All our favorite Halloween book lists in one place. These are the best spookier-by-flashlight readalouds.
A boarding school on a ship, a demon with a centuries-old agenda, and a haunted house in Chicago bring a little mystery to middle grades fiction.
In this spooky middle grades ghost story, Molly must face her own ghosts before she can confront the spirit haunting the crumbling English manor house she hopes to call home.
It's all about adventure in these new books, whether you're visiting a fantasy world where one brave guild stands between a city and disaster or meeting a tween determined to start her own restaurant.
In this genuinely scary ghost story, Zoe must solve a 19th century death to save her ghostly friend.
In an alternate London, ghosts are on the rampage — and only squads of spirit-sensitive kids can stop them.
There’s plenty of spooky in this book, but what elevates it above the classic ghost story is its acknowledgment that the worst horrors can be the ones we keep inside ourselves.
Whether you're looking for a book that will have you hiding under the cover with a flashlight or just something that gives a nod to favorite Halloween traditions, we've rounded up a fun list of spooky (and not-so-spooky) books to enjoy in October.
The Dollhouse Murders is a just-spooky-enough mystery that will have everyone glued to her seat waiting for the next chapter.
In brief: Geneva Reade has waited thirty years for a message from her husband, whose ship the Amaryllis sank to its doom while she and her son watched from a cliff. Now that son has a family of his own, and when Geneva breaks her ankle combing the beach for a message she still believes will come from her lost husband, George’s daughter Jenny comes to help her grandmother. Geneva is less concerned with housework than with continuing her search for that long-awaited message, so Jenny takes her grandmother’s place on the shore, continuing her search and meeting another mysterious searcher with an agenda of his own.
What makes it a great readaloud? Babbitt’s novel is just spooky enough to keep you on the edge of your seat (but not spooky enough to keep you up at night), and its ragged edges leave plenty of fodder for conversation. It’s a lingering, atmospheric middle grades novel that gives readers credit for being able to draw their own conclusions. And its lyrical celebration of the sea’s lure is particularly lovely.
Be be aware: The resolution doesn't tie the story up in a neat bow.
Quotable: "Gran was not like other grandmothers, smelling of starch or mothballs, depending on the time of the year, and spending their time watering their plants. Gran stood straight and proud. Her face and arms were sunburned. And though she talked and listened, there always seemed to be something else on her mind, something far more absorbing than Christmas conversation."
We reviewed this eerie middle grades ghost story when it first came out: A girl who can talk to ghosts makes her first real-live friend, and they quickly bond over the fact that they both have lost parents. She's never been happier—but her ghost-talking talent has been noticed by dangerous people, and her real and ghostly friends will have to team up if they want to save her. This is definitely more spooky and atmospheric than your typical middle grades novel, but kids who like that kind of story will be entranced by the adventures of Pram, Felix, and Clarence.
OK, it would be false advertising to compare this book to The Westing Game, but if there is a contemporary literary descendant of Raskin's deliciously complex mystery, it's The Greenglass House—a genuine, bona fide middle grades mystery that gives its readers credit for being intelligent and that delivers a satisfying mystery, sophisticated character development, and a few (well set-up) twists along the way. Adopted innkeepers' son Milo and his friend—the cook's daughter, Meddy—unravel the clues to discover why their off-season inn is full of unexpected visitors, at least one of whom seems set on sabotaging Greenglass House. It's a terrific mystery. Highly recommended.
The suspense builds over the course of this mystery classic as ten people with spotted pasts realize that they've been lured to a posh but deserted island to be murdered, one by one, by a vigilante who wants them to pay for their crimes and who—they slowly realize—must be one of their number. It's both tense and intense, and don't start it unless you're ready to read it through to the end. (The recent BBC adaptation does a great job capturing the book's atmospheric suspense.) A great book for your high school summer reading list.
During the climactic battle of The Imaginary, Amanda and her imaginary friend Rudger try to fend off the evil Mr. Bunting by hiding in an imaginary submarine in Amanda's hospital room. As Amanda and Mr. Bunting feverishly think of imaginary attacks and defenses, Amanda's real life hangs in the balance — which is kind of the point of The Imaginary: Just because something is imaginary doesn't mean it's not real.
Amanda and Rudger's story starts out simply enough. Amanda is a girl with a Big Imagination, so it's only a matter of time until Rudger, a perfect imaginary friend, appears in her closet. Amanda and Rudger have all sorts of adventures together, until creepy Mr. Bunting shows up, followed by his own, even creepier imaginary friend. Mr. Bunting is after Rudger, and when Amanda tries to save her best friend, she's hit by a car, knocked unconscious, and rushed to the hospital. Rudger, meanwhile, is left to fend for himself. What happens to an imaginary friend when its creator forgets it? In Rudger's case, he ends up investigating Mr. Bunting, discovering his nefarious habit of eating imaginary friends to keep himself young. Along the way, he finds an employment office of sorts for abandoned imaginary friends and a new appreciation for what a wonderful friend Amanda really is. Existential crisis notwithstanding, Rudger is a charming hero — an imaginary friend who (literally) takes on a life of his own as he hatches a plot to rescue Amanda and himself.
What's lovely about this book — and what sets it apart from other imaginary friend-based literature (in addition to Emily Gravett's solemn and delightful little illustrations) is that it treats imaginary friends seriously — both the twee, silly, happy side, and the dark, creepy, mysterious side. Because imagination really goes both ways, and anybody who's ever been afraid to fall asleep because of something you've imagined under the bed knows that there's a real dark side to a wonderful imagination. Harrold plays that balance perfectly, dancing lightly from Roald Dahl adventure to Neil Gaiman darkness without stepping too heavily on either side. This book could be a good pick for middle readers who like things a little spooky or for older readers who aren't put off by whimsy. It also makes a nice readaloud, though you may want to assure particularly nervous youngsters that a happy ending is coming during the scarier bits near the conclusion.
Something is wrong. Triss can’t remember anything about the accident, and no one will talk to her about it. Her sister can’t stand to be in the room with her. Her parents whisper behind closed doors. Someone has ripped up her diaries. And even her dolls seem to hate her.
If you’re a Frances Hardinge fan, you already know that nothing is ever what it appears to be, and this dark, tender fairy tale of a novel is no exception. As Triss discovers the truth about her accident, her father’s mysterious business partner, her brother’s death, and her own existence, she’s plunged into mysterious world where nothing is what is seems. Hardinge envisions a vivid post-World War I England, still scarred by loss and fear, and her descriptions are lush and dream-like. Triss and her younger sister Pen form a wary alliance, and their relationship is one of the highlights of the books—a complicated, definition-defying, sisterly connection that feels heartbreakingly authentic.
There’s a faint note of horror underlying the book from its beginning, which sometimes rises to the surface with a shrill crescendo—as when the children of a hidden village try to literally pull Triss apart as she walks through the village streets—but the horror always twists through the absolutely ordinary details of everyday life. It’s unsettling—but it’s supposed to be. Triss’s existential crisis may be supernaturally spurred, but it’s really not so far removed from the questions of reality and identity that any 13-year-old girl might face. Like any good fairy tale author, Hardinge lets her story speak for itself—there’s no heavy-handing moralizing or sense-making of the events that unfold. Much like Triss, the reader is left to find her own meaning.
I don’t think Hardinge is right for every reader. Though her work is for middle grades readers—and there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t be appropriate for that age—The Cuckoo’s Song is dark and complicated. Some parts are genuinely terrifying. But it’s a very, very good book and definitely worth reading.
(If you're playing summer reading bingo, I read this one because I hate the U.S. cover.)
A Curious Tale of the In-Between by Lauren DeStefano
Pram Bellamy can talk to ghosts. She knows that’s weird, that most living people don’t see ghosts everywhere they go, but Pram’s always felt like she straddles the space between the world of the living and the dead. Her best friend is a ghost named Felix, who lives in the garden of the house where Pram lives with her kindly aunts.
But everything changes when Pram goes to school and meets a real, living boy named Clarence, who’s still mourning the loss of his mother. For the first time in her life, Pram has a living friend. Felix is jealous, but Pram thinks she’s never been happier. When Clarence finds out that Pram can see ghosts, he’s convinced that she can help him find his mother’s ghost—and in return, Clarence vows to help Pram down her absent father, whom she’s never met. But Pram’s unusual gift puts her in danger when she catches the attention of the mysterious Lady Savant, and Felix and Clarence will have to team up to save Pram from a fate worse than death.
I almost didn’t read this book because I really, really was not a fan of De Stefano’s young adult series Wither (I know lots of people loved it, but I was not one of them), but I’m so glad I picked it up. A Curious Tale of the In-Between is lyrical and lingering—the story moves fast enough to keep things interesting, which I think is essential for middle grades literature, but it’s full of opportunities to slow down and think deeply about what you’re reading. Pram, Clarence, and Felix are delightful, and I appreciate the way that they all have to learn how to be friends as the book progresses. The book isn’t scary, exactly, but it gets a little eerie in places, and touches on things like death and suicide—you may want to give it a quick read-through (and it really is a quick read) before passing it to your child.
More Spooky Books
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.
Jackaby by William Ritter
Imagine a supernatural Sherlock Holmes with a competent female Watson at his side, and you’ve got the plot of the delightful Jackaby, the first installment in Ritter’s new young adult series. (Its sequel, The Beastly Bones, is due in September.)
Abigail Rook, runaway from a life of British privilege, finds herself in New Fiddleham, New England, via a roundabout route that included a lengthy stopover at a dinosaur dig. Abigail, who’s very much a Watson in the Martin Freeman vein — smart, stout-hearted, and adventurous — needs a job, and R.F. Jackaby, supernatural consulting detective, needs an assistant. Abigail is not put off by the fact that Jackaby’s former assistant is now a duck living on the mysterious third floor of his haunted mansion, and she determinedly follows her new boss on his investigation of a mysterious serial killer, matching her keen observation and logic skills to Jackaby’s otherworldly knowledge.
The serial killer plot is fine, but the real charm in this book — and trust me, there’s lots of charm — is the world Ritter has created. Abigail is a delight — so often, headstrong, determined young women like Abigail disappoint in books. They are too brittle or too competent or too inclined to go weak in the knees around young men who could be their soulmates. Abigail is none of those things — she knows her strengths, recognizes her weakness, is equal parts wise and foolish, and feels like a real, complicated human being. Her cohort is a bit more mysterious, but Jackaby's paranormal powers isolate him from other people in a distinctive way: He literally sees things other people can’t. All the time. And while he radiates the kind of prickly attraction that Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the role of Sherlock Holmes, he’s not the cheese to Abigail’s macaroni. They are partners in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and the development of their friendly, respectful relationship is much more interesting than any love story. (Abigail does develop a little crush on a friendly police officer who has a secret of his own.)
“Marlowe is a good man, but he only knows how to slay dragons,” Jackaby tells Abigail during their investigation. “The world is full of dragon-slayers. What we need are a few more people who aren't too proud to listen to a fish.” This odd little book makes me want to listen to fish a little more often.