lockwood & Co. psychic investigative agency, where they—along with other, much more impressive agencies—battle the epidemic of ghosts that’s been plaguing London for half a century. There are some seriously scary bits as the kids face down malicious specters, the characters are delightful, and the action is pretty much non-stop.
For slow-building, atmospheric horror, you can’t beat Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a mystery-horror tale in which ten people are summoned to a mysterious island house to face justice for past crimes. As guest after guest is murdered, following the pattern of an old nursery rhyme, the paranoia and hysteria among the remaining guests rise to a fever pitch.
The narrator of Diana Wynne Jones’s The Time of the Ghost doesn’t know who she is or how she become a formless, voiceless spirit. All she knows is that she is one of four sisters and that something horrible has happened. As she follows the four sisters around, trying to figure out which one she is, she witnesses their abusive, neglectful upbringing and a curious game the sisters invent, which may be the key to the darkness that lies ahead. But can the ghostly narrator do anything to prevent the terrible accident she knows is coming? And can she ever return to her own body? Grimmer and darker than some of Diana Wynne Jones’ other work, The Time of the Ghost is so compelling because of the relationship between the four sisters.
If you want something a little lighter but with plenty of spooky scenes, pick up Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson. The dark and terrible sorcerer Arriman must find an equally dark and terrible wife to give him an heir so that he can finally retire, so he holds a competition for witches. There’s much gruesome magic, a wife-murdering ghost, and an evil enchantress who collects the teeth of her victims, but there’s also the yearning-to-be-evil-because-she-loves-Arriman-so-much white witch Belladonna and plenty of humor to keep things from getting too bleak.
Sometimes you want a Halloween story that’s just action-packed, and The Doom Stone by Paul Zindel is a good bet for that. Jackson heads to Stonehenge to hang out with his cool anthropologist aunt, who’s helping the British army investigate a terrifying beast on a murder spree around the countryside. When the beast attacks his aunt and she has to be hospitalized, Jackson and his new friend Alma are the only ones who can solve the mystery and stop the beast.
The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is one of those genuinely creepy children’s books that sticks with you. Jessica finds a miserable hairless kitten in an old cave, and despite her instant dislike of the cat, she brings it home to take care of. But the cat—whom Jessica names Worm—starts talking to Jessica, convincing her to do all kinds of terrible things. The cat must be a witch’s cat—but, then, where’s the witch?
A ghost story where the main characters are haunted by the Irish potato famine may seem a bit of stretch, but Black Harvest by Ann Pilling is genuinely spooky and one of those forgotten 1980s children’s books that deserves to be better known. Colin and Prill’s family, including their Eustace-Scrubb-ish cousin, expect a jolly Irish holiday, but there’s a strange stench of decay that never goes away—and Prill sees strange figures at night—and all the food starts spoiling—and people start getting sick.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a classic for a good reason: You can never be certain whether the narrating parson’s-daughter-turned-country-governess is truly the victim of vengeful spirits or whether she’s slowly and absolutely losing her mind. There’s such darkness in either interpretation, but it’s the unknown-ness of it all that’s truly terrifying.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón wrote one of my favorite grown-up books (The Shadow of the Wind, in case you're curious), so I was delighted to discover that he also wrote a deliciously spooky young adult novel called The Prince of Mist. Max’s family moves to the seaside to escape the war, but they quickly come to believe that their new home is haunted by the spirit of the previous owner’s son, who drowned in the sea. With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia begin to explore the mystery of that death, discovering a horrifying entity called the Prince of Mist who has returned to collect on an old debt.
Can you recommend a good book series for reading aloud? We have read Harry Potter, the Narnia books, and Percy Jackson, all of which we really enjoyed.
I feel like everyone should read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain (start with The Book of Three), about the adventures of Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran and his friends — the princess/enchantress-in-training Eilonwy, king-turned-not-so-great-bard Fflewddur Fflam, and the curious and perpetually hungry Gurgi — as they fight to save Prydain from evil influences of Annuvin in an imaginary world drawn heavily from Welsh mythology. As in the Harry Potter books, Taran grows up over the course of his adventures so by the time the events in The High King take place, Taran is an adult facing adult decisions. This was one of my favorite series as a kid.
Everybody talks about The Hunger Games, but fewer people seem to know Suzanne Collins’ earlier series the Underland Chronicles, which may actually be a more interesting read. In the series’ first book, Gregor the Overlander, 11-year-old Gregor discovers a world beneath the surface of New York City, populated by giant cockroaches, tame bats, evil rats, and humans who have never seen the sun. Gregor, whose coming may have been foretold in an Underland prophecy, embarks on a series of quests, starting with a journey that might lead him to his long-missing father.
But what’s up with all the heroes? Add a couple of awesome heroines to your series readalouds with the Sisters Grimm, starting with The Fairy Tale Detectives. Sabrina and Daphne Grimm find out that Grimm’s fairy tales is not so much a collection of stories as it is a record of magical mischief cases solved by their famous ancestor. It’s fun to recognize characters from fairy tales living in the real world of Ferryport, and the sisters — especially Sabrina — are complicated, developing people, not just heroine stereotypes.
Another feminist series is Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Many people stop after A Wrinkle in Time, but continue on with A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time, and you’ll be well rewarded for your efforts. L’Engle is great reading for bright, thoughtful kids, who will appreciate the science, philosophy, and mathematics concepts that run through her books.
Another destination worth visiting is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where you can follow the adventures of young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Start with the hilarious The Wee Free Men, in which Tiffany discovers her powers and attracts the loyalty of the Nac Mac Feegle, an army of rowdy blue pixies.
If you’re missing the thrill of a magical world, pick up Charmed Life. It’s not the first book chronologically in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series, but it makes an ideal introduction to a parallel world in which magic is supervised by the powerful enchanter Chrestomanci. In this book, Cat and his sister Gwendolen find themselves studying magic at the Chrestomanci’s own castle.
One of my favorite recent new book series, Lockwood & Co. takes place in an alternate London haunted by ghosts and spectres that can only be seen — and defeated — by children with special abilities. Mysterious Anthony Lockwood hires plucky Lucy and cynical George to join his independent ghost detection agency, where the trio are pitted not only against vengeful spirits but also against the big supernatural agencies run by adults. The Screaming Staircase is the first in the series.
In Fablehaven, Kendra and Seth discover that their grandparents’ isolated country house is actually a preserve for mythical and legendary creatures — one of several secret preserves located around the world. The preserve is governed by strict rules for humans and magical beings, and breaking one of those rules can have serious consequences. Not surprisingly, there are dark forces at work hoping the harness the magical potential in places like Fablehaven.
It’s a little different from a traditional readaloud, but the graphic novel series Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi is a great adventure, following Emily and her brother Navin as they venture into an alternate version of earth to rescue their mom. The series kicks off with The Stonekeeper.
Are you looking for some new book ideas? We take Bespoke Reading List requests! Email us with what you’re looking for — “I have a 9-year-old obsessed with dinosaurs” or “what should a teenager who likes military history read?” — and we’ll play literary matchmaker.
Lockwood and Co. battle ghosts in an alternate London, an orphan finds a home at Green Gables, a girl discovers a magical boy in a curious museum, and more books we're reading this month together and separately.