I’m a lifelong horror fan who’s read everything from Stephen King to H.P. Lovecraft. But the scariest thing I ever read was a children’s book. Even as a grown-ass woman, there is no way I could re-read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and still get any sleep at night. To be honest, I lost my original copy of the book in a flood when I was 19, and I purposefully never replaced it. It just goes to show that there are some children’s books you should not read as a child (even though you totally did).
Seriously, some children’s lit can mess you up. Whether it covers serious themes like grief or just aims to give you nightmares for the rest of your life, kit lit is not something to take lightly. Most of these reads would greatly affect adults. I mean, grown-ups can check sites like Does The Dog Die? to avoid unnecessary grief, but kids just plunge into stuff like Where the Red Fern Grows with no warning. It’s rough. So here’s a list of the most brutal reads from your younger years that probably scared or grieved you greatly at the time (but ultimately helped you prepare for the realities of adulthood.)
1'Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark'
How was this even considered a children's book? Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark covered all manner of macabre urban legends and folklore that was just too intense for little brains to process. I remember reading it in class one day and almost screaming out loud at one of the drawings. (So if you want to give your child the full SSTTITD experience, seek out a copy with the creepy, inky Steven Gammell illustrations.)
2'Where The Red Fern Grows'
Many tears have been shed over Old Dan and Little Ann, the lovable hunting hounds who accompany protagonist Billy on his adventures in the Ozarks. Many children learn their first lesson in grief from Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls.
3'Bridge To Terabithia'
And speaking of grief, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is a completely heartbreaking story. It gets real in a hurry. I remember picking out this one from the school library without any idea of what I was to come, and just getting devastated by this beautiful story. I can still picture Jess and Leslie in their imaginative playground in the woods, and... where are the tissues?
4'The Velveteen Rabbit'
I haven't thought about this story in years, but apparently I'm still not over it. Margery Williams' The Velveteen Rabbit includes a deathly sick little boy, toys that are set on fire, and a key character named the Skin Horse. It's terrifying.
My friends and I were super into all the Goosebumps stories back in the day, and I don' t remember ever being particularly spooked by them. But glancing over the titles again as an adult, I realize that many of these stories are pretty messed up. How I Got My Shrunken Head stands out, but there were also stories about ghost dogs, a haunted mask, and a creepy camera.
6'Where The Wild Things Are'
Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is an absolute classic of children's lit. But I remember thinking that interacting with an entire world of monsters felt like an awful lot of responsibility, and the illustrations of the wild things always looked pretty haunting.
7'Mrs. Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH'
Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH looks like another charming adventure starring mice. But once you started reading, the adult themes came at you fast: the harshness of widowhood, the desire of lab rats to exert free will, and the burden of intelligence. It's heady stuff for the under-12 set.
8'A Taste Of Blackberries'
Just add this to the suite of upsetting children's stories about grief. Doris Buchanan Smith makes you fall in love with Jamie and his best friend, and then the rest of A Taste of Blackberries just rips out your heart.