Best Books for Kids » Ages 9-12

Best Horror Novels for 9-12 Year Olds

recommended by Jennifer Killick

Fear Ground by Jennifer Killick

Fear Ground
by Jennifer Killick

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Adults sometimes worry that horror novels are too scary for children, but children’s author Jennifer Killick is a fan. Here she picks out five fantastic horror books for 9-12 year olds and explains that in addition to the sheer fun of reading a thriller, horror books can help kids develop courage and often appeal to reluctant readers.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

Fear Ground by Jennifer Killick

Fear Ground
by Jennifer Killick

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Why do you enjoy writing horror books for kids? Were some of your favourite stories when you were 9-12 years old horror novels?

I like writing horror for kids partly because that’s what I enjoy now as an adult. I love the mix of horror and humour in the TV series Stranger Things, for example, with really endearing characters that you root for. As a child, I didn’t actually read much horror. I read Point Horror when I was a little bit older, but when I was primary school age I read stuff about unicorns which I would never read now. When I was growing up there was less choice. We had Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I am a person who gets scared very easily, so some people think it’s strange that I write horror. But I like finding that balance of just the right amount of scary where it’s still fun, which is why it’s lovely writing horror for children; you can be a bit creepy but not go too far. And I like to have happy endings. I was writing comedy stories before, and I was visiting loads of schools. Everywhere I went kids were desperate for more scary stories, so I thought “I’ll give it a try”, and they absolutely love it. They love the jump scares and things that are a bit disgusting. I’m really happy writing horror for kids, it’s so much fun to write as well.

Do you think the balance between terror and humour is important?

I think it helps so much. I’ve always written comedy before and that has really helped with the horror elements because it does balance it out, and it takes that tension away. You can build the suspense, build the tension, have a horrible moment, and then bring it all back to a nice safe place with a joke or with something funny happening. I love watching movies that have that mix. It’s nice to read things that make you think more deeply and reflect, but it’s also nice to read things that are just fun. I think they really work hand in hand, the horror and humour.

Do you think that reading horror novels can help kids around 9-12 years old develop empathy as they fear for the characters in the story, or is it just about enjoying the thrill of the page-turner?

On the surface, it is definitely enjoying the thrill. And yes, I do think it’s about the fun, but I do also think underneath that there are things about reading horror that are so beneficial for children, part of which is developing empathy for characters, and also helping them to deal with their own fears. Because when you face fears in a very safe way, in a book, I think it helps you to build courage and see as well the fears resolved in the book. If something’s really scary right now doesn’t mean it’s going to stay scary, it can get better, things can be fixed, everyone will be safe, everyone will be happy. So I think it’s a lovely, safe way for children to face fears, which hopefully would help them in their own lives facing things that are difficult for them.

I agree, I think books can help children examine fears in a safe environment and build some emotional resilience through that process.

What’s so lovely about publishing at the moment is there’s such a mix of genres and I think we need that, children need that. It is useful to have characters going through really difficult things. It does open your eyes to even the children in your class, they might be going through things that you don’t know about, so it does help with empathy and it does help you to develop, as you say, that range of emotional resilience.

Let’s talk about your first book pick, the manga Demon Slayer by Koyoharu Gotouge. You’re in good company, I interviewed a 13 year old about the best manga for kids and teens who had Demon Slayer as one of his five. But you consider it a horror book for 9-12 year olds?

I do. It’s quite strong horror, but the format makes it much more palatable. Parents and librarians seem to be happy for their children to read it, and I think it’s a lovely way into horror. I love manga and anime, and Demon Slayer was the first one I tried because my oldest son loves it. As your children get older you have fewer things that they want to talk to you about. He had constant enthusiasm and passion for all these anime he was watching so I thought I would try it and then share it with him. Demon Slayer instantly draws you in. It’s really frightening but the characters are so strong. Characters in most manga are so well drawn; people are quite extreme and the main character in Demon Slayer, Tanjirō, is so brave and so kind. He’s your Luke Skywalker classic, you know he will always do the right thing, will always be brave, totally reliable, a loyal friend, just that lovely character that you absolutely want to succeed. Straight away from the first episode you are with Tanjirō, and then you’re desperate to find out how he gets on.

I started on the anime and now I’ve got a growing collection of the books. It has really opened my eyes to a whole world of a different kind of storytelling, which is so interesting from a writer’s perspective. With manga, so much of it is kind of stream of consciousness stuff, so you’re inside the characters’ heads. That took a bit of getting used to. I’m hearing their thoughts and they’re telling me what they’re going to do before they actually do it, which is different to the way that novelists write stories, where you’re supposed to show not tell. But it’s really interesting how they make that work in manga and once you’re used to it, it becomes quite natural.

“If you like stories, there’s a whole world there that’s just waiting to be explored”

Whenever I speak to children age 9-12 or 13, so many of them are loving manga and it’s definitely getting more popular. For a lot of them their favourite is Demon Slayer, it just really appeals. It’s so simple in the way that it’s good and it’s evil, but Tanjirō is such an empathetic character and even with the demons that he destroys, he sees what happens to them in their lives, what made them become demons, what made them be so evil. It’s such a lovely way of seeing the world through Tanjirō’s eyes. The characters are amazing, and it’s funny. I think all manga have a lot of humour in them. Well, all of the ones that I’ve been through so far apart from Attack on Titan, that’s just horror, but amazing. Demon Slayer is funny, the characters are lovable and you’re with them on those adventures and battling those demons. It’s brilliant storytelling. I am very excited about Demon Slayer and manga. It feels very magical because it opened up a world of stories to me that have brought me so much happiness. It’s really comforting as well and got me through tricky times when things have been difficult. On school visits, it’s lovely to be able to engage with children about things that they love. You get that connection with them, and then when you tell them about your books they are far more likely to be interested because they know that you understand the things that they like.

Let’s move on to your next pick of the best horror books for 9-12 year old kids, Monstrous Devices by Damien Love. I really like this one, it has a sort of European steampunk feel.

The settings in it are so beautifully drawn. It is one of those books that the moment you start reading you are in that world, you’re there with Alex and his grandpa, and you get to travel across Europe and it’s so atmospheric. The horror in it is really interesting. I would say it’s a read for 11-12 year olds, because it’s quite complex and it doesn’t shy away from dark thoughts, dark deeds. The villains in the story do some very horrible things but I don’t want to say too much and do spoilers. It’s really interesting how they use the robots and mix the human blood and skin with the robots. It’s disgusting, but it’s brilliant. And I love the relationship between the central characters. It’s unusual to have a child and a grandparent as your main characters, and it’s done so well. Grandpa is so eccentric and interesting. Alex is your normal teen suddenly being thrown into this really dark, deep, elaborate, complex world where everything that he thought he knew is not right. It’s different and it’s very scary. I’m a big fan of the series. I’ve read the first two books and I’m hoping there is going to be another one.

I agree that the grandpa has great style. And I love the classic concept of the golem or robot which has been created by a human but then perhaps goes rogue.

Yes, it’s excellent. If you haven’t read the second book, The Shadow Arts, you should. They go to the Black Forest and it’s super creepy in the woods. It takes it to the next level.

Let’s talk about your third pick of the best horror books for 9-12 year olds, Below Zero by Dan Smith.

Dan Smith is an incredible author, he’s got such a range. He writes historical things but he also writes more horror-based books. He’s an author who obviously knows the horror genre; you know that he has watched every horror movie, he’s read all the horror books. There are loads of little nods to classic horror in his stories, which I really love. I think a lot of them are things that you’ll recognise as an older person reading it, which is really fun, like a nod to A Nightmare on Elm Street. As a child, you wouldn’t know those links, but you would still enjoy the scare in them.

Below Zero, it’s got the setting. I think when you live in a country where you don’t get lots and lots of snow, any book that sits in ice and snow always instantly puts you in that different place. It’s all icy, and it’s got that more chilling atmosphere. There are some really scary bits in this book, so I’d say it’s horror for children age 10-12. He’s also got a great series for Barrington Stoke, the dyslexia-friendly books, called The Crooked Oak. He’s got three out so far, I’ve read them all. They’re brilliant because they’re shorter stories, they’re great for engaging children with all those classic little horror moments that make you go “ooh”, and really creepy villains. It’s well thought out, it’s not otherworldly, there’s always a solid reason behind things, which he explains. I think it’s nice for children to have things explained so they don’t get terrified that the same thing is going to happen to them. There’s always logic and somebody has done something that’s made that happen. He has really strong central characters. The children that are facing the dangers are brave, they deal with things really well, and I think that’s always lovely and reassuring to read, as a child reader especially.

I thought the most chilling part of Below Zero is when they have sent a message from the research base to headquarters about their distressing situation, and an anodyne message comes back saying “everyone here is relieved to know that you have landed safely”. Somehow the communication is being changed in transmission.

It’s so clever to write those moments of absolutely chilling horror where nothing disgusting has happened. There’s no big monster, just a little thing like a message that puts fear into you. That’s such brilliant writing, especially for children where you can’t be over the top with the gore. Dan is so good at those subtle touches that make you shudder.

Let’s move on to your next pick of the best horror books for 9-12 year old children, The Bigwoof Conspiracy by Dashe Roberts.

What I love about Bigwoof is how it combines horror and humour, which is obviously something that I really enjoy. Bigwoof I think is perfect for younger readers, 8-10 year olds, who like something a bit scary. It’s not going to terrify anybody so it’s a lovely way into creepier books without being anything too nightmarish. The main characters, Lucy and Milo, go along together in their funny little ways, investigating strange incidents that are going on in their town, Sticky Pines, which has a lot of secrets. Lucy likes investigating things, and in Sticky Pines there are a lot of things to investigate: UFOs, things disappearing, monsters, people acting very strangely, even people that Lucy knows and loves… It’s very clever how the biggest sequences are drawn out over the series, the overarching story of what’s happening in this town. But in each book, Lucy gets to solve a big case as well. The way it’s written is so engaging and fun, they are lovely reads. The third book, The Valley of the Strange, has just come out; it looks awesome.

Your last pick of the best horror books for 9-12 year olds is Christmas Dinner of Souls by Ross Montgomery. What happens in this novel?

This story is about a boy who has to go and help at a big spooky castle for a special dinner. He soon realises that the guests are all different ghostly characters, and they are vying to win the battle of who can tell the most terrifying story. They take it in turn, so this novel is made up of short stories for each character telling their story, all trying to be the scariest. Ross is such a clever writer, he writes so beautifully. It also has that very dark humour running through it and some really chilling scenes. Through it all we have the main character, Lewis, spending the evening at Soul’s College, which is this really creepy kind of university building. He has got caught throwing stones at the building and, as a punishment, he has to help at a dinner on Christmas Eve. His parents tell him that he shouldn’t have thrown stones and he has to serve his punishment. But it’s a far worse punishment than even Lewis expects. Lewis’s perspective is woven through the story between each of the separate stories told by the characters. He’s absolutely terrified and he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it out of that dinner alive at the end of the night. There’s a weird cook, and all the ghost characters who are at the dinner are horrible. They’re not just creepy, they’re nasty and rude, which is quite enjoyable to read as well. And Christmas and ghosts is a classic pairing. It’s just a lovely, different one for children to read. But again, the horror is quite dark so it’s not for the younger ones, more a book for 11-12 year olds, I would say.

Is there anything you would like to add about any of the books, or in general about horror novels for 9-12 year olds?

Horror for children is really growing now, which is such a lovely thing. I am seeing a lot more creepy books coming out, and I think it’s brilliant. Horror books are really engaging, they get children reading. A lot of children who say “no, books are not for me”, will see a creepy horror novel and go “ooh, actually I quite like the look of that”. So I think they get children reading who wouldn’t necessarily be readers otherwise. There are more books that I could add to this list, but those are definitely five brilliant starters. For younger children, Bigwoof is a great way to go. Then there are the ones I mentioned for the older ones, and I think everyone should read some manga. If you like stories, there’s a whole world there that’s just waiting to be explored. I’m glad I chose these five books because they are all really brilliant. Hopefully, my books are doing the same as well, getting children excited about reading.

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Interview by Tuva Kahrs

October 28, 2022

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Jennifer Killick

Jennifer Killick

Jennifer Killick has written numerous books for children. She loves to visit schools and festivals and talk with children about books. Her first horror story, Crater Lake, was selected as a bookbuzz title by the UK reading charity BookTrust.

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Jennifer Killick

Jennifer Killick

Jennifer Killick has written numerous books for children. She loves to visit schools and festivals and talk with children about books. Her first horror story, Crater Lake, was selected as a bookbuzz title by the UK reading charity BookTrust.