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7 Terrifying, Scary, and Messed Up Classic Children's and Young Adult Novels

Updated on February 25, 2013

We've all seen the signs at the library: Reading is fun! Every child and teenager should have a healthy foundation of fun, engaging literature that can instill in them a lifelong love of the written word. Popular series like Harry Potter have introduced the world's young people to the joy of reading for pleasure. However, some children's novels have darker themes than we might initially realize.

Often times, children's literature deals with far more messed up, upsetting, and downright scarring topics than adults might be led to believe. Search your memory: for every book about Pooh Bear you cherished, there was a Bridge to Terabithia that left a psychic wound that has yet to heal.

Read on to find out about some hilariously twisted kids books that we all thought were perfectly normal at the time.


1. The Chocolate War

In nearly every novel aimed at the young adult market, there's usually at least one lesson that remains constant across the board: it might be hard, but doing what you believe in is always the right thing. Not so in Rober Cromier's briliant The Chocolate War. Readers will be left with a much more realistic look at what it is like to stand apart from the crowd.

The novel's protagonist makes a stand and refuses to participate in his school's annual chocolate sale. By refusing to fund raise, he turns himself against the school's administration and the social elite of the student body. Although our hero tries to stand out, he simply manages to get beat back down, quite literally. The closing pages reflect that it is better to just shut up and go along with the way things are if you have no chance of winning.

Cormier is no stranger to dark tales. Another novel, I Am The Cheese, was similarly disturbing and aimed at the same young audience. The Chocolate War's writing is brilliant but anyone who held out hopes that the world of adults would be fair and reward bravery will be left with a sense of despair.

2. The Hunger Games Trilogy

I read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins as an adult. The amount of anxiety, horror, and anger this young adult novel could make me feel made me wonder just what your average ten year old picking up this hit franchise would feel while reading it. A strong anti-war allegory based on the author's memories of her father going to war in Vietnam, The Hunger Games turns child soldiers heading off to die into a post-apocalyptic reality show.

Naturally, there is violence and murder. But Collins' novel also deals with fascism, mental illness, abuse, and the hard realities of poverty. An expertly crafted tale, The Hunger Games is top notch entertainment. But don't confuse it with the average kid's book: this novel can be inappropriate for kids who are sensitive to violence, betrayal, and death.

Make sure your kids are ready before picking up The Hunger Games
Make sure your kids are ready before picking up The Hunger Games | Source

3. The Pigman

A deeply depressing book, The Pigman by Paul Zindel has been marketed to kids around 10-14 for years. This disturbing children's book introduces us to two highschool ne'er-do-wells who lie and cheat their way into an old man's life. Although they set out to scam him for cash, the aging Mr. Pignati befriends them and fills the void in their life left by their inattentive families.

Naturally, nothing goes right. Although they manage to come clean to their aged friend about their initial deception, the two manages to destroy his home and the cherished remnants his deceased wife left behind. So great is the anguish they cause their "friend", he has a heart attack and dies due to all of the pain and stress.

Any child reading this will hope for some sort of redemption or happy ending. Instead, they find two lead characters too damaged to respect one of the few positive things left in their life. Although they might learn a lesson in the end, the often pathetic Mr. Pignati must suffer the final indignity of having his only close relationships betray him from start to finish.

The Westing Game and some of my other favorite childhood books

4. The Westing Game

Growing up, I was a mystery fanatic. Imagine my joy when I found, perhaps, the greatest mystery book written for children of all time: The Westing Game. An engaging puzzle behind an enigmatic will left behind by an eccentric millionaire masks the real meat of the story, however: the deeply damaged characters tasked with putting the clues in place.

What's so messed up and dark about The Westing Game's characters? Let's take a look.

  • A bigoted social climber who condescends to everyone, ignores and demeans one daughter, while controlling the other.
  • A successful African-American judge that hates the cruel millionaire while being simultaneously indebted to him for paying her way through college.
  • The stifled, ignored young beauty who turns to violence and self harm just to find a way to express herself.

That's just a few of the darker themes running through Ellen Barkin's The Westing Game. This Newbery award winner is a great read, filled with drama, humor, and excitement. But just at the edges there is a darkness nipping to get in. Many children may not notice it at all. But for more observant young readers, this kid's novel might leave a more downbeat impression.


5. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

A classic, to be sure. There are, uh, a few lessons that children should not be learning from their favorite kiddy novel during grade two. In fact, it could be downright dangerous!

  • Do NOT run away from home because you feel ignored.
  • Do NOT run away to the Manhattan and try to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!
  • Do NOT convince your 9 year old brother to run away with you so you can mooch off his money.
  • Do NOT steal money from wishing fountains.

...and so on and so on. This is a charming, fun book for any ages. But if kids follow the path of this books heroes they'll soon up dead, lost, or worse.


6. Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia is, for the most part, a pleasant novel about the joys of imagination and the power of friendship. A lonely boy befriends an eccentric girl and the two of them create an intricate fantasy world in the deep woods surrounding their homes. They see giants and goblins and all manner of make-believe creatures.

Sounds good right?

Well, the one time the boy decides to hang out with another group of friends and not visit their make-believe world for one day, the girl falls in the woods and breaks her neck, dying in the process. All because he wasn't there to help her.

What is the lesson here? If you don't do whatever your friends want, they'll DIE? That having more than one pal will destroy those you love? The moral is, supposedly, that one should always stand by their true friends but it just seems mean spirited and accusatory. The novel, in fact, seems to encourage holding onto damaged relationships. Maybe not the lesson to be teaching the youngsters reading your psychotic children's book.

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forget it, I'm done, I'm out aaaaaaaa | Source

7. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark

Well, I mean, it DOES say on the cover that this is a scary kids book. Dark, unsettling, and pretty gross should probably be appended to the front cover, however. Let's not dwell too much on the stories, though: let's look at the illustrations.

Ohhhhhhh yeah, that's the stuff. We got spiders crawling out of people's faces, Lovecraftian nightmares made flesh, a murderous scarecrow covered in human skin and God knows what else.

These are the images that will haunt a child for a lifetime. The books were (and still are) specifically marketed to the 12 and under crowd, featuring easy to read text suitable for kids in elementary school. Too bad it is filled with an unending series of nightmares designed specifically to destroy the hearts and minds of all who gaze upon it.


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