One regular customer has been stopping in to buy books for his grandson for about three years now. It’s been so nice for me to be able to watch how this child’s tastes and preferences for books has changed over the years. While Eric Carle’s 10 Little Rubber Ducks used to to be his absolute favorite book, on his most recent visit to the store, the now 3-year-old had a new, very specific request: “I want a scary book.”
Now selling scary picture books can sometimes be tricky territory. Every child reacts to a story differently, of course, but I notice that the kids more so than the parents gravitate to the scary books. These are the books with monsters and suspense, unexpected surprises, and dramatic tension with every page turn, oh, and monsters. Did I mention the monsters? But the two words we hear all too much from the parents? “Too scary.” As the bookseller, I’d feel terrible if a suggestion of mine triggered a nightmare, but also know that some fear is a good thing. I’d bet we’ve all felt that special thrill that comes from being scared and felt that wonderful sense of relief when you find out everything is going to be all right. Adult and children both tend to seek out pleasant sensations of fear, from games of peek-a-boo and Hide and Go Shriek (my 6-year-old nephew’s shock-inducing reinvention of Hide and Go Seek) to riding rollercoasters and watching scary movies. So how to find a picture book that delivers the fear and the thrills without the nightmares and tears? As it nears Halloween and I get more and more requests for scary books that aren’t too scary, I’ve put together a quick list of some of my favorites to share.
There are lots of picture books out there that deal with friendly monsters and even more that deal with being afraid to go to bed at night. One of my favorites (and actually the final choice of our 3-year-old scare-seeking customer) is There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer. The little boy is at first too scared to go to bed because he thinks there’s a monster in his closet, but when he makes up his mind to get rid of the monster, ends up actually making friends with him instead. Mayer masterfully drags the suspense of the monster creeping out of the closet in the dark shadows of the room, but balances the tension with incredibly humorous illustrations and a delightful role reversal in the story’s twist ending.
Another two of my favorite recommendations that are especially a big hit in October are versions of the traditional Halloween poem that starts, “In a dark, dark wood…” and usually ends with a ghost or spooky creature jumping out at you. There are many different versions of this poem available, but Ruth Brown’s A Dark Dark Tale is delightful and child-friendly one. The illustrations are dark and spooky and the book’s verse builds and builds onto itself as you’re taken further along through the woods and into a house. Just when a child can’t bear the suspense any longer, expecting the worst – goblins, ghosts, maybe a witch? – to jump out of the dark, you discover a teeny-tiny mouse and so the built-up fear is replaced with laughter and delight.
A Beasty Story by Bill Martin Jr. and Steven Kellogg uses similar verse, but lighter and more colorful illustrations to break the tension. There are even four little mouse characters to keep you company through the dark, dark house with their own funny rhyming commentary and a sub-story that even teaches colors. Like Brown’s book, this version also has a delightful surprise ending that provides humorous relief.
Richard Michelson’s Oh No, Not Ghosts! has a similar building technique to its story. Two siblings are trying not to wake their dad as they lie awake at night, but the big brother gets more and more carried away terrifying his sister (as big brothers tend to do) with stories of ghosts and werewolves and vampires. The rhyming text and delightful sound effects make this a great read-aloud, and while the original was illustrated by Leonard Baskin’s delightfully creepy art, this reissue illustrated by Adam McCauley provides a good balance to the spooky text. Instead of illustrating real vampires and demons, the reader clearly sees the children’s imagination at play, providing a reassuring, while still spooky, experience.
These last two picture books are perfect for Halloween. David Costello’s Here They Come is filled with spooky magical creatures like werewolves and hobgoblins meeting together for a party. The smiling creatures are actually more funny than scary in the illustrations, offering the perfect balance of the unfamiliar and the safe. The twist comes when their party is interrupted by creatures even scarier than them – human children dressed in their Halloween costumes! “That was a fun scare,” the creatures say after the kids leave. I couldn’t agree more!
Annie Was Warned by Jarrett J. Krosoczka touches on the tricks our mind can play on us on a dark and spooky night. Annie was told not to go to the creepy old mansion, but she sneaks out anyway. Along the way shadows and sounds just may be scary spiders, bats or ghosts, but each time have a more practical explanation. I not only love Annie’s boldness as a character, but also that each turn of the page heightens the suspenseful tension. A fold-out final page reveals a fun surprise ending.
You parents and teachers know your audience best and what their limitations are, but I bet you’ll find that these picture books to be just the right amount of scary for your 3 to 6 year olds. And like riding a rollercoaster, once you read it once, they just might want to hear it again and again.
If you interested in purchasing any of the above titles, you can find them all on our store website here. Enter HALLOWEEN in the coupon code at checkout and we’ll give our blog readers and fans 15% off any of the books featured in this post. The offer expires Friday, October 15th.
I’m sure you must have some favorite scary, but not-too-scary, books to read aloud. Share them with us below!