Friday, October 25, 2013

In Praise of Mary Downing Hahn (and Other Spooky Writings for Middle-Graders)

No season is more perfect for a good leave-the-lights-on scary story than the Halloween season, and no writer does spooky tales for middle-graders better than Mary Downing Hahn. She is a former children's librarian who has been writing kids' novels for over thirty years, and her books are popular with kids, parents, teachers, and librarians alike. The genres in which she writes include contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy, but her ghost stories and suspenseful mysteries are where she really shines. Here are a few of my favorites, along with recommended grade levels: 

All the Lovely Bad Ones (5-8)
When Travis and his sister, Corey, discover that their grandmother's old Vermont inn has a supposed history of ghost sightings, they decide to play tricks on the guests and "haunt" them for fun. As people hear about what they think are authentic ghosts, the inn becomes a popular tourist attraction for ghost hunters and other lovers of the supernatural. Unfortunately for Travis and Corey, their games have awoken some very restless and nasty spirits who are definitely NOT playing games.

Deep and Dark and Dangerous (5-8)
While looking through some old photographs, 13-year-old Allie finds a childhood picture of her mother, her aunt Dulcie, and...someone else. A third girl who was ripped out of the picture. Her mother refuses to talk about it, so when Allie is asked to spend the summer with her aunt Dulcie, at the same lake house where Dulcie and her mother spent their childhood summers, she starts investigating in secret. It's an investigation that will take dangerous and sinister turns and Allie discovers the truth about the lake where the three little girls once played.
The Doll in the Garden (4-6)
Even though Ashley is warned not to go into Miss Cooper's garden, she can't resist following the white cat who comes to her window every night. This cat eventually leads Ashley through a hole in the hedge and into another world where she meets Louisa, a young girl who is looking for her doll. The doll that her friend Carrie took and buried in the overgrown garden so many, many years ago, the doll that Ashley and her new friend, Kristi, found. Unfortunately, finding that doll turns out to be the start of Ashley's problems.

The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall (4-6)
This one is a good, old-fashioned Victorian ghost story, with a few elements reminiscent of The Secret Garden. Orphaned twelve-year-old Florence is sent from London to live in the country with her uncle and aunt and their sickly son, James, whose room she is forbidden to visit (but of course she finds a way to do so). Before long, Florence realizes that they're not alone in the house - her dead cousin, Sophia, is haunting them all. Sophia is evil and wants both revenge and a new chance at life and she thinks that Florence will help her get it. Problem is, Florence is having a hard time making everyone believe that Sophia is real.
Look for Me by Moonlight (6-9)
This is a great one for kids who want an atmospheric and spooky romance but who aren't yet ready for things like Twilight. When a mysterious stranger named Vincent comes to stay at her father's inn, 16-year-old Cynda falls instantly under his spell. What possible danger could there be? He is handsome, charming, and very attentive, so when he asks Cynda to meet him secretly on moonlit nights, she is thrilled. However, their flirtation takes a turn when Cynda discovers just who (or what) Vincent really is.

The Old Willis Place (5-8)
Diana and Georgie live in the woods surrounding a creepy old abandoned mansion named Oak Hill Manor. They also live by a set of strict and mysterious rules set by the sinister Ms. Lilian: don't let yourselves be seen; don't ever go beyond the gate; don't go near the house; and don't talk to anyone else. But when a new caretaker and his daughter, Lissa, move into Oak Hill Manor, Diana and Georgie can't resist spying on them. They are particularly intrigued with Lissa since neither of them have ever had a friend other than each other. When Diana realizes she and Georgie will need Lissa's help to break free from Ms. Lilian, she has to decide whether or not to break the rules and risk whatever punishments Ms. Lilian has in store. This is probably my favorite MDH ghost story. It's truly creepy, with lots of twists and turns.
Time for Andrew (4-6)
While spending the summer with his Great-Aunt Blythe, Drew goes into the attic and finds an old set of marbles...and a boy named Andrew. A boy who looks just like Drew. A boy who died in 1910. They get the idea to switch places, hoping that maybe that will give Andrew a longer life. At first, Drew has fun with it and is intrigued by life in 1910. But things take a sinister turn when Drew decides that he likes modern life better and wants to switch permanently. Andrew agrees to one final game of marbles.  If Drew beats Andrew, he can come home - but if he loses, Andrew gets to stay and Drew will be stuck in the past forever...if he can survive what killed Drew....
Wait Till Helen Comes (4-6)
When Molly and Michael's mother marries Heather's father, they become a blended family. The only trouble is that Heather is a real manipulator: she is unbearable and spiteful toward her new siblings but knows just how to make herself look like the victim in front of their parents. When the family moves into Harper House, a former church with a graveyard in the back, Heather starts disappearing. Molly follows her and notices her hanging around one particular grave. When Heather starts talking to someone named "Helen," at first Molly and Michael think she has invented an imaginary friend. Until they notice that the name on the gravestone that Heather has been visiting is...Helen. Heather commands Helen to create trouble for the family, but things become deadly when Molly realizes just what Helen really wants. Can she make her brother and parents believe in ghosts before Helen enacts her revenge on all at Harper House?

More truly spooky stories by other middle-grade writers:

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand (5-8)
Coraline (4-6) and The Graveyard Book (6-9) by Neil Gaiman
Doll Bones by Holly Black (5-8)
The Dollhouse Murders by Betty Ren Wright (5-8)
Infestation by Timothy Bradley (4-6)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (series) by Alvin Schwartz (4-6)
The Spindlers by Lauren Oliver (5-8)
A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz (4-6)
Zombie Tag by Hannah Moskowitz (5-8)

To find these and other great books, visit the children's department of the Tredyffrin Public Library, and also check out our many reviews and ratings on Goodreads (under Tredyffrin Kids).

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