Amazon’s editors released their picks for “100 Children’s Books to Read in a Lifetime” this week. While no one’s knocking Babar or Harry Potter, the list felt like it was missing some of our favorite strain of children’s lit: the creepy kind. Although a few notable exceptions — Coraline, Where the Wild Things Are — certainly raise the hair on young readers’ necks, we were nonetheless inspired to put together our favorite children’s lit that’s more macabre than Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
The Graveyard Book
As Neil Gaiman’s best-known work, The Sandman proved the author has an imagination that can get twisted and then some. Coraline and The Graveyard Book, then, take that signature blend of fantasy and nightmare and translate it into children’s lit, which proves to be a natural fit. The Graveyard Book follows Nobody “Bod” Owens, whose parents are brutally murdered by a member of a society called the “Jacks of All Trades” when he’s an infant. Bod grows up in a graveyard instead, raised by its ghosts and given the ability to pass through physical objects like a ghost. Despite its violent beginnings, the book plays out as a touching coming-of-age story.
All of Roald Dahl’s humor veers towards the black; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s appeal comes as much from our schadenfreude at the other brats’ fitting punishments as from pure-hearted Charlie’s eventual victory. But few of Dahl’s works are as delightfully, consistently spiteful as The Twits, a vastly underrated story of the world’s worst people in the world’s worst marriage. Animal abuse and shrinking diseases play a prominent role.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Dozens and dozens of violent, creepy, and otherwise terrifying urban legends from across America, including the fictionalized backstory to “Oh, Susannah!” you never knew you needed.
In the Night Kitchen
Sendak’s best-known work is actually the middle installment of a trilogy meant to represent the emotional development of a child. With that bit of trivia out of the way, let’s focus on In the Night Kitchen, the “predecessor” to Where the Wild Things Are (though it was published seven years later). It’s the story of a toddler named Mickey’s dream journey through a bakery, complete with the bread-plane pictured on the cover. There’s also nudity involved, and a narrow escape from being baked alive.
The seminal, prolific kiddie horror series from R.L. Stine is ubiquitous enough that its omission from the Amazon list comes as something of a surprise. Think of it as the gleefully gory, novelized version of a Roger Corman B movie; Galaxy of Terror isn’t far off from Toy Terror: Batteries Included.
A Monster Calls
A 13-year-old boy grows to gradually accept his mother’s terminal illness via late-night conversations with a monster made out of branches and leaves. Written based on an idea from a cancer patient, A Monster Calls is the sort of fantasy book that derives its power from being deeply realistic.
A kid’s mother, father, and sister are brutally — like, hanging upside down and headless from the ceiling, dripping blood onto the ground brutally — murdered by a demon at the beginning of Lord Loss. His total jerk of an uncle celebrates coming out of a coma by tricking the kid into thinking he’s a werewolf at the end. Lighthearted family bonding all around!
Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories
Disney fodder his stories may be, but HCA had a dark side. The original Little Mermaid has to choose between murdering her true love (surprise! they don’t end up together) and suicide; she opts for the latter. The protagonist of “The Red Shoes” is forced to cut off her feet, in part as divine punishment for being impious. And so on.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
Cambridge scholar M.R. James spent his spare time writing ghost stories, published in four volumes at the turn of the century. His first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, is a fine example of the campfire story that survives among Boy Scout troops to this day. Bonus: many of the individual tales are available for free via Wikisource.
The Witches of Worm
A blind stray cat is possessed by a malevolent group of witches, who in turn use “Worm” to manipulate his owner, Jessica. The question of whether Worm is really manipulating lonely, unhappy Jessica into acting out against her friends and family or whether there’s actually something paranormal afoot is sort of an open question. Either way, it’s a bleak portrait of a childhood.