The term “middle-grade” refers to books written for a target audience of children ages 8-12; however, as a librarian, I have argued for years that adults should pay more attention to this fiction category for themselves. Nowhere has this been more evident than with today’s middle-grade horror.
Over the last five years I have worked as part of the Horror Writers Association’s Summer Scares Program to identify the best middle-grade horror and the results were terrifying, in a good way. Middle-grade horror is so much more than “horror-lite;” in fact, in many instances, I have found middle-grade titles even more unsettling than their adult counterparts. Why? Because at its core, all middle-grade fiction is tied to the larger issue of growing up, that fear of who the kids will become and what it will take to get there. Of course, there are monsters, demons, and ghosts here, but the existential terrors are even more intense, and as adults, we feel that fear even more acutely as it is magnified by hindsight.
Specifically, middle-grade horror as we know it today began in 1992 with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, and it has only continued to evolve, coming to a peak right now with the introduction of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Middle-Grade Novel, of which the inaugural five nominees were recently announced.
Today, I am going to take you through those five books and offer you two adult horror read-a-likes in order to showcase not only why these five books are standout titles for youth, but also why you, the adult horror fan, should not sleep on them if truly want to truly the best horror available to all readers right now.
From Delacorte Press
Seventh grader Parker is excited to go to summer camp to get away from her middle school bully, Cassandra, until she arrives to find Cassandra right there with her. Parker befriends fellow outcast Jenny making her time at camp slightly more bearable, but when terrible accidents and injuries begin to befall Cassandra and her crew, Parker knows Jenny is responsible. What should she do? Fast-paced and suspenseful from the start, the story turns dark, gruesome, and outright scary as the pages turn, but it is with the direct challenge Dawson levels at adults about the lies we tell children, that if they just be themselves people will like them and everything will be fine, where the true terror of this story reveals itself.
They Stole Our Hearts
From Henry Holt and Co.
This second book in a trilogy follows a group of discarded teddy bears who were thrown away, as they have found a few months of peace under a young girl’s bed. After being discovered by her mother, the teddies are cast out into the cruel world once again forced on another dangerous journey in search of the magical love of a child and to learn why the world hates them. The darkest title on this list (Kraus kills off one of the bears in a garbage disposal), the story also deftly navigates a gripping and immersive tale of survival against all odds that will appeal to kids—a la Toy Story—while still making references adults will get to classic dystopian novels. Go back and start with They Threw Us Away and you will find yourself tearing through the trilogy which was completed in January 2023 with They Set The Fire.
This Appearing House
From Katherine Tegen Books
The five-year anniversary of Jac’s cancer going into remission is swiftly approaching, an important milestone that signals hope, but down the street, a giant house literally appears out of nowhere. On a dare, Jac and her best friend, Hazel, enter, eager to explore. Once inside they find eerie connections to Jac, signaling that the appearance of this house might not be accidental. And then, they are trapped and forced to face escalating terrors, with little hope of escape. An emotional and thought-provoking story about the true horror of childhood illness, the burden of trauma on both the child and their parents, and the fear that plagues survivors, forever all wrapped up in an original haunted house story.
From Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Since 12-year-old Evie’s parents were declared legally dead, she has suffered from serious anxiety and panic attacks, but she is getting by living with her Aunt in the 7th most haunted town in America, helping her solve the town’s supernatural problems, that is until Evie’s Aunt is captured by an evil being, The Clackity. Now Evie must enter his world and make it through a series of seven houses to save her only remaining family member. Chased by demons both real and supernatural, Evie’s journey begins creepily but quickly jumps into viscerally frightening territory. With impressive world-building and thoughtful insight, readers young and old will tear through this chilling novel, happy to know at its conclusion that a sequel, The Nighthouse Keeper, hits shelves later this year.
A Comb of Wishes
From Quill Tree Books
Kela’s mother died months ago, but she is still bereft, pushing away the help of everyone who cares for her. One day as she is walking on the beach, Kela finds a beautiful comb. However, this is no ordinary comb. It belongs to the vengeful mermaid Ophidia, and she will do anything to get it back, offering Kela one wish for her comb’s return. Of course, Kela wishes for her mother to be returned to her, but at what price? Told from the viewpoint of both Kela and Ophidia and inspired by Caribbean folklore this is a heartfelt tale of grief, dark magic, and being careful what you wish for that will leave no reader, no matter their age, unscathed.