There’s a certain kind of kid: the one who holds funerals for their dolls, the one who’s a little too familiar with the monster under their bed. These are also the kids seeking out eerie middle grade books to read. I love these kids because I was one of them. I was in 4th grade when my mom bought me a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories at the grocery store, of all places. That book that became my gateway to horror literature.
Today’s young readers can do so much better than acquainting themselves with the old school. After all, I couldn’t exactly relate to Montresor bricking his frenemy into a wall when I was 10 years old. The characters in these books face commonplace contemporary issues, perfect for youngsters learning to navigate this scary world. They explore themes like friendship, grief, and justice, all the while providing the thrills and chills morbid kids crave.
Bloom by Kenneth Oppel
I saw a community theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors at a very impressionable age. I wish to time travel back to that point and hand myself Bloom. Kids who love survival tales like Hatchet mixed with sci-fi horror will love this story of an alien invasion of seeds that grow into human-eating Venus flytrap–like pods. Three kids on a remote Canadian island discover they might be immune to the vicious alien plants. Thus, the fate of the world rests on their shoulders. If you wished Annihilation came in a kid-friendly flavor, check this one out!
Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones
For the readers who like a hefty dose of silliness in their creepy reads, Sauerkraut is a great pick. It’s the story of HD Schenk, a young maker who meets the ghost of his great-great-grandmother haunting an old pickling crock. HD is torn over whether to enter one of his creations in the county fair or to honor his ghostly grandmother’s unfinished sauerkraut business. I’m listing this one among spooky middle grade novels because there is a ghost in it. Nonetheless, it’s perfect for a reader who wants to explore the idea of ghosts without a lot of scares.
The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown
The feeling of being left out is so common to kids, whenever they get passed over by siblings, classmates, or teammates. The Forgotten Girl takes this premise to a very creepy place when Iris, who already feels like an outcast, discovers the abandoned grave of a young girl. Iris is determined to shed light on the ugly history that resulted in this forgotten cemetery. It’s a genuinely scary story that shows us that ghosts aren’t always the bad guys; sometimes they are seeking justice. This is a great read-alike for a classic of middle grade horror, Wait Till Helen Comes.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
Readers who love following a brave character overcoming frightening odds will enjoy this novel, a fresh take on the Haitian folktale “The Magic Orange Tree.” Corinne La Mer discovers a plot by the town witch to claim their island for the jumbies, trickster spirits Corinne had thought were made up. Corinne is not afraid of anything, however, and that includes jumbies. This book kicks off an adventurous and scary series in which the gutsy Corinne learns ancient magic and takes on mythical evils to save her Caribbean home.
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
Middle grade novels can tackle spooky topics that are too scary for many adults, like possession. In Spirit Hunters, Harper Raine moves into a house believed to be haunted. Then she begins noticing strange behaviors in her younger brother. This book mixes genuine frights with heartwarming moments. The Korean American characters approach the situation from a cultural lens that will be familiar to some readers and new to readers who are only familiar with exorcism rituals rooted in Catholicism.
Thornhill by Pam Smy
This book has a narrative split across timelines, and across writing modes. The story of a spooky old mansion that used to be an orphanage, Thornhill follows Mary’s and Ella’s stories. Mary’s story from the not-so-distant past of the 1980s comes to us in diary entries. Ella’s is told in bold, dark illustrations. As Ella sees Mary’s ghost and tries to solve the mystery of what transpired at the mysterious institute, readers can also look for details in the artwork. This spooky novel touches on themes of bullying.
Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
Here’s a middle grade book perfect for those who will grow up to enjoy folk horror. Another genuinely scary book, this one features 11-year-old Ollie coming into possession of a book detailing a very grim story. A school field trip to a farm with a haunted backstory makes her believe that the story of a sinister specter called “the smiling man” might be true. Moreover, she and her classmates might be in real peril. If you know a kid who loves to be scared by inanimate objects, this one makes hay (see what I did there?) with creepy scarecrows. They are literally made to be scary, after all.
Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon
Have you ever found hide-and-seek to be a fundamentally creepy game? I always did—the quiet, the solitude, the anxiety when the seeker was getting close. Justin plays the game at the party celebrating the return of Zee, a friend who had been missing for a year. Other hide-and-seek players begin to disappear, and Justin and his friends discover what is going wrong and why Zee seems so different upon his return. This novel both amps up the inherent creepiness in the game, and makes commentary on the disparity in how missing persons cases are treated when those who go missing were living on the margins to begin with.
The Circus of Stolen Dreams by Lorelei Savaryn
What I find far spookier than monsters or ghosts are the subtler kinds of supernatural forces. Ones that lull unsuspecting people to sacrifice bits of their humanity gradually until they lose themselves. Those are the stakes of The Circus of Stolen Dreams. Andrea discovers a dream world called Reverie in the woods behind her home. It’s the perfect place to escape the pain of her real life, the one in which her younger brother has gone missing. She will pay the price of losing a memory to gain access to Reverie. Savvy readers will know it’s a trap, but Andrea has to find the strength to escape Reverie herself.