More Tricks Than Treats: New Spooky Chapter Books & Graphic Novels

October 7, 2022 Comments Off on More Tricks Than Treats: New Spooky Chapter Books & Graphic Novels

Earlier this week, I told you about my favorite new picture books for spooky season. Today’s post highlights some terrific new additions to middle-grade horror for ages 8-14, a genre as thriving today as it was when we were kids (anyone else remember losing entire weekends to John Bellairs?). Scary stories are a hit with all kinds of readers, but they can be especially effective for a kid who doesn’t think they like reading. Not only are they action packed, but they feel a teensy bit illicit. Like the reader is getting away with something. Like, would my parents really be OK with my reading this if they knew what it was about? (Don’t worry, there is nothing inappropriate in the books I’m discussing today.)

Whether children are aware of it or not, the appeal of horror extends beyond the shock factor of the gruesome. Years ago, I wrote a post about my own children’s attraction to the macabre, from lawns at Halloween to stories with decapitated heads (come on, you know the one). Especially when it’s presented with humor, macabre imagery can be a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them. I offer proof of this with favorites like Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy, which we read aloud by candlelight across three Octobers, and my kids are still holding out for a read aloud that satisfies in quite the same way. (Thank goodness there’s an ongoing podcast.)

Gidwitz himself is a passionate endorser of the catharsis of reading horror—he has to be, since his books occasionally find themselves on banned lists—and my favorite of his speeches is “In Defense of Fairytales.” Want to really scare kids? Show them the news. Want to pique their imagination and spur the important work of the subconscious? Let them read the original Grimm tales.

The land of the fairy tale is not the external world. It is, rather, the internal one. The real Grimm fairy tale takes a child’s deepest desires and most complex fears, and it reifies them, physicalizes them, turns them into a narrative. The narrative does not belittle those fears, nor does it simplify them. But it does represent those complex fears and deep desires in a form that is digestible by the child’s mind. Sometimes I refer to this as turning tears into blood.

(It’s a fascinating piece. I highly recommend the entire thing.)

Are scary stories for every child? Of course not. Nothing ever is. (I’m still trying to convince my now fifteen year old to let me read him Jonathan Auxier’s incomparable The Night Gardener, but every time he reads the back cover he’s like, I definitely can’t handle that. And I’ll admit: I had to sleep with the lights on for two days after I finished it. (BUT THAT’S THE FUN!)

Still, don’t be afraid to introduce at least a touch of horror into your young reader’s life. The stories below run a full spectrum from fun to freaky, so depending on which direction your child leans, I bet you can find something to keep them reading, lights optional. (And if you need more, check out last year’s post with more spooky graphic novels!)

Lumberjackula (graphic novel)
by Mat Heagerty & Sam Owen
Ages 8-12

If your kiddo is squarely in the no-scary-no-how-but-I-still-like-quirky-Halloween-decorations camp, then run to get this one. Heck, my daughter, who normally goes straight for Raina Telgemeier vibes in her graphic novels, told me this is her favorite graphic novel of the year (well, after the third in the Witches of Brooklyn series). She’s not wrong, either. Lumberjackula is middle school angst done in an entirely fresh light.

The town of Hollow Tree has always been home to lumberjacks by day and vampires by night (well, until the invention of Sun Scream, which made it possible for vampires to walk around during the day). But now that Jack is eleven and a half and getting ready to graduate from Under School to Secondary School, he’s starting to question where he might belong. His lumberjack mom wants him to go to Mighty Log Lumberjack Prep to learn how to chop wood and wear flannel. His vampire dad would like to see him at Sorrow’s Gloom Vampire Academy, where he could learn to transform into a bat and drink blood-orange juice.

But as Jack explores both schools, neither seems like the right fit: “I’m not tough enough. I’m not scary enough.” If Jack is honest about what excites him, it’s music and dancing, albeit in the privacy of the forest. It turns out there’s a school for that—Tip Tap Twinkle Toes Academy—if he could just be brave enough to seize the spotlight and not worry about disappointing his parents. As one of his favorite bands, Charmageddon, sings, “Fear not a thing,/ for you are a king/ of your own land./ Do not wait/ to embrace your fate,/ come on, take a stand!”  

Bunnicula: The Graphic Novel
by James Howe & Andrew Donkin; illus. Stephen Gilpin
Ages 8-12

Raise your hand if you grew up on James and Deborah Howe’s Bunnicula. I used to laugh myself silly over the story of a pet bunny suspected of vampiric activities by an erudite dog and an “emotionally overwrought” cat with a penchant for crime literature and an active imagination. And it holds up! It’s our family’s favorite audio book ever—the only one we’ve listened to multiple times, because Victor Garber’s voices are perfection—and you can bet we bought the 40th anniversary edition with the fuzzy red cover when it came out a few years ago.

Well, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to improve on this classic, but this year’s graphic novel adaptation is BLOODY PERFECT! Stephen Gilpin’s art does a tremendous job of capturing the chills, thrills, and hilarious absurdity of this memorable story, perfect for Halloween and any time of the year.

Fun (albeit sad) fact: James Howe wrote the original story with his wife, during her fight against cancer and their shared love of late-night vampire movies. Which means Bunnicula was born, not just from a love of campy horror, but from deep affection—which, of course, is what Harold and Chester come to feel for their celery-sucking newcomer. This book has always been considered revolutionary: Holly Black and Dav Pilkey are just a few of the writers who credit this classic with their own brazenness with humor and horror for young audiences.

by J.A. White
Ages 8-12

What am I reading to my own kids this month? That would be Gravebooks, the sequel to Nightbooks, which was last year’s successful read aloud. It’s not necessary to have read the first book before diving into the second, though it will only enhance the experience. Both are the perfect blend of dark and humorous (remember, my oldest can’t do terrifying). And both star Alex, a boy who loves scary stories so much that he gets himself trapped in them.

In the first book, Alex sneaks out of his NYC apartment late one night, intent on burning the hair-raising stories he has felt compelled to write ever since he was a little kid—the ones standing in the way of him feeling “normal”—and is lured into a neighbor’s apartment by the sounds of Night of the Living Dead. As the door closes behind him, he is imprisoned in the magical apartment of a witch named Natacha, its only redeeming quality a massive spiraling library of scary stories. But Natacha has read all the books on her shelves, so Alex’s fate quickly becomes clear: his only chance for survival is to keep Natacha satisfied by reading her one of his own penned tales every night. Think of Alex as a modern-day Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights.

In the second book, with Natacha dead, Alex and Yasmin (his accomplice from the first book) are free to return to their regular NYC lives—only somehow the witch is still able to appear in their dreams, every single night. These nightmares take place in a graveyard, where each tombstone represents an idea Alex once had for a story—but never wrote. Alex must step inside these ideas, literally, and attempt to weave them into something befitting Natacha’s standards: original, exciting, and scary. Only, ever since escaping Natacha the first time, Alex has suffered from writer’s block, and only Yasmin understands why.

Like its predecessor, Gravebooks is filled with stories-within-the story, as we’re treated to each of Alex’s chilling tales. But unlike its predecessor, the focus is less on unraveling the mystery of Natacha’s magic and more about the underpinnings of the creative process, about where ideas come from and what takes a story from good to great. Taken together, both books are more than fractured fairy tales about witches preying on children; they’re an affirmation that storytelling is itself a kind of powerful magic.

The Stars Did Wander Darkling
by Colin Meloy
Ages 9-13

Where are my “Stranger Things” fans? The Stars Did Wander Darkling by Colin Meloy—lead singer of The Decemberists and bestselling author of the Wildwood Chronicles—has all the hallmarks of classic 80s horror: free-range parenting, kids on bikes, creepy sounds in the woods, sleepy towns where nothing ever happens UNTIL, and the only grown-up with a clue is the guy who owns the video rental shop. Combine that with atmospheric writing, unputdownable pacing, sharp dialogue, and four authentic young friends, and you’ve got a winner. Is it all kinds of creepy? Yup. Did I love it? YOU BET.

Archie Coomes—horror movie aficionado—is looking forward to summer break, especially its traditional kick off: a multi-night campout in the woods on the outskirts of his seaside Oregon town with his three best pals (no adults allowed, but all manner of scary stories welcome). But even before they get there, odd things begin happening in town. Pennies appear on doormats (then disappear), a man in a brown suit from a different era looms stalker-like outside Archie’s house at night, and his friend has a terrifying vision that seizes his body. Could all this be related to the ancient cave his dad’s construction company has just unearthed beneath a decrepit old mansion? By the time the first night of the campout rolls around and the kids hear the chop of an ax coming from somewhere nearby…well, that’s where I needed the lights on.

A perfect blend of cinematic suspense, macabre, the supernatural, and proof that sometimes kids have to take matters into their own hands when no one believes they’re living inside the plot of a horror flick! (P.S. I bet this would make a terrific read aloud, too.)

Signed copies (while supplies last) here!

by Kalyn Josephson
Ages 10-13

My daughter and I started Ravenfall last weekend, when it was nothing but rain and more rain, and once we started we couldn’t stop. An enchanted inn, Celtic lore, supernatural powers, a murder mystery, and a Jabberwocky in a black cat’s body combine in a spellbinding story set in the days leading up to Samhain, the Celtic word for Halloween. In other words, pretty much the epitome of fall coziness.

Thirteen-year-old Annabella Ballinkay comes from a long line of psychics, who use their abilities to run a sprawling, part-Gothic, part-modern inn at the crossroads of the human world and the Otherworld. Annabella’s powers, however, have always marked her as different: when she touches someone, she sees death, and no one wants to be reminded of the pain of their past. So, when a mysterious boy shows up at the inn, and she intuits that he has witnessed the murder of his parents by two supernatural strangers, she decides to join forces with him to track down the killers. Maybe, if she’s successful, her family will finally see her as worthy of more than sweeping and dusting.

I have a soft spot for stories about magical houses (the moving staircases at Hogwarts get me every time), and the fact that Ravenfall boasts a house with a mind of its own, alongside complex characters and beautiful writing, fulfilled all my read-aloud dreams.

Grounded for All Eternity
by Darcy Marks
Ages 8-12

Here’s something I don’t do often: sing the praises of a book I haven’t read myself. But my twelve year old devoured Grounded for All Eternity and hasn’t stopped raving about it. From her descriptions, I get the sense that it’s a kindred spirit to the Percy Jackson books, and that alone should be enough to pique the interest of many readers. (Plus, duh, my daughter has excellent taste. Usually.)

Mal and his pals are just your regular ol’ kids from hell. (Well, technically they live in hell’s suburbs.) They’re also not above raising a little hell from time to time, so when they see an opportunity to cross through the veil—specifically, into Salem, Massachusetts on Halloween night—they jump at it. Unintentionally, their actions enable the escape of a dangerous soul—one of history’s greatest manipulators—and he’s bent on the destruction of Earth.

Now the kids have a double challenge ahead of them: trap the evil escapee before irreparable damage is done and get back to hell before their parents notice they’re gone—and ground them for all eternity.

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Books published by Simon & Schuster, Simon & Schuster, Katherine Tegen Books, Balzer and Bray, Delacorte Press, and Aladdin, respectively. All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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