One of Junior’s classmates told me excitedly that her afterschool group was going to see It. I didn’t think the school would be screening any Steven King movies and I told her so. Her mother rolled her eyes and said, “She wants to see It, no matter how much I remind her that she doesn’t like feeling scared.”
I know that when I pick up a Steven King book, he’s not only going to tell me a thumping good story but also leave me with some points to ponder afterward. He writes a believable female character (unlike, say, Michael Crichton) and also clearly remembers what it’s like to be a kid. But his books set in childhood are written from the viewpoint of an older person looking back on past events—which renders them above an elementary schooler’s level. Spoiler for anyone whose kid actually is reading It right now: it contains an underage sex scene. The movie’s screenwriters wisely dropped it—plotwise, the sex scene is a head-scratcher of a detour after the first half of the book’s climactic sequence, and I don’t think it sets readers up for anything in the second half either.
Why let your children read horror at all? Paul Goat Allen argues for B&N Reads that for starters, it's exciting reading--that's important for beginning readers. They have to keep reading to find out what happens next! Ni'Kesia Pannell, writing for Romper.com, says "a chapter book that told me a mysterious story that always got my respect over any other type of novel." Readers can also learn some important life lessons. Is eating a stranger's candy on any day other than Halloween a good idea? No!
Here are some age-appropriate Halloween reads. The first three are right up there with Steven King in terms of middle-of-the-night-freakout horror—but without the X-rated content. Many of them also have film versions, but I can't comment because I haven't seen any of them
The House with a Clock in Its Walls, by John Bellairs
The cover and illustrations for the first few books in this series set me off on a lifelong obsession with Edward Gorey. Recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt moves to New Zebedee, Michigan, to live with his mysterious uncle Jonathan Barnavelt. Moving in with Jonathan lands Lewis in a nest of sorcerers: Jonathan is a warlock, his neighbor Florence Zimmerman is a witch, and Jonathan’s house’s former owners were a pair of dark wizards who had planned to bring about the end of the world. Somewhere in the walls of Jonathan’s house lurks a doomsday clock which ticks loudest in the dark of the night. Lewis tries to impress a new friend with his newly acquired witchcraft skills—but accidentally raises one of the house’s former inhabitants from the dead. Will he find the courage to stop her as she resumes her husband’s sinister project? Lewis’s adventures continue in the equally hair-raising sequels The Figure in the Shadows and The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring.
Good news (or bad news for those of us who have finally stopped listening for the clock)! The Hollywood Reporter says that Cate Blanchett and Jack Black have signed on for a film version with a fall 2018 release date.
Jane-Emily, by Patricia Clapp
The cover really says it all: Victorian Gothic house at night with a heroine in a white nightie. The only difference here is that the heroine, Jane, is nine. She’s come to spend the summer at her grandmother's mansion in Massachusetts. One day, Jane stares into a reflecting ball in the garden—and the face that looks back at her is not her own. What does Emily, the selfish child who haunts the mansion, want? Nothing good.
Coraline, by Neil Gaiman
Coraline moves into a new house with her parents, one with a mysterious locked door which opens onto a brick wall. Coraline’s parents don’t seem bothered by this at all, but one day she opens the door to find another flat behind it, exactly like her family’s flat, but with a different set of parents who want to claim her for their own…
And now for something completely different
Chester the cat is the first character I ever recognized as neurotic. He’s quick to jump at shadows—but is he mistaken? Something is indeed very different about the bunny rabbit his family found at a midnight horror movie showing. His housemate Harold the friendly-but-not-very-bright-dog narrates. If you love classic horror and satire, this is a great read-aloud. The series continues with more parody of classic horror in Howliday Inn—have the animals been put in a kennel full of werewolves while their owners go on vacation???
Fungus the Bogeyman, by Raymond Briggs
Raymond Briggs, the author/illustrator of this British classic, is not well known in the U.S. Which is a pity for toilet-humor loving kids and a blessing for long-suffering parents. The graphic novel follows Fungus out of his bed full of slugs, on to his breakfast of Gripe Nits and throughout his work night of scaring surface dwellers. But what's it all for?
Ghosts, by Raina Telgemaier
I really love this one because it’s a beautifully done take on a tough subject: coming to terms with the presence of death in life. Catrina (Cat) and her family move to Bahia de la Luna because her little sister, Maya, has cystic fibrosis and will benefit from the cool, salty air that blows in from the sea. Bahia de la Luna differs from other towns for another reason: ghosts are everywhere. Maya can’t wait to meet a ghost. Cat fears death. But Day of the Dead is coming!
If your family has already read everything I’ve mentioned, here are some great lists for underage horror:
- The Monster Librarian's Scary Book List for Kids.
- Romper.com's list of 9 Horror Books That Are OK For Kids To Read
- Matt Molgaard's Horror Novel Reviews' Top 10 Children’s Horror Stories
Some authors to look out for: John Bellairs, Holly Black, Lois Duncan, Mary Downing Hahn, Zilpha Keatly Snyder, and R.L. Stine. Note that not everything they write is age-appropriate for elementary schoolers, and you’ll have to preview carefully.