OK, horror fans, do you remember your first scary picture book? I bet you do! And I bet that book set you up to be a genre fan in the long run. Here are eight iconic spooky children’s picture books.
Kids love to be scared. Even little kids. I did. And one of the ways that I loved to be scared was by reading spooky children’s books. These books will STAY WITH YOU FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! I was inspired by the release of the trailer for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, as well as some terrific infographics from Lindsay Ball-McQueen, who has come up with pop up illustrations for horror movie moments.
We’ll start from the gentlest and least sinister of the books and work our way up in the spooky factor. To be fair, I’m keeping this to picture books, and I’m not going after the multitudinous number of Halloween related material, nor am I going to look at YA titles. This is little kid stuff, but spooky. If you are a parent, or are looking to get picture books for a child, start them of here, to get them down the path of being a fan of the eerie and dreadful!
There’s a Monster at the End of This Book
Written by John Stone and Illustrated by Mike Smollin
Probably my very first foray into scary books was There’s a Monster at the End of this Book. Really! This classic is the first adrenaline pumping sensation I had with “scary” stories. This book features Grover, from Sesame Street, who warns the reader to beware, there is a monster at the end of the book. You really shouldn’t turn that next page, because, you know… monster! And with each flip of the page, Grover grows more and more panicky, trying to protect the young reader from their own folly.
Of course… that monster at the end of the book turned out to be Grover, himself! Awwww… not so scary, right? But the excitement of something that MIGHT BE scary coming was too much to resist. And for REALLY young kids, say 3-4 years old this is an awesome book. It was around when I was a child, and it remains in print today, and in digital form as well, a testament to the power of this simple and fun little book. The crazy thing is that it’s a repeatable experience. Again! Again! Kids don’t get tired of it.
One Monster After Another
Written and Illustrated by Mercer Mayer
I still have this book, as it may be my all-time favorite kid’s book. Mercer Mayer knows how to tap into the monster-loving kid in all of us. This book follows the treacherous passage that a letter from a little girl, Sally Anne, to her best friend Lucy Jane, which has to survive the delivery from such nefarious monsters as the Paper Munching Yalapappus, The Stamp Collecting Trollusk, and the Letter-Eating Bombanat. I lost myself in the images of these lovable and only slightly scary monsters. Plus, I think the Yalapappus looks like my dog Mookie.
Where the Wild Things Are
Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
You didn’t think I could leave this one off, did you? Perhaps the most famous of the evocative picture books is the Caldecott Medal-winning Where the Wild Things Are. It doesn’t really even need to be said, but it is a masterpiece of illustration and revered by generations of little kids. Sendak managed to create something that was both joyous and melancholy at the same time, which was a pretty neat trick. To say this is truly scary would be incorrect, but it does embrace the idea of dreaming of living among monsters, and even a little bit of subtle madness, perhaps. You WANT to be Max. You want to be WITH the monsters. The Spike Jonz movie adaptation of this book captured the look, for sure, but banked on the melancholy more than the joy, and the movie suffered much as a result.
It is one of the best homages to the imagination of a child, and the monsters are whimsical with a hint of creepiness. This is a testament to the imagination of children everywhere. It is also a recognition of parents for the rambunctiousness of their children, with the initial premise of the punishment of being sent to his room, Max imagines a wondrous world of his very own. Where would we be without Maurice Sendak? Let the Wild Rumpus begin!
What There Is Before There is Anything There: A Scary Story
Written and Illustrated by Liniers
Wow, that’s a mouthful of a title. But it goes to the root of almost all childhood nightmare scenarios. Bed time. There are so many children’s picture books that deal with the proverbial monster under the bed, but few, if any, approach the illustrative power that the Argentinian writer and artist, Liniers, brings to the table
This book will invoke the sensation of kids who get nightmares, and it’s a bit of a face your fears book. It is beautiful and authenticly spooky, with shadows always creeping in around the perimeter of the frame. A hazy and rather bizarre dreamscape, where the child knows best and the parents know not, which makes for some fun bedtime story telling. Just cute enough to avoid being horrifying. This one is a treat that should be sought out.
Written by Lemony Snicket, Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Lemony Snicket is a big name in the world of modern children’s stories. He is most famously known for A Series of Unfortunate Events. He has reached the status that his name precedes his book titles, and he teamed up with Jon Klassen to create a classic of children’s most basic fear, that of the dark.
His little boy Laszlo, is described, straight up that he is afraid of the dark. Great scary illustrations often need to use powerful use of light and shadow, and few books convey this drama as well as The Dark. The juxtaposition of the text draws the reader through the book, as does the flashlight that Laszlo uses to guide him around, following the voice of The Dark. This is a fun read if you are narrating this for a kid, you can really ham it up with this book.
The great thing about children’s picture books is that they are condensed ideas. When they are written as crisply as this, and illustrated as powerfully as this, it will make this a book that will remain in the library of the kid all the way through adulthood.
The Spider and The Fly
Written By Mary Howatt, Illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi
For stark beauty, and creepiness to the limits of what a little kid might handle, The Spider and the Fly is a spooky tale with a grim end. The Spider, who is the embodiment of dapper dastardliness lures, seduces, the flapper fly with charm and guile. The Fly is cautious, but cannot help herself but fall for his allure. She is warned by the ghosts of other flies, but she pays them no heed, to her own peril.
I am a huge fan of DiTerlizzi, and I have managed to acquire a few of his illustrations over the years. The charm in his characters bursts from the page, and his design sense of form and flow is mesmerizing. This was one of the first books I bought for my niece, Audrey, when she was very little. A lesson of the story? Never trust a spider with a pencil thin mustache.
The Gorey Alphabet
Written and Illustrated by Edward Gorey
Outright creep factor here! Death! Death, I tell you, lies within the pages of this picture book. Edward Gorey also happens to have the best name for a horror-themed author and illustrator, ever. And yes, that’s his real name, not a pen name. There was a copy of this book at one of my parent’s friend’s house, and I would always pick up this book and flip through it. Edward Gorey has a very Edwardian sense of the macabre. His distinctive linework and exaggerated forms are the stuff of legend. How’s about we learn about our ABC’s by seeing kids die? YEAH!
His work is Edgar Alan Poe and HP Lovecraft worthy. And, it inspired a card game, GLOOM, which used the dark punny subject material from the Gorey Alphabet, to create a morbid and really fun race to the grave. Gorey also did the fantastic animated intro to the old PBS television show MYSTERY!
The Wolves in the Walls
Written by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Dave McKean
Two modern masters in one book! Neil Gaiman, the author of such landmark titles as American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Sandman is joined by his Sandman collaborator, Dave McKean. McKean also did work for Batman Arkham Asylum, Hellblazer, and Violent Cases. His is one of the best horror illustrators in all of comics, and these two have created one of the great spooky kid’s books of all time, and as is his style, he uses a whole bunch of different media to get some very unsettling images. At one point he seems to be channeling Ralph Steadman, of Fear and Loathing fame.
The Wolves in the Walls was inspired by a nightmare his daughter Maddy had, when she was four, believing that there were wolves (werewolves?) lurking in the walls of their home. In this story, a girl named Lucy claims that the same thing exists in her house, and nobody believes them until the wolves come bursting forth.
I had an opportunity at the Overlook Film Festival last year to try a VR version of this story and found it unnerving and wonderful, with the sounds of wolves all around, and Lucy using chalk to illustrate her way out of tricky situations. Graduating from this story, the next step would be Gaiman’s Coraline, along with the fantastic movie of that book by Laika Studios.
So, there you go! This was a trip down memory lane for me. What books did you grow up with that may have influenced a love for horror? These books are fantastic enough even to be on an adult’s bookshelf. And yes, even the Monster at the End of the Book. If you have that on your shelf, I guarantee there will be someone who will go… I LOVE THAT BOOK! Get one of these for a kid you love, and you’ll be spreading the scary for the next generation.