Posted in Book Lists, Kid Lit

Scary, Scarier, Scariest: Spooky Stories for Middle Grade Readers

When it comes to determining what makes a book scary, there are almost too many factors to consider. What gives us the chills, what speeds up our heart rate, and what simply provides a pleasant thrill depends entirely on who we are and what we have experienced. For instance, I love a good ghost story. As long as there is no blood, I am all in if there are ghosts involved. When it comes to zombies, however, or serial killers, I’m out. I can’t even look in the direction of a story that involves blood and brains. Because of this particular proclivity of mine, I have always been drawn to spooky middle grade stories. Since the intended audience is under 18, you can generally count on a good thrill without out too much violence or trauma. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that the scares offered in the thirteen terrifying tales I’ve chosen below are somehow less than, because they come in middle grade books. Find a cozy, well lighted place and make sure you are not alone before diving into one of these supremely spooky stories.

The Jumbies by  Tracey Baptiste

the jumbiesCorrine La Mer doesn’t believe the stories about the jumbies who supposedly live in the forests of her tropical island home. Malevolent and mischievous creatures who come in many shapes and sizes, jumbies are said to come out after dark in search of people to terrorize. One All Hallow’s Eve, Corrine unexpectedly finds herself in the woods, where she spies a pair of large yellow eyes who follow her to the treeline. When strange things begin to happen from that day on, Corrine must come face to face with the truth about the jumbies and her own family’s magical beginnings. Cleverly based on a Haitian folktale, Baptiste’s evocative story features real thrills that will satisfy the elementary school set. Ideal for ages 8 and up. SCARY.

Among the Dolls by William Sleator

among the dollsAll Vicky wants for her birthday is a brand new bike. But her antique loving parents have a different idea. They present Vicky with an old fashioned doll house on her birthday, complete with four creepy, mismatched dolls. Disappointed, Vicky resentfully puts the dollhouse in a dark corner her room, determined to ignore it. And then her parents start changing. Her mother falls down the stairs and becomes bitter and resentful, taking her anger and pain out on Vicky’s father and Vicky. Suddenly, the dollhouse becomes an attractive way for Vicky to act out the troubling scenes at home.  Hours pass as Vicky manipulates the dolls into treating each other badly. One day she wakes to find herself inside the dollhouse, where the dolls, angry about the way she has treated them, are only too happy to return the favor, so to speak. A very short, elegant and yes, supremely creepy story perfect for the newly confident chapter book reader. Ideal for ages 8 and up. SCARY

The Headless Haunt and other African American Ghost Stories collected and retold by James Haskins. Illustrated by Ben Otero.

headlesshauntAccording to author James Haskins, African American beliefs about ghosts and spirits are culled from a combination of African and European folklore. First hand accounts of one on one encounters with ghosts mingle with classic ghost stories in this fun, spooky read. My favorite part of this book, however, are the “tips for how to acquire the ability to see ghosts,” (punch a hole in your earlobe and create a “ghost hole;” look into the mirror with another person) and what precautions to take when someone dies (cover all the mirrors in the house, or you might see their spirit).  Ideal for ages 8 and up. SCARY.


The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

amulet 1Still mourning the tragic death of their father, siblings Emily and Navin move with their mother to a house that once belonged to their great grandfather. Not long after their arrival, a terrifying creature lures their mother through a door in the basement, where she disappears. Determined to save her, the kids follow and discover a world full of demons and scary monsters. Kibuishi’s gorgeous graphic novel was particularly disturbing and scary to read from my parental perspective because of the young characters’ palpable danger and vulnerability throughout the story. This is the first book in a very popular series of seven (and counting). Ideal for ages 9 and up. SCARIER


HooDoo by Ronald L. Smith

hoodooYoung Hoodoo comes from a long line of conjurers–men and women who practice hoodoo, or folk magic. As Smith describes it in his deliciously dark book, “They used foot powder that could go up through your foot and make you sick, a black hen’s egg for getting rid of evil spirits, nutmeg seeds for good luck at gambling, and all kinds of other things.” When a dangerous stranger shows up and starts asking about a young man named Hoodoo, Hoodoo must think fast and learn to conjure so he can defeat the stranger and run him out of town. This highly original story will spook both adults and children. Though Hoodoo is just a child, the darkness he faces is intensely scary and makes for a memorably atmospheric read. Ideal for ages 10 and up. SCARIER

Coraline by Neil Gaiman  

coralineCoraline lives with her busy, distracted parents in a big house with many doors, including one that leads to nowhere. Coraline’s mother has already unlocked it to show her that there are only bricks behind it. But one long, rainy, boredom-filled day, Coraline opens the door again to find it leads down a mysterious passage and into a house that is just like her own with a few eerie differences: her “other” mother and father are very attentive but have big black buttons for eyes. When Coraline makes it back to her own side of the house, she finds her parents are missing, trapped in the other world and it is up to her to save them. Creepy as all get out, Gaiman’s tone is pitch perfect, straddling the fine line between darkly humorous and totally terrifying. Dave McKean’s illustrations increase the fear. Ideal for 10 and up. SCARIER

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

night gardenerTeenager Molly and her younger brother Kip have fallen on hard times after they are forced to leave the family farm in Ireland due to famine. Separated from their parents and in search of work, they take the first job they can, which happens to be located on a remote estate, in the middle of a spooky forest. A classic Victorian ghost story with a crumbling mansion, an enchanted tree and a frightening spectre that comes out at night, this is a deeply satisfying and well written tale that kids and their grown ups will enjoy.  Ideal for ages 10 and up. SCARIER

Wait til Helen Comes by  Mary Downing Hahn

wait till helen comesMolly and her younger brother Michael can’t seem to get along with their stepsister Heather. Since their parents got married, Heather seems to do all she can to break up any moments of happiness the new family try to have together. In search of a new beginning, the family moves out to the country to live in a former church turned house. Right next door to the church is a cemetery that Molly feels uneasy about from the very beginning. When Heather starts having conversations with a ghost named Helen, things take a turn for the worse. A classic, thrilling ghost story complete with a deeply troubled and traumatized child (Heather), this book is responsible for many a childhood nightmare. Ideal for ages 9 and up. SCARIER

The Inn Between by Marina Cohen

the inn between.jpgQuinn is driving across the country with her best friend Kara and Kara’s family, when they decide to stop at a most unusual Victorian mansion/inn for the night. Exhausted from driving, the family is dazzled by the beauty of the hotel and it’s old fashioned decor. The lack of outside telephone lines and the perpetually smiling but odd employees add a level of creepiness that Quinn just can’t shake. When Kara’s parents and brother suddenly disappear without a trace, Kara and Quinn are left on their own in the increasingly strange hotel that they can’t seem to leave. Grown up readers will figure out what is going on almost right away in this well-paced story, while younger readers will have the pleasure of experiencing a popular horror movie trope. Still, the eeriness coupled with heavy subject matter (child abduction, death) give the story some depth and a scariness that will linger long after the last page. Suggested for ages 10 and up. SCARIER.

The Streaming Staircase (Lockwood and Co. series)  by Jonathan Stroud

screaming staircaseIn this fictional version of London, the city is still reeling from the “Problem,” a sinister situation in which all manner of ghosts, many of them unfriendly, are appearing throughout the city. Only young people with certain psychic abilities can see the ghosts. Anthony Lockwood and his two associates Lucy and George Cubbins work as a team to defeat deadly, hostile ghosts and keep their business afloat.  Lots of fun and full of truly spine tingling moments, all of the books in this series are a chilling pleasure to read.  Ideal for ages 12 and up. SCARIEST


Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

scary storiesNo list of terrifying books for children would be complete without Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Stephen Gammell’s  illustrations alone are enough to give me nightmares. Told in brief, one to four page vignettes, the stories in this collection (and the many sequels) are “collected from folklore” and range from tales of hauntings and ghosts to wild beasts and demons. There is a new edition available featuring different artwork, but I strongly encourage you to seek out the original editions with Gammell’s black and white drawings. They really elevate this collection to the next level of scary.  Ideal for Ages 10 and up. SCARIEST (Because of the pictures!)

Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac

skeleton manDrawing from her family’s Mohawk heritage, sixth grader Molly relates one of her father’s favorite stories about a man who gets so hungry one evening that he eats himself and then every member of his family except one smart young girl. Soon after relating his truly horrifying story, Molly tells us that her own parents have gone missing and we learn about a strange, skeleton-like man who has suddenly shown up claiming to be her only remaining family. GULP. This tale was almost too creepy for me, a grown ass woman! Ideal for ages 12 and up. SCARIEST


The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch  by Joseph Delaney

last apprenticeTwelve year old Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son and, with no inheritance of his own, leaves home to become the apprentice of the town spook, a tall, hooded, mysterious man whose job is to chase evil spirits, ghosts and witches out of local farms and villages. Already in tune with those beyond the grave (he can hear the ghosts of hanged men on a hill in his town), Thomas’s adventures are genuinely terrifying, and author Delaney pulls no punches in his descriptions of the monstrous creatures Thomas encounters, particularly the slimy, cannibalistic witch he must face in this first book in a series of 13. Ideal for ages 10 and up. SCARIEST



Posted in Author Wellness Plan, Book Lists

10-minute Author Wellness Plan: Gabrielle Zevin

Young Jane Young*This is a new feature I’m trying out for the blog: instead of 5-minute book prescriptions, I will occasionally suggest an author, who has written multiple great books and of whom I suggest embarking on a study. 

A few weeks ago, as the official end of summer approached, I quickly inhaled Gabrielle Zevin’s new book Young Jane Young, which tells the story of college student Aviva Grossman, who takes an internship with a charismatic Florida congressman named Aaron Levin. As a result of the complicated web of desire, flattery and normal young adult impulses, Aviva embarks on a months long relationship with the much older man. Since the story takes place around 2001, blogs are just starting to become a thing and Aviva decides to write about her experiences on what she thinks is a completely anonymous website. But when a car accident reveals the congressman and intern together in a car, people start digging and the truth comes out, along with the sordid details Aviva wrote about on her blog. The senator, as one might expect, emerges somewhat unscathed over the years, continuing his career. Aviva, on the other hand, becomes a punch line, a joke. Unable to get a job, notorious nearly everywhere she goes in South Florida, Aviva falls into a deep funk, floundering the days away at her parent’s house, immobilized by shame, fear, misery and anger.  Eventually she decides to make a change–literally. She legally changes her name to Jane Young, borrows money from her kind grandma and moves all the way North, to a small town in  Maine called Allison Springs. Oh and did I mention that she is pregnant?

storied life of aj fikry

It was charming and funny and quirky– not unlike another novel of hers that I read and loved last year: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  In that funny, sad, hopeful tale, we meet a widowed bookstore owner who finds a baby on his doorstep one morning and decides to become her caretaker.

As I finished up Young Jane Young, I found myself pondering Zevin and her unique literary voice. In addition to featuring cranky but lovable characters, Zevin often deploys some kind of interesting plot detail or point of view choice, that feels… well, weird! In Young Jane Young, the philandering congressman’s wife, who has recently been through cancer, has an invisible pet parrot that is always with her, squawking the truth whether she wants to hear it or not. elsewhereIn Elsewhere, an utterly delightful and moving story that features more than a little weirdness, the book begins with the narrative perspective of the deceased teenage girl’s dog. Shortly after, the girl herself, 15-year old Liz, wakes up on a boat and learns that she has died after being hit by a taxi, and is on her way to the afterlife, where she will age backwards before being sent back to earth again as a baby. Although this ambitious plot is not without holes, I found it to be an incredibly moving and comforting way to think about life after death. Give this to someone who has recently lost a person near and dear to them.

Sorry, I digressed a bit about Elsewhere. Back to the weirdness I was talking about before. It almost seems as if Zevin sometimes starts to write one kind of book and ends up writing another. And yet– it always works! Despite, or maybe because of her quirkiness, Gabrielle Zevin has recently become one of my favorite working novelists. She is an author you can give to almost anyone: your aging parents, your 1- year old niece, your 30-year old coworker. Zevin’s stories are wonderfully universal, exhibiting a lovely understanding and forgiveness of human nature. Her stories will absolutely stick with you long after you finish reading them and will encourage you to think about life and death in ways you maybe haven’t before.

Last night as I wondered one of my favorite bookstores, I looked for extra copies of each of the three books of hers I have read so far, so that I could stockpile them to give as gifts. If there’s a better endorsement for an author, I don’t know what it is. I recommend starting with The Storied Life, as I did, followed by Young Jane Young, and, finally Elsewhere. Happy Reading!












Posted in Book Lists

#Read a Book Day, or How I spent my Summer Vacation

Well, it’s officially curtains for summer and my reading sabbatical. I find it necessary to take periodic breaks from blogging to spend all of my free time reading as many books as I possibly can.  And since today is #Read a Book Day, I thought I would come back and start dishing on all the fabulous things I read and listened to this summer.

But first, a quick word about my reading choices and selection. Like most book lovers, I use reading as my main form of “self care.” I am not religious and I consider myself equal parts introvert and extrovert, so when I feel overwhelmed with anxiety and the news and our Dumpster Fire President, I turn to books. This summer I moved back and forth between comfort reads, middle grade fiction, juicy thrillers and YA. I try to balance the dark with the light when I read, to preserve my sanity.  I read a lot of books this summer, from the super intense to the light and fluffy. I will share many of them in brief reviews over the next month or so, but for now, here are the three adult titles that stood out the most for me.

  1. little Fires EverywhereLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I read this on vacation in a less than stellar hotel room, in which I was kept awake all hours by the stomping feet of the people in the room above, who were partying hard. I’m so grateful I had this book to keep me company. I’m sure you have heard or read about her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, about a dysfunctional family living in the suburbs of Ohio who grapple with the loss of their daughter. It is spectacular and sad and gorgeously written. Ng’s newest, Little Fires Everywhere, is, I would posit, even better than her debut. She has that rare, writerly gift in which she can masterfully control both plot and characterization. She gets people and the intricacies of their emotional lives and manages to balance a fast moving plot at the same time.  Celeste Ng is going to be with us a long time, and I am so looking forward to gobbling up every little thing she writes.  Prescription: An ideal read if you’re in the mood to lose yourself in some other family’s issues, while marveling at the gorgeous prose and storytelling prowess of a great writer. 
  2. The NixThe Nix by Nathan Hill. I also read this book on vacation, and was delightfully surprised at how fast I blew through it.  At 640 pages, this book is dauntingly long and I avoided it for almost a year, thinking I would rather get through my pile of shorter books rather then spend so much time on one big book. What a fool I was! To  borrow an expression from Rebecca Schinksy on the All the Books podcast, The Nix reads like a house on fire. Hill’s humor and tone draw you in to a story that covers a broad range of time and place and people, seamlessly blending pop culture, the 1960s protest movements, suburban America in the 1980s and the 1960s, as well as the modern absurdity of our social media culture. It is a bit too complicated to provide a succinct summary, as it covers and tells so much. At its heart, The Nix is a story about a mother and son that follows the meandering paths of their lives together and apart. Rumor has it that Meryl Streep and JJ Abrams are working together to bring this to HBO. How amazing is that?  Prescription: Ideal for fans of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and Phillip Roth who enjoy a sweeping, acerbic and painfully honest look at the culture. 
  3. Rules do not applyRules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy. I had heard some buzz about this book before finally picking it up on a whim one day at the library. Years ago, I read Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs, about the self-objectification of many women in the face of the widespread popularity of porn culture. I found it fascinating and honest and it really helped me understand something I had observed for a long time without being able to explain well. So I was curious to read this memoir of hers that was drawing equal parts praise and criticism.  In short: I liked it a lot. Levy writes so well and so intimately. The reader is immediately invited into her life, which she explores with a clarity and thoughtfulness that I found refreshing. Yes, she is a privileged white woman, and she doesn’t go to great lengths to acknowledge that. She has some interpretations of feminism and the role and impact it played in her life that rub some people the wrong way, but I didn’t see that as an issue. I do understand where people were coming from with their criticism of her tone–I have a similar issue with Lena Dunham, who I just can’t warm up to. Her book annoyed me. Her show annoys me. But I still respect her right to be who she wants to be. Anyway, I digress. Ariel Levy tells the story of her life, including her marriage to the woman of her dreams and their journey to have a child together. She describes her affair with a transgendered man with whom she had formerly dated when he was a woman, and her almost pathological sexual attraction to him. Without giving away too much, I will just say that things happen, tragedies occur, and Levy writes about it in an honest, contemplative voice that made me think about my own life and choices and what could have happened if I had changed one little thing such as taking a different job or getting into a different college. Whether or not you agree with Levy and the interpretation of her own life, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t a great memoir–one that will make you look back at your own life with wonder, awe and a little bit of sadness.


What about you ? What were your favorite books of the summer?

In my next post, I’ll share my favorite middle grade and young adult reads from my summer sabbatical.  Cheers! And Happy #Read a Book Day!