“And here are the dead man’s eyeballs!” announced the storyteller. Next to me, an equally spooked friend leaned over and offered me a box just big enough to fit my hand. Inside, I felt what I truly thought to be a pair of dead man’s eyeballs. Despite my ever-growing fear, I couldn’t wait to receive the next box that would contain the dead man’s brains, liver, heart, hair, and a series of other wet, slippery body parts. I would come to find that these were, clearly, not body parts, but rather peeled grapes, cold spaghetti, canned tomatoes,
cooked chicken, and damp yarn. This sensory story experience stuck with me through the years; when I had an opportunity to try it out myself as a librarian, I experienced an even greater thrill in telling the story and witnessing the children’s reactions.
From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of scary stories. I started with Alvin Schwartz’s famous Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a collection of short, spooky tales brilliantly (and terrifyingly!) illustrated by Stephen Gammell. These stories allow your imagination to fill in the details that the simple stories leave out; the black-and-white drawings are hauntingand provide just the right amount of scary.
In addition to Alvin Schwartz’s series, here are a few of my other favorite scary reads for children. Remember, everyone has a different tolerance for what is scary, so preview the following books before handing them off to children.
Robert D. San Souci has a series of great books called Dare to Be Scared. While Alvin Schwartz’s books tend to tell a lot of urban legends and tried-and-true stories, San Souci explores new territory with his short stories, many of which have a more modern feel and approach. These books are best for older elementary children and middle schoolers.
Part of what is most appealing to me about scary stories is that they have a long history; every culture has its own set of traditional spooky folktales. Jim Haskins shares some great stories from the African-American tradition in Moaning Bones: African-American Ghost Stories. Check out the Maryland-based story, "The Ghost in the Backseat." These tales average only 2-3 pages in length, and are perfect to share when time is short. They are also great for elementary school children.
For something a little different, I recommend Are You Afraid Yet?: The Science Behind Scary Stuff by Stephen James O’Meara. This small book contains lots of information on what many people consider to be fictional subjects like Bigfoot, monsters, and ghosts. The illustrations are done in comic book style, and there’s a lot to learn about the "reality" behind some of our most feared creatures. This title is a bit more complicated, so it is best enjoyed by 4th-5th grade and up.
There’s a lot more out there beyond just these few books, so make sure to stop by your local branch and ask your children’s librarian for more suggestions. It’s fun to create your own scary stories, so let those imaginations go!
In the meantime, feel free to share your favorite scary stories or books. Are there any that have stuck with you or your children over the years?