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The Scariest Books for Kids

recommended by Jack Meggitt-Phillips

The Beast and the Bethany Jack Meggitt-Phillips & Isabelle Follath (illustrator)

The Beast and the Bethany
Jack Meggitt-Phillips & Isabelle Follath (illustrator)

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Scary children's books give kids the pleasure of immersing themselves in an exciting page-turner, and are an excellent way to get reluctant readers to read novels. As long as you pay attention to individual children's sensibilities, it shouldn't be hard to find books that give them thrills rather than nightmares. Children's author Jack Meggitt-Phillips talks us through his favourite scary books for kids.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

The Beast and the Bethany Jack Meggitt-Phillips & Isabelle Follath (illustrator)

The Beast and the Bethany
Jack Meggitt-Phillips & Isabelle Follath (illustrator)

Read
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Why did you choose this topic, scariest books for kids? Did you love to read scary stories yourself as a child?

Yes, very much so. The first proper scary book I read was The Bad Beginning, the first of the Lemony Snicket books, and since then I’ve been slightly addicted. Not full on slasher horror where Michael Myers pops out with a chainsaw, but anything which feels a bit creepy. And I read quite a lot of the Victorian spine chillers as a child, which was probably irresponsible of my parents. Anything which has gaslights and some sort of monster lurking in the shadows, that’s my cup of tea.

So the atmosphere is important for you to enjoy a scary book?

Yes, it’s very much the atmosphere and the building of suspense.

Do you think that there are educational reasons for children to read scary books, to explore fears in a safe environment? Or is it just about the excitement?

I think the main obstacle to children’s literacy is often just getting the children to read the book. Anything which has the promise of a scare always makes you want to turn the pages a little bit faster. Scary books can be a way of engaging children who sometimes think that reading is a chore rather than something that can be as thrilling and dangerous as the most ill-tested of roller-coasters. And, thinking about it, there’s often a moral message which authors can use to justify all the scariness. In Jekyll and Hyde, for example, there’s a really interesting exploration of the complexity of the human personality, amongst all the lovely murders.

Scary children’s books often also introduce other concepts such as bravery and hope, that help the characters in dangerous situations.

Throughout our lives we’re constantly facing things that scare us. Sometimes the scary things may indeed be carnivorous creatures or cackling axe-murderers, but more often than not it’s going to a new school, having a difficult conversation, or doing something else that brings about a change in our lives. Hopefully reading scary stories and seeing characters defeat the evil in these stories can inspire younger readers to confront the challenges in their own lives. 

I agree. Reading books with scary situations, or with characters who choose to do the right thing even if they’re scared, can make readers think about having to deal with that kind of situation in real life. Reading only happy or funny books wouldn’t help build an emotional arsenal in the same way.

I think that’s what literature has above any other art form: when it is well done it can inspire empathy better than anything else, because you’re so immersed in the narrator’s or the character’s viewpoint, it forces you to think about someone else’s viewpoint.

Definitely. By the way, I happened to discuss your book picks with some children. They were very surprised that Coraline by Neil Gaiman is not among them. Have you read it?

I haven’t. It’s waiting on my bookshelf. It sounds fantastic. I have just picked up The Graveyard Book to read because I hear that is possibly his best.

One of the children suggested The Graveyard Book as well, but they all recommended Coraline as seriously creepy.

They clearly know more than me, I’ve been put to shame by them.

The five books you have picked for this interview are novels, but you also mentioned a sixth book, which is a picture book.

Yes, there’s a book called The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey from the 1960s. It’s a picture book which almost reads like a Final Destination film. The book begins with ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears’, and it goes on like that. ‘M is for Maud who was swept out to sea, N is for Neville who died of ennui’. It’s literally an alphabetised list of children meeting their ends in gruesome – sometimes funny, sometimes mundane, sometimes spectacular – ways. It was one of Gorey’s Three Volumes of Moral Instruction, and he did both the pictures and the words. It almost feels like a really good graphic novel where it’s what happens between the pictures – what you don’t see – which is the the most intriguing bit. It’s one of those books you read in about five minutes, but then spend the rest of your life sneakily going back to for another peek.

You don’t think children are going to get nightmares from this kind of very dark humour?

No, absolutely not. Well, actually, maybe they would, in fairness. But hopefully quite enjoyable and witty nightmares.

I guess books are safe in a way that films aren’t…?

You can put a book down and maybe put it in the fridge and then run away from it, which is quite useful. Whereas the opening scene of the recent James Bond film is like a horror film, and you can’t really put it in the fridge once you’re there in the cinema. You can close your eyes, but you can still hear the scary bits.

Let’s talk about your first pick, A Sprinkle of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison, the second book in the series A Pinch of Magic Adventure.

Magic, in some ways, can be the creepiest form of scariness, particularly in children’s literature. The opening chapter of A Sprinkle of Sorcery is one of the best. It’s got this real feeling of a fairy tale twist where you’ve got the witch and the lord whose advances she rejects. When they take out her eye she replaces it with a stone, and when her voice is taken she speaks through a crow. It’s got this marvellous macabre richness to it. And what Michelle Harrison does really well is make you look at the everyday items and feel deeply, deeply spooked out by them. I can’t look at Russian dolls now, without thinking that they’ve been used to make someone invisible – is there someone behind me…?

I love the setting, with the Sorrow Isles called Repent, Lament and Torment, one with the prison, one with the graveyard and one for the banished.

Yes, you know you shouldn’t want to be there. But then you sort of think about how lovely it would be to be in the Widdershins’ pub surrounded by the clanging prison bells. She pulls off a fantastic trick of making it very scary and yet also making you want to go into that world and see Granny Widdershins puffing a pipe and that sort of thing. 

Yes, the warm pub seems very inviting, especially with the atmosphere surrounding it, the moors outside in the fog and the boats creaking in the harbour.

I think if you ever need to make something a bit scary just bring in a fog and immediately it’s terrifying, as soon as you can’t see something. A bit like in Dracula, which you think is scary for the first half and then the second half becomes even more terrifying, because you don’t know where Dracula is but you know he’s somewhere.

The atmosphere and the supernatural make the book scary, but I think the most frightening are the people, the corrupt wardens and the ruthless pirates.

I think the best of scary books is often rooted in human evil and the more supernatural fantastical elements are grown out of that base of human evil. When Charlie is taken, that’s a terrifying moment. You think it’s scary when a six year old is taken away by wardens, but then another level is added: they’re impersonating wardens in order to kidnap her. Any book which manages to give you both the shock and thrills of the jumpscares in the fog and then marry that with humans at their worst, it’s just a delicious combination.

You mentioned that A Sprinkle of Sorcery is rooted in fairy tale, and indeed the greedy get punished and the selfless are rewarded. It is a different story in your next pick:

The Ersatz Elevator, the sixth book in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Lemony Snicket I owe so much to as a reader. Up until reading The Bad Beginning, I hadn’t read anything with a real sense of peril to it. I remember vividly picking it up when I was eight or nine. The sun was shining when I started to read it, and by the time I finished the book the sun had set so I was squinting to read the final lines. It’s a fantastic world, and what the books in A Series of Unfortunate Events do so well is to make you feel, even if you’re happy for a bit, that there’s a crocodile or something nasty waiting for you around the corner. 

And the wicked people don’t get punished.

No, not at all. And Esmé Squalor is a great villain, particularly in this book. It’s hard to look back in hindsight, but you have a sense that, if not evil, then that she is not entirely good. Slowly we get the reveal that she’s just as bad and in some ways slightly worse than Olaf. Having this sort of evil pantomime version of Bonnie and Clyde is fantastic. 

There is also Jerome Squalor, who seems nice but he’s weak and doesn’t take his role as the orphans’ guardian seriously.

Yes, very much so. I think that’s again another fantastic trick where you would expect to have the heroes who are brave and the villains who are deep down rather weak and bad. Instead you’ve got characters like Jerome Squalor in this book and Justice Strauss in the first book, and throughout you’ve got these people who should be there for the Baudelaires but who show that good intentions are useless without bravery or conviction.

Yes, the orphans suffer because of the incompetence of the adults. But then there is always a bright spot which is that they have each other, so it’s not all hopeless and bleak.

Yes, and I suppose maybe that’s why it’s so moving because even though these children have such a terrible life, throughout the books you see their bond grow stronger and stronger – even when they’re literally pushed down an elevator shaft, because they’re intelligent, because they’re readers, because they’re inventors and because they’ve got sharp teeth, they can find their way out of any scrape. Olaf has his hench people, and in this book he’s got Esmé, but he is essentially alone because he’s so busy going “I’m marvellous, I’m the world’s best actor” that he shuts himself off to any real friendships and that’s why he keeps on getting defeated because he’ll always be outnumbered by people who are willing to make friends.

Let’s move on to your next pick: The Land of Roar, the first in a series by Jenny McLachlan.

I think Crowky might be one of the most terrifying villains I’ve read in children’s literature. It’s a scarecrow who has a mouth which breaks apart whenever he smiles, and an army of crows. He can turn you into a scarecrow by literally draining the life out of you. I felt that this book had to be included because Crowky makes Voldemort look like a fluffy cat.

The blurring of the line between imagination and reality is well done. Arthur and Rose go back to the land they created when they were younger; the place is familiar, but much of it had been invented to scare each other.

Having done quite a few school events I have to say that children’s imaginations can be absolutely terrifying. A sweet little girl who was barely larger than a newspaper came up to me recently to share a story she wrote. It was about an evil clown – basically It but with more lasers, and the clown had chainsaws for hands. At that age, maybe your imagination is more fertile and these things just pop into your head, not with any sort of psychopathic serial killer instincts, it’s just because your imagination is a bit more free to wander, and it sometimes wanders into the scarier places.

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Roar has become scarier as the children have grown. Rose has reached puberty before her twin brother, and she’s not very nice to him, just as Crowky is now much more evil than when Rose created him.

Crowky is almost like Frankenstein’s monster, but with imagination rather than science being the lightning bolt that has brought him to life. So everything that’s scary about Crowky, it all comes from our heroes. And I think that’s what makes it terrifying. There are scary bits in The Land of Roar, when Roar is beginning to crack apart. You realise there’s the tension in the brother and sister relationship, and Rose’s desire to kill her imagination and just be a grumpy teenager. That’s what’s destroying this paradise that they’ve created. And that’s what’s making Crowky worse and worse.

But there is also a very sweet part, which is the bond between the twins and their grandfather. He says that as long as you were lucky enough to find your imaginary land in the first place, if you keep revisiting it then you won’t forget and it won’t crumble.

In some ways the happier the ending, the darker you can go with the villains. It gives you permission to go quite scary and have the crows pecking at Arthur’s face and that sort of thing. I think having these uplifting messages, that you should play in the world of your imagination even when you’re as old as grandpa Trout and the importance of the brother and sister bond, sort of gives you permission to go a bit more creepy with the threat.

I haven’t read your next pick, The Day My Butt Went Psycho by Andy Griffiths, but I read about it before this interview. There were descriptions such as ‘original’, ‘hilarious’, ‘disgusting’, ‘silly’ and ‘intriguing’ but not ‘scary’ so you have to explain this choice.

I have always been deeply suspicious of my own bottom so for me this this was a very scary book. The general setup is that there’s a twelve year old boy named Zack whose bottom rebels against him. His bottom is part of a worldwide federation, a rebellion of bottoms which are fed up of doing the dirty work and want to replace themselves with the faces. I think it’s quite scary because even though it sounds like the most stupid and preposterous setup for a book, it’s actually really well written and – apologies for the number of times I’m going to say the word ‘bottom’ – you see Zack detached from his bottom and it’s again the human evil stuff. Andy Griffiths characterises the bottoms and you can fully understand their struggle. I remember reading it and I was quite scared about the great ‘bumcano’, a bum volcano, and I thought it was a great and startlingly original evil plan. 

It does sound like a scary book for kids. Can you describe it a bit more, is it a comedy or more like a dystopian fantasy or adventure story?

Broadly speaking, it’s a comedy but with the plot of an action adventure, and like all good action adventure stories there are thrills and scary bits where you might have to put the book in the fridge for a little while and then before you return to it you have to explain to your mother why there’s a bottom book in the fridge. It’s like a very well written family film with scary moments but a good gag count as well. 

Would you need quite a high tolerance for toilet humour to enjoy it?

Yes, you probably do. The clue is in the title and on the first page it says ‘unfortunately the scratch and sniff edition of this is not available.’ But as I said, it’s a really well written book because you’ve got these two sides and you can sympathise with the bottom.

Your final pick is a classic which has remained popular ever since it was first published in 1843: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

It’s my Christmas tradition. My job is to peel the chestnuts, and I normally listen to an audiobook while I’m peeling. With A Christmas Carol, the more I revisit it, the more I realise how scary it actually is, if you read it for the first time, or read it like you pretend you don’t know anything about the story. You’ve got a door knocker coming to life. You’ve got the ghost of Jacob Marley with his chains. That’s very scary stuff. And especially the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, when you’ve got the grave robbers. It shows you what will happen if you don’t care about others, it shows the journey of Ebenezer’s understanding of where his life has led him. At its heart, it’s a ghost story. Because it’s got Christmas in the title, people think it’s a lovely, wholesome story about a man changing his ways, which it is, but really it’s got all the ghost elements that you could want. 

It certainly does. And Ignorance and Want, the children who remind us about how often we ignore the needs of others.

Exactly. I’m sure all of us, if we had a ghost of Christmas, past, present or future visiting us and we were shown the impact we’ve had on people it would shake all of our bones to their core. Or maybe I’m just suspicious that I’ve been secretly leading an evil life.

There is a very clear influence on your own book, The Beast and the Bethany, including the parallel with the relationship of your Ebenezer and Bethany with that of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.

Absolutely, I stole it basically. I think what A Christmas Carol does particularly well is how you see a character change over the course of the book. But it’s not a dull read because you’ve got the scares and the ghosts. In my case it’s a ravenous carnivorous beast in the attic, and it’s the human connection which helps defeat evil in the story. Ebenezer Scrooge is saved from a very miserable afterlife, and a very miserable rest of his life, by finally embracing his family, being nice to his his co-workers, and sending something special for Tiny Tim. In the same way my Ebenezer would have lived probably another five or six hundred years of selfishness if he hadn’t been very reluctantly forced to bring this rude prankster into his life.

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Yes, Bethany is very different from Tiny Tim, who is so polite. She is a little bully.

Exactly. When I started writing about her I didn’t like her at all. I was thinking she’s so horrible that maybe I should just feed her to The Beast. At the start it was basically a book about three villains, because The Beast is just irredeemably bad. Ebenezer thinks it’s fine to feed children to The Beast, and Bethany has spent most of her time being a prankster and a bully. I found it quite fun trying to see why they were the way they were and whether that made them redeemable. Fortunately it did, otherwise it would be a depressing book.

It’s a very nice message, that you need to make the most of the lifespan you have and the moments in it.

Ebenezer has lived five hundred years and he’s done absolutely nothing with it. At the end of the book, he’s just got a normal human lifespan left but in an hour of his new life he’ll be doing more good than in the five hundred years he’s just been living for exotic teas and fabulous varieties of waistcoat. Hopefully it’s got some sort of lesson, amongst the jumps and scares.

Yes, that’s an excellent combination in a children’s book.

Interview by Tuva Kahrs

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Jack Meggitt-Phillips is a children’s book author as well as a scriptwriter, playwright and podcast presenter. In his own mind he is an enormously talented ballroom dancer. In real life he drinks fine teas and reads P. G. Wodehouse novels.

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Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Jack Meggitt-Phillips

Jack Meggitt-Phillips is a children’s book author as well as a scriptwriter, playwright and podcast presenter. In his own mind he is an enormously talented ballroom dancer. In real life he drinks fine teas and reads P. G. Wodehouse novels.