The Top 13 Scary Picture Books for Kids
We are big fans of the creepy and spooky at Dad Suggests. But making a legitimately scary picture book that's still suitable for kids is not necessarily an easy task. Nor is it easy to find good recommendations.
But why do we like to be scared? And, more importantly, why do kids like to be scared? I believe Neil Gaiman, an author who happens to appear on our list more than once, said it best. Gaiman once pointed out that we tell each other scary stories so that we can take and deal with the things that scare and hurt and damage us, and we get to do that in fictional form. He compares it to building up an immunity to poison - like Westley did in The Princess Bride - by taking a little bit at a time.
It's exhilarating to deal with the things that scare us, especially when somewhere in the back of your mind you know you're safe and sound in your own bed. Books have the power to expose children to powerful lessons and emotions - and they allow children to grapple with them and contemplate them in safety. Books allow children to explore concepts like love, empathy, loneliness, death, and, of course, fear. When a book sparks your imagination and causes you to feel something, it sticks with you. To me it's no surprise that some of my most fondly remembered books are the ones that scared me a little bit as a child.
There's a wide range of Halloween-themed books for kids, but more often than not their intention is not to be spooky at all, but to be silly and lighthearted. Think Curious George picking out a Halloween costume. In fact, it's much easier to find top 10 lists of deliberately "not-too-spooky" Halloween picture books.
On the other end of the spectrum, I've also tried searching "scary picture books for kids" and actually gotten results including young adult novels about teenage vampires and werewolves in love. And so, in order to help families out there who are looking for a few innocent chills, we've compiled our list of Dad Suggests' very best scary picture books for kids:
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. The links of book titles and images will lead you to view the books' listings on Amazon.com. This is a living list that will be updated.
Update 2/21/2019: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins moved onto the list at #7, moving Lenny & Lucy out of the Top 13 and into the Honorable Mentions.
Written by Philip C. Stead and Illustrated by Erin E. Stead
Philip and Erin Stead are definitely one of our favorite duos in picture books. Lenny & Lucy is a beautiful book. The beauty is in its subtlety. It can very subtly make you smile, and very subtly deal with topics like loneliness and the importance of companionship. And then, very nonchalantly, you are invited to wonder what resides on the other side of that wooden bridge leading to the dark woods...
The boy in this story builds imaginary friends to help him keep watch on the woods and the bridge. And I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me a pretty good eerie and uneasy feeling.
The Top 13 Scary Picture Books
Written and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak
The classic story of Max being sent to bed without his supper and running off to become the king of the wild things is actually quite scary. The concept of your room suddenly transforming into a jungle and whisking you away to a place without your parents can be scary enough, let alone to a place full of monsters who roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth. The fact that they love him so is little solace for the constant threat of eating him up.
Written by Alvin Schwartz and Illustrated by Dirk Zimmer
Certainly one of the most popular sets of scary stories for early readers, In a Dark, Dark Room contains such classic tales as The Girl with the Green Ribbon, where a man's wife never tells him why she has a green ribbon around her neck until her dying day. Your kids won't soon forget the ending to that one. I certainly never did. I read this one when I was little and it’s always stuck with me.
My son is a huge fan of the page where you finally find out what's inside that dark, dark room. Spoiler alert, it's... A GHOST!
Written by Linda Williams and Illustrated by Megan Lloyd
A little old lady is taking a walk in the woods in the dark when a pair of shoes begin to follow her. Slowly other pieces of clothing begin to follow her as well. The set of clothes slowly comes together and then, all of the sudden, it hits you. You start to wonder what's going to happen when the whole set is there. She makes it home but then there's a KNOCK, KNOCK on the door.
It’s a spine-tingling moment if you really allow yourself to get into it. This one is legitimately very spooky.
10. The Darkest Dark
Written by Chris Hadfield and Illustrated by The Fan Brothers
Chris doesn't want to go to sleep by himself because of the aliens that come and visit him. The artwork is very, very eerie. The shadow monsters that lurk and hide in Chris' bedroom are downright creepy.
The way they peek through the window, from behind the dresser, from under the bed - it's some of the spookiest artwork I've ever seen in a picture book. The Fan Brothers have created some of the best nighttime creatures ever.
Bonus: It's an inspiring true story by real-life astronaut Chris Hadfield about facing his childhood fear and achieving his lifelong dreams.
9. Heckedy Peg
Written by Audrey Wood and Illustrated by Don Wood
Stranger danger is a scary thing for kids, especially when the stranger is a witch who wants to eat you. From the fantastic duo that brought you The Napping House and King Bidgood's In the Bathtub, Heckedy Peg is an amazing throwback to scary cautionary tales like those of The Brothers Grimm.
It's a very memorable story about a witch who turns seven children (named Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) into food, and how their mother tries to save them before they become dinner. This one made a big impression on me as a kid, and it’s certainly still incredibly creepy to this day.
Written and Illustrated by James Stevenson
James Stevenson has always been one of my very favorite authors. He's also very famous for his comics in The New Yorker. I've had a soft spot in my heart for all of the "Grandpa" books since childhood.
In these books, Grandpa tells outrageous stories from his childhood to his grandchildren, Mary Ann and Louie. In the end, they always have strawberry ice cream.
In What's Under My Bed?, Mary Ann and Louie are put to bed after a scary story, but they soon come running back down to Grandpa. Grandpa then proceeds to tell a story from his own childhood, when he was scared of the dark as well. His story does a wonderful job highlighting what our imagination can do with shadows on the walls and noises in the night.
Written by Eric Kimmel and Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
This book reminds me of a very specific Brothers Grimm story called The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was. In that story, a young man must spend the night for three nights in a haunted castle to win the hand of the king’s daughter and all the treasures of the castle. It set my imagination on fire and scared me to death, and I would ask my dad to read it all the time.
In Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Hershel must spend all eight nights of Hanukkah in a synagogue overrun by goblins. Surviving the nights one by one is a fantastic frame for a story, and kids always really appreciate the way Hershel outwits his enemies.
I remember this one from my childhood too, and I’m happy to report my son loves it just as much as I did. The goblins in this book are seared into my memory. They are incredibly original and grotesque. And the King of the Goblins is very ominous and enough to give you nightmares.
Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Dave McKean
The buildup is strong in The Wolves in the Walls. Lucy very nonchalantly informs her family that she believes there are wolves living in the walls of their house. There's a wonderful line from this story that sticks with you: "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over." Gaiman repeats this line just the right amount to build up that ominous feeling and heightens our anticipation. The illustrations are wonderfully experimental (including photography, computer graphics, and drawing) and it's all beautifully executed. The characters all look like wooden puppets and it just makes the whole thing even more unsettling.
"When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over." "What's all over?" "It."
Written and Illustrated by Mercer Mayer
When I retrieved all of the children's books from my parents attic, this is quite frankly the book I was most excited to see. This was the book I was singly most excited about sharing with my own kids. There's a Nightmare in My Closet left a huge impression on me as a child (as did the equally fantastic There's Something in My Attic).
I love the pictures of the ominous, slightly open closet door, and the way the boy tiptoes across the room to shut it. And then he sits in bed with his toy gun, waiting. The two-page spread of the nightmare tiptoeing out of the closet is etched into my memory forever.
Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
Hansel and Gretel is THE Grimm's fairy tale that absolutely must be on the list of best scary stories for children. There are of course many versions available, but we chose this spooky reimagining from Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti for our list.
The artwork is appropriately dark and ominous, and leaves your imagination to fill in the details of this classic story of a witch who lures children to her gingerbread house in order to eat them.
Gaiman certainly shows why he's earned two spots on this list. But be warned, as I'm sure you already know, the Grimm Brothers' stories are certainly known for being more frightening and violent than your usual children's book, and this particular version is a faithful retelling by Gaiman.
Written by Russell Hoban and Illustrated by Garth Williams
I love Frances. The humor in all of the Frances books is so dry and subtle. The dialogue between Frances and her parents never gets old. Not only does Bedtime for Frances earn the #3 spot on the list for best scary picture books, it's easily one of my top 3 favorite picture books, period.
Not only does this bedtime include some Grade-A banter between Frances and her parents, it includes some of the very spookiest images from my childhood. These images come from Frances' overactive imagination that leaves her wondering what might come out of that crack in her ceiling, or what that shadow in the corner might be. I can't recommend this one enough.
2. The Dark
Written by Lemony Snicket and Illustrated by Jon Klassen
What wonderful thing did we ever do to deserve a scary picture book by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen? These two men are immensely talented, and I feel spoiled owning a book they both worked on. This is a story about Laszlo. Laszlo is afraid of the dark. What makes this story so terrifying is that the dark is a living character. The dark talks to Laszlo. The dark tells him to come closer. "Down here." "In the basement." If you read this book out loud, try doing a raspy, whispering voice for the dark.
"Laszlo thought that that if he visited the dark in the dark's room, maybe the dark wouldn't come visit him in his room. But one night - it did."
Eek! You can read more about what we love about The Dark here in our review.
Written and Illustrated by Liniers
The #1 spot on our list of best scary picture books for kids goes to Liniers and his incredibly original take on being afraid of the dark and scared to sleep alone. The same thing happens to the little boy in this book every night. After his parents leave and turn out the light, strange creatures visit him in his room. Liniers is a world-famous cartoonist, and his adorable yet ominous creatures are certainly one of the highlights here.
"He knows that they are coming. They come every night when the ceiling disappears."
His parents think it's his overactive imagination, but this story is certainly open-ended. After all, we get to experience a visit from the titular What There Is Before There Is Anything There only once, but the tragic thing is that we know from the very beginning that it's the same thing for this boy every night.
You can read more about why this book is #1 on our list here in our review.
And if you’re looking for more spooky fun, check out our list of our favorite Halloween books.
And there you have it - the very best 13 scary picture books for kids. I hope you found something to kickstart your imaginations late at night. Did we miss any of your family's favorites? What books scared you as a kid? Share them in the comments below.