Parenting is—well, it’s fucking hard. You question every decision you make. No aspect of your life remains untouched. And you can’t seem to shake this tiny human relying on you to not only love them and feed them and keep them safe, but to educate them, teach them right from wrong, and expose them to art and culture. While it’s clearly our responsibility as breeders to raise our little darklings right, I believe it is our right as humans to enjoy the process. One of the best ways I’ve found to connect with and delight my little monster while finding genuine joy in the process is to consume stories together.
When I was young, my mother would only buy me Judy Blume or Sweet Valley High novels. Oh, the humanity! As a result, I was forced to sneak Stephen King novels out of my grandmother’s monthly donation box for the library. I then read them beneath the covers, by flashlight, like the TV told me all subversive literature was to be consumed by kids. It’s my hope that my own little monster won’t ever have to swipe and sneak his preferred genre. Instead, we will continue to read and share our love of the darker genres together.
In preparing these suggestions for you, I tried to stick with a few basic guidelines.
1. No scarring the kids! The goal is to spark their love of storytelling in the horror genre.
2. No scarring the adults! The goal is to enjoy these stories with your spawnlings.
3. No obvious answers! I kept my focus on lesser known titles, when I could.
4. No Halloween veneers over mainstream children’s lit standbys! I endeavored to single out titles that are wholly dark-themed, horror-lite, or horror.
Books for Creepy Cuddlebugs (age 0 – 3 years)
C is for Cthulhu is an adorably-illustrated alphabet board book inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and features 26 Lovecraftian beasties and other characters from the Cthulhu mythos. Though it began as a Kickstarter campaign that raised over 4 times the original fundraising goal, C is for Cthulhu is now a website offering a coloring book, Cthulhu plushies in various colors, a movie-style poster, and t-shirts.
Peculiar Perk: It not only introduces Creepy Cuddlebugs to the work of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, it gives those who read it an excellent opportunity to practice their R’lyehian pronunciation. Curious parents can download a free digital copy of the book.
Goodnight Goon is a parody of the insanely popular children’s board book, Goodnight Moon. Like its predecessor, Goodnight Goon walks us through a bedtime routine as we work down a list of goodnight wishes. In sharp contrast to the original version however, we bid goodnight to things like a tomb, a goon, and the black lagoon rather than a room, the moon, and a red balloon.
Peculiar Perk: The artwork is colorful, humorous, and detailed in a way that provides opportunities for tangential conversations to have with your Creepy Cuddlebug. For example, at the end of the book, we send the final monster to sleep beneath the bed— a perfect segue to discuss how we can each manage our own monsters and needn’t fear them.
Books for Eerie Explorers (age 4 – 7 years)
Bartholomew Buggins is a whimsical tale about a young zombie who prefers cookies and pie over the traditional zombie fare. Bartholomew is a kind and creative, tea-loving monster that has trouble fitting in with the louder kids. The story, which is written in rhyming couplets, is lyrical and quite playful and the illustrations are charming.
Peculiar Perk: At the book’s close, kids are encouraged to go back through the illustrations and look for hints about what Marcos’s next monster adventure might be. The author’s website also provides a free coloring page pdf done in the same style as the book.
Bats at the Library is part of a popular series of Bat books by Brian Lies and it chronicles all the fun to be had at the library. The story, which really seems like a love letter to reading, libraries, and children’s literature, is about a group of joyful, book-loving bats who get into the local public library when a window is left ajar. The beautiful illustrations show us what it looks like when these bats imagine themselves inside some of their favorite children’s stories.
Peculiar Perk: As part of the book’s promotion, 3 handmade book bat plushies traveled separately to as many libraries as they could during 2008 and 2009. Each bat—Green Bat, Red Bat, and Blue Bat — has its own journal with pictures chronicling their travels that can be read on the author’s website.
Books for Ghoulish Growers (age 8 – 10 years)
In “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs (1902), the owner of a strange talisman gets more than he bargains for when he makes three wishes.
Peculiar Perk: This one is a creepy classic. References to it—in particular the trope of “be careful what you wish for”—abound in horror. One example is “Wish You Were Here,” a memorable segment from the 1972 British horror film, Tales from the Crypt, which is based on a EC Comics’ The Haunt of Fear #22(1953), which is itself a retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw.” And because it is a short story, it can be devoured in one delicious sitting. A must for a chilly autumn evening!
Nightmare Mountain is about a 12-year-old SoCal girl named Molly who visits family on a llama ranch in Washington. Things start going wrong almost as soon as she arrives and she ends up alone with a cousin who doesn’t seem to like her. When they discover a stranger hiding in the barn, he drags them up a nearby mountain, triggers an avalanche with a gunshot, and leaves them there.
Peculiar Perk: When Peg Kehret was 12, she was paralyzed with Polio. She recovered, but remembered that time of her life so clearly, she found it only natural to write from the viewpoint of a 12 or 13-year-old. Kehret published fifty-one books for younger readers.
Books for Dark Discoverers (age 11 – 13 years)
The House with a Clock in its Walls is set in 1950s Marshall, Michigan and tells the tale of an orphaned, overweight, socially awkward boy named Lewis Barnavelt. After his parents die, he is sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan in a ramshackle mansion that just happens to have a ticking doomsday clock somewhere in its walls. The story is chilling and humorous, creepy and heartfelt.
Peculiar Perk: This book is the first in a series of twelve books by John Bellairs or his successor, Brad Strickland. And the edition above is illustrated by Edward Gorey!
The Thief of Always is about 10-year-old Harvey Swick and Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, a place of miracles and seasonal treats where every day begins with spring, every afternoon with summer, and Christmas comes every evening. It’s a place where all childhood wishes can be fulfilled, for a price. But when Harvey witnesses the darker side of the House and discovers the poor creatures living in its shadows, he starts to question Mr. Hood’s motivations. Part fable, part horror, part mystery, this is a great way to expand your Ghoulish Grower’s reading interests.
Peculiar Perk: Clive Barker!
Books for Teen Terrors (14+ years)
Ten centers around best friends, Meg and Minnie, who are away from home for a house party on Henry Island and what’s supposed to be the best weekend of their lives. Boys, booze, fun, a mysterious DVD, a sinister message, a storm that cuts them off from the world, and wouldn’t you know it, a killer that starts picking the teens off one by one in escalating displays of violence.
Peculiar Perk: Ten was inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and it features a female protagonist.
The Darkest Part of the Forest is a paranormal standalone about Hazel and her brother, Ben and their hometown of Fairfold. This is a place where people live alongside the Faerie Folk and tourists come to take selfies with a handsome fae boy who has pointed ears, curved horns, and sleeps inside an unbreakable glass casket. Hazel strikes a deal with the Fae King that costs her seven years of her life, which the King collects every night while Hazel sleeps. When she wakes, she has no recollection of what she did the night before. One day, the boy in the casket unexpectedly wakes and it changes everything.
Peculiar Perk: Features a female knight protagonist and two gay male characters in love with each other, one of whom is Hazel’s brother, Ben.
As part of my research for this article, I conducted a survey to collect title suggestions. When selecting the titles I focused on the lesser-known books, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Neil Gaiman’s books for younger readers (Coraline, Odd and the Frost Giants, The Graveyard Book, etc.) were suggested the most, followed by the Goosebumps series.
Think back your own childhood. Go on, I’ll wait. What are some of the books that took up root and grew into your soul? I’m going to guess that educational books, thinly-veiled morality sermons, and stories that didn’t spark something wonderful inside you didn’t make the cut. In fact, I’ll further guess that your list is mostly populated by books that held up a mirror in which you got to peer into your own black heart and see something beautiful reflected back at you. Enjoy those books with your children. Enjoy helping them find new ones. Stop making parenting so fucking hard.