After thinking about movies suitable for younger viewers I thought I’d consider 5 books or stories suitable for children. Like my movie selections, I’ve gone from youngest to oldest – in this case, based on both reading ability and themes.
Tell Me A Scary Story: …But Not Too Scary – Carl Reiner
For very young readers – or perhaps listeners, the legendary comedy writer/ director Carl Reiner has written this great little book, illustrated by James Bennet. (And there’s no doubt that it IS Reiner – the illustrations show straight off a Grandfather reading a little girl a story with the constant refrain: “Shall we turn the page, or is it too scary?”
The book tells of a young boy living next to a man who has a ‘scary crooked smile’. As he watches the man one day the young boy sees a marble roll from a box the man is carrying what looks like an eyeball.
As all children do in spooky stories he investigates further into the neighbour’s house…
It’s the right level of scary and appropriately illustrated, with the constant offer to duck out when you’ve had enough. But for those who stick the course (and of course, pretty much every kid will) there’s a nice surprise ending which ensures the lights can be switched off after the bedtime story…
I read one review on Amazon where the reviewer claims this is a terrible book with a terrible message and children shouldn’t go into strange houses and should trust their instincts to run away from someone they don’t like the look of. Well, yes up to a point, but we’ve just lost about a thousand children’s books if you follow Ms Buzz Kill’s advice…the general theme in children or YA fiction should, I think, be that these are not life-guides…
There’s an accompanying CD with spooky sounds and FX and, indeed, the author reading. So if a) you still have a CD player in your home and b) you can find a copy (Amazon are currently saying it’s out of stock and ‘new’ copies are going for £100…) it’s a delight.
The Witches – Roald Dahl (8+)
I thought about including The Witches as one of the Halloween movies for younger readers but ultimately left it out there, so I’m putting it in here. The age recommendation may be contentious, as indeed, all of these things are: I read this at a very early age and although it’s nowhere near the top of my favourite Roald Dahl’s books, a lesser Roald Dahl book is better than 90% of the best of anyone else’s in my opinion.
In brief, a young boy is sent to live with his grandmother after his parents are killed in a car accident before attending a boarding school run by witches. He and his Grandmother, a retired witch hunter scheme to bring the evil hags down…
As with so many of Dahl’s books, there are some pretty serious ruminations amongst the fun. Death is present throughout and the ending is both sombre for a children’s book, and life (or death depending on how you want to look at it) affirming.)
As a bonus, there is also an audio version available read by Miranda Richardson, who is pretty much perfect to do so.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (8+)
In some ways The Graveyard Book follows on nicely from The Witches – its protagonist Bod (Nobody Owens) lives in a graveyard because his family has been murdered – yep, even more challenging for young readers than an accident perhaps so the 8+ rating may be dependent on the child in question’s comfort level.
This is a pretty fantastic book – as Bod is raised by the ghosts Mr and Mrs Owen and his strangely neither dead/ alive guardian Silas, we get chapters which are pretty much self-contained short stories covering Bod’s life up to his current 15 years – ideal for the more leisurely paced reader who wants a natural stopping point (although in my experience they don’t want to stop…) These episodes vary in tone and graphic nature – but they’ve all got the dark humour adult readers will know of Gaiman’s work.
The book is, for me, an example of how a great writer can get important messages across while not labouring the point in a way children recognise as pandering. Like so much of the author’s work, it’s about being different and that being okay: about bravery and what that means in subtle and thoughtful ways. And, of course, it’s a cracking story – the sort of thing I aspire to write – not dumbing down the complexity of a story: there’s a great (if slightly gruesome for younger readers) ending which even seasoned adult horror readers will fully appreciate.
I’ve bought this book in a couple of formats over the years, but would particularly recommend the Chris Riddell illustrated edition, which gives a full-page illustration before each chapter giving a good sense of what is to come without any spoilers. The audio version read by the author himself is well worth a listen too.
In all honesty, this whole list could be a Neil Gaiman list – and any reader would be advised to visit his official website for younger readers – http://www.mousecircus.com/
Horowitz Horror – Anthony Horowitz (10+)
Anthony Horowitz’s short story collections are probably the biggest influence on Cellar Stories. I bought them for my son when he was around 10 years old after reading the Diamond Brother series and he loved them. I loved them too. I thought the level of horror they contained and the quality with which they were written – in no way toning down story elements just because the reader was of a younger age – either in subject or style, were eye-opening. I’d tried a couple of RL Stine books with my son and neither of us enjoyed them too much: they just seemed a little..safe. Horowitz does things differently: taking classic horror tropes and presenting them in a way that children will enjoy and adults will recognise and appreciate the twist put on them.
There are all sorts of repackaged versions of the stories – some in cut down versions at lower prices which contain two or three of the tales, but best go with the full version – and there are a couple of volumes.
Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury (14+)
The question of age suitability on Bradbury’s classic tale is not so much around the graphic nature of the content – other books in this list probably contain more explicit detail, it’s more about the maturity of reading required for a dark fantasy novel that is over 50 years old and by a writer whose writing is full of similes, metaphors, and personification. If you read a Ray Bradbury story you’re not just reading a plot – you’re feeling a textured piece of art – whether his writing style will appeal to young teenagers of today might be up for question, but in an ideal world, it really shouldn’t be: granted I was reading James Herbert and Stephen King at the same time I started reading Bradbury around 12 years old and although they’re worlds apart in style there was something so appealing about Bradbury’s style that about half of my submitted creative writing pieces in school owed a huge debt (polite way of saying, ‘ripped off’) to his work. That’s continued on – in Cellar Stories The Winter Circus is very much a homage to Bradbury’s work, and in particular Something Wicked This Way Comes – not in the quality of writing, alas, but certainly in memory of the first time I read the book and the impact it had on me.
Something Wicked This Way Comes is about two 13-year-old best friends, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, and the impact the travelling carnival led by the mysterious Mr Dark has on them when it visits their small midwestern home of Green Town, Illinois. It is, for me, one of the greatest dark fantasy works ever put to paper – and I’m not alone: if you’ve read Stephen King’s Needful Things you’ll see it’s not just us lowly writers who pay homage to a master of his craft like Ray Bradbury.
The image I’ve used above is a snippet from a later book cover – from when Disney released a film version of the novel back in the early ’80s and if the movie didn’t capture the spirit and tone of the book, I think the poster (currently hanging on my wall behind me here) really did.
And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I have my own collection of horror stories out aimed at Young Adults aged 10+. While I would never dream of suggesting it is of the quality of the titles mentioned above it does follow a similar vein – trying to create something that will work for children and adults together. There are direct and indirect homages to many of the books and movies that inspired and spooked me as a young reader/ viewer and I’m pleased with my little collection – if it gives any readers the sort of enjoyment the books that influenced and encouraged me to write more when I was young, I’ll be a happy writer.
Cellar Stories is available now on Amazon priced just £1.99 in Kindle format and £6.99 in paperback and delivery is currently promised before Halloween.