While doing an author visit recently, sharing my middle grade book Her Own Two Feet with middle school and elementary kids (coauthored with Rebeka Uwitonze), I asked the kids what kind of books they liked, and a lot of them said, “scary.” This was confirmed by the librarians, and the size of the “scary books” section on the library shelves. As a storyteller, reading “scary” stories to kids always got such a delicious edge-of-the-seat reaction. They couldn’t wait to see what happened on the next page! I’ve picked a few picture book titles to get little hearts pumping, but don’t worry, only for a page or two.
The title and cover say it all, this is a not-so-scary scary book for young kids. It opens with such a great line, “You may not know this, but when a bubble pops, it doesn’t just disappear. It reappears in La La Land . . . where the monsters live.” This book may not scare readers, unless they’re afraid of adorable monsters, but it certainly captures the feeling of being scared. The monsters in this book are afraid of bubbles. Kids get to participate with the narrator in trying to talk Yerbert, Froofle, Wumpus and Mogo (those names!) down from their hysterics and reason with them. It’s brilliant, pairing something kids really might be afraid of (monsters) with something so harmless (bubbles) and then giving them the language to reassure that things aren’t so bad. It’s interactive. It’s adorable. I love it.
The suspense starts on the title page, when we see the cover of a manhole removed, and the dedication spread, where we see a man running down a sidewalk. Turn the page, still no words, but we see a front desk man reading the paper and the tip of a tail going up the stairs. Turn the page and read, “When the alligator came creeping . . . creeping . . . creeping up the stairs . . . were the children scared? I LOVE waiting for the next page turn, two children and their mother looking at an alligator’s shadow on the wall. Finally, turn the page to read, “YOU BET THEY WERE!”
It’s so great that in this story it’s okay to be scared. Some things, like alligators in your apartment, are scary! The alligator is described slowly, it’s long teeth and wide jaws, and the two kids and mother run and hide, but eventually, they’ve had enough. “They plucked up their courage and gave a great shout: ‘Alligator, you get out!’ And was the alligator scared? YOU BET IT WAS!” So, so satisfying to see their journey from scared to brave, and to see that alligator slither back into it’s manhole. With short text it’s a great book for young kids, with a message that would encourage anyone encountering something scary.
Miss Nelson is Missing! by James Marshall
This is an oldie but a goodie about a class full of misbehaving kids, their sweet teacher Miss Nelson who doesn’t show up at school one day, and a mysterious substitute teacher named Miss Viola Swamp. Miss Swamp wears a black dress and striped stockings and has sharp black nails. In fact, she looks an awful lot like a witch as she raps on a desk with a ruler and tells the kids to get out their arithmetic books, then loads them down with homework. There’s no story hour and the kids must sit perfectly still with their mouths shut or, “you’ll be sorry,” says Miss Swamp.
The class misses sweet Miss Nelson and decide to try and find her. A detective is no help, and when they go to her house they narrowly escape being seen by Miss Swamp as she comes round the corner with a grocery bag. The kids become resigned to the fact that Miss Swamp may be their teacher forever, but then one morning, Miss Nelson is back! They are overjoyed, and finally obedient, but when Miss Nelson asks them what brought about the change, they say it’s their little secret. Little do they know, Miss Nelson has a secret of her own. She doesn’t say it, but later that night as she’s going to bed we see, in the shadows, a little black dress hanging in her closet and a box labeled “wig.”
Kids love figuring out the mystery, and knowing something the kids in Miss Nelson’s class don’t. And I imagine teachers love reading this book to their class when they get a bit rowdy. James Marshall was a genius.
Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough
Oh my gosh my kids loved this book, my copy is falling apart! It’s written in catchy rhyme that sticks with you, so sticky I can still recite it all these years later. The suspense starts right away as we see a kid who’s lost his teddy, “He lost him in the woods somewhere. It’s dark and horrible in there. ‘Help!’ said Eddie. ‘I’m scared already! I want my bed! I want my teddy!’”
He walks in the woods with these great tall, thin trees and he sees something really weird and scary . . . . page turn, it’s a giant teddy bear! Eddie wonder if it’s his teddy, but how did it get so big? Then he hears a voice sobbing and out pops a gigantic bear holding a tiny teddy. The boy and the bear got each other’s teddies, and they’re both terrified of each other. As soon as they get their own lovies they go running off into the woods, back to their homes, “all the way back to their snuggly beds, where they huddled and cuddled their own little teds.” See what I mean about that perfect rhyme? And the illustrations are darling. It’s a perfect read aloud and you can really ham up the suspense.
I’m a big fan of David Catrow’s illustrations, they’re wacky and bright and silly, the perfect pair with Margery Cuyler’s crazy story about a boy who gets a balloon at the zoo that’s so big it lifts him up into the sky. “Oh, that’s good. No, that’s bad.” We turn the page to see why it’s bad. It drifts for miles and pops on a prickly tree, and we read, “Oh, that’s bad. No, that’s good!” Turn the page to see why. The boy falls into a swamp and a hippo gives him a ride out, which seems good, but it’s bad because . . . and the story continues, alternating between good and bad.
I love how this story models the concept that life is full of good and bad, it’s a cycle, so if it’s bad just wait a while, wait for the good. I love how each page turn is a suspenseful moment. There’s a terrifying picture in the middle of a snake with mouth wide open and fangs bared, its head as big as the boy (who thought it was a vine), which is another reason it belongs in this “scare” category. My boys loved this page. I always wanted to turn the page fast, and they always wanted to linger for a delicious scare before finding out this horrifying picture is good. How can it be good? The boy was so scared he lost his grip and landed on the back of a giraffe, which we think is good, but is actually bad because . . . don’t worry, the boy makes it back to his parents in the end. “Oh, that’s good. No, that’s great!” is the satisfying last line.
Enter the Withering Wood if you dare, but “the creatures who live there are up to no good.” There are nasty gnomes and hairy trolls (though we don’t see them). What we see is a “dank, gloomy cave” (but there’s a lovey and chalk with hopscotch on the floor so what you read isn’t necessarily what you see). We also meet a monster named Dennis who lives with his mother in said cave. Dennis, who is the most adorable monster ever, is afraid to go to bed because the humans will get him. We see this great picture of him imagining a bunch of kids crouching under his bed, criss-cross applesauce or hugging their knees, peering out.
His mother reassures him humans are only in stories, they aren’t real (kids eat this up). There’s this great line where mom monster bends down to kiss Dennis goodnight and “he chose to fasten his fangs round her warty old nose. He tied up his toes in a knot round her knees, ‘Led go of be, Deddis, you’re hurtig be, please!’” his mom says. Cracks me up. I love the clever rhyme and the sweet, silly story. Dennis eventually does meet a little boy who’s crept into his cave, looking for a place to rest, and they both scare the dickens out of each other. It ends with a reader beware, don’t go to Dennis’s cave, where, “You might meet his mother, just think how you’d feel, if she were to tell you that you are not real.”