In last week’s Halloween Reading Roundup, we looked at books for babies, preschoolers, and grade school kids. Today we’re moving on to middle-grade Halloween reads with eight stories that are guaranteed to bring some spooky vibes to your reading shelves. These books contain ghosts and witches, secret societies, and magical realms hidden to all but a few humans. Hungry for more? Why not check out my Halloween roundups from 2018 and 2019 too?
Please note: This post contains affiliate links.
Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega
My first of my middle-grade Halloween reads was Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega, a book currently receiving a lot of well-deserved attention in the middle grade reading community. I listened to this cute story courtesy of Audible and enjoyed it immensely.
Lucely Luna lives in St. Augustine with her father and a house full of ghosts, the dearly departed spirits of her lost family members. The spirits usually reside as fireflies in jars hung from the old tree in their yard and only Lucely can see and talk to their human forms, her father having lost the ability years before. However, as Halloween approaches, something is happening to the firefly spirits that is causing them to relive their deaths before extinguishing their flames. On top of that, Lucely overhears her father talking to the bank and knows that they are at risk of losing their home – and the family’s spirit tree – if their ghost tour business doesn’t pick up soon.
Together with her best friend Syd, Lucely tries to work a spell to bring back the spirits, but succeeds only in unleashing a dormant evil that then tries to overtake the town. Thankfully, Syd’s grandmother just happens to be a powerful witch and with her help – not to mention help from her aptly named cat Chunk – the girls might just be able to save the town and Lucely’s home.
This is a fantastic middle-grade story rooted in Dominican culture and starring a biker-jacket wearing witch grandma, two young girls of color having wild adventures in graveyards at midnight, and a bunch of cats named after the Goonies. The constant callbacks to 80s culture gave the story a Stranger Things vibe, while the focus on family ties reminded me strongly of Coco, although I liked this book far more than that film.
Ghost Squad is an own-voices story so the relationships between Lucely and her firefly spirit relatives are truly the heart and soul of the book and make it very different from traditional Euro-centric ghost stories. Listening to the book via Audible also gave it an extra multicultural dimension thanks to the narration from Almarie Guerra who was born and partially raised in Puerto Rico.
If you’re searching for a supernatural middle-grade story that is totally different from the norm and has a loving family narrative at its heart, then I highly recommend giving Ghost Squad a try.
Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann
Next up in my middle-grade Halloween reads was something decidedly more traditional. Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann brings together all the tropes of a classic gothic novel and packages them for a middle-grade audience.
Raised in an orphanage after being abandoned as a baby, twelve-year-old Zita worked as a housemaid until she received a letter stating that she was the long-lost daughter of the Brydgeborn witch family and had inherited Blackbird Castle. The story opens as she arrives at her new home and is forced to prove she truly has magical blood to Mrs. Cantanker, her newly appointed guardian. After passing the test and realizing she has the ability to see the dead, Zita begins her training but rails against the restrictions imposed on her. It’s obvious that Mrs Cantanker is hiding something and that the two young servants Zita has befriended have been enchanted to prevent them from revealing the truth, but just what is going on?
As Zita learns more about what happened to her family in the past, and to her as well, she discovers a sinister plot brewing within the walls of Blackbird Castle. Unable to know who is truly on her side, she must work to uncover the truth before the same evil forces that destroyed her family succeed in destroying her too.
While Cinders and Sparrows is far from the most original tale ever told, it is a fun and fast-paced story with plenty of interesting twists and turns. Classic haunted house elements are used in clever ways and sinister characters lurk in every shadow. In fact, all the elements you would expect from gothic fiction are found here; a young orphan girl, an old house, superstitious townsfolk, witchcraft, and the constant doubt that comes from never knowing who is secretly working against you.
The dead play a large part in this story and the way ghosts are included was surprisingly dark for something aimed at a middle-grade audience, but not so much as to give me any real concerns. However, I would exercise caution around giving this book to young readers who have experienced the death of a friend or family member as some of the plot elements found here are bound to stir up some very strong emotions.
Cinders and Sparrows is an ideal introduction to the sort of classic gothic stories that can be challenging even for adults, nevermind young readers. It made me want to immediately pick up something by the Bronte sisters or a spooky classic like Frankenstein or Dracula, and I hope it might inspire some young readers to seek out similar tales themselves.
Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie
My third of my middle-grade Halloween reads was Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie. Our protagonist, 12-year-old Claire, is a budding scientist and does not believe in the paranormal. As far as she is concerned, there is no such thing as ghosts, goblins, or ghouls, and anything that goes bump in the night can be explained if you simply apply some logic and use the scientific method to figure out what caused it. Her father, however, is a different story. He has written a popular book about the ghosts that supposedly inhabit their home city of Chicago and – even more embarrassingly – owns and operates a ghost tour bus that takes tourists around haunted sites, a source of endless humiliation. Just to make things worse, the new girl at school appears to have stolen Claire’s best friend. Middle school just cannot get any worse.
One Saturday night, Claire is forced to assist her dad on his bus and she finds herself surprisingly unnerved by the stories he tells his customers. Her uneasy feelings are only intensified when she spots a strange little boy alone on the bus and wearing odd clothes. When he disappears, Claire soon realizes that no one else saw him and upon investigating the seat, finds a wet piece of paper with the number 396 written on it. From that point on, weird things begin happening everywhere Claire goes. The number 396 keeps popping up, her dresser is flooded and soaks all her clothes, and a mysterious scratching noise can be heard in the walls of her home. Claire is soon forced to conclude that ghosts are very real after all, and worse, one of them is haunting her. With the help of her older brother, Claire begins a scientific-style investigation with the aim of discovering who the little boy was and what he wants, in the hopes of making him leave her alone. Together they dive into the history of Chicago and discover a forgotten tragedy that might hold the key to their mystery.
This was a beautifully written book, it is at times both frightening and upsetting and it ties together real Chicago history with plenty of classic spooky moments that will probably have young readers trembling under their covers if reading alone at night. I had never heard of the S.S. Eastland and having surveyed everyone I spoke to in the days after finishing the book, found that no one else had heard of it either, a shocking revelation when you consider the fame of the Titanic. Scritch Scratch made me want to learn more about this unimaginable disaster so that it not forgotten.
I did find myself unsure about the author’s choice to have a real victim of the tragedy appear as the ghost. While the subject is handled with incredible sensitivity and with the intention of educating readers about the disaster, having a child who died in unimaginably horrifying circumstances be used as the antagonist (at least initially) of the story could easily be viewed as inappropriate. That is something I wrestled with throughout the book once it became clear that this was no typical literary ghost but instead a real person whose photograph can be easily googled, and I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it.
Despite this, I did enjoy reading Scritch Scratch and found it incredibly educational, however, young readers may find much of the subject matter upsetting and parents may wish to read this one in advance to determine its suitability.
The Witches of Willow Cove by Josh Roberts
Next up for me was The Witches of Willow Cove by Josh Roberts. This magical tale focuses on two middle-school kids, Abby and Robby, who live in the small town of Willow Cove that is located close to Salem, Massachusetts. On Halloween, which also happens to be Abby’s 13th birthday, the pair sneak up to the old asylum on Whispering Hill in the hopes of discovering clues regarding the disappearance of Robby’s mother many years before. Instead, Abby discovers that she can fly when they are chased away by the building’s new owner who casts a spell and sends an army of stone statues after them.
The next day, it is revealed that the new owner is in fact Miss Winters, a new substitute teacher at the town’s middle school who has replaced their history teacher who recently disappeared in circumstances similar to Robby’s mother. Miss Winters begins gathering together a coven of six girls, including Abby, all of whom have discovered they have magical powers on their 13th birthdays. The two best friends find that they are pushing one another away as Abby focuses on her new coven and Robby tries to split his time between researching the truth about Miss Winters and hanging out with new girl Becca with whom he is experiencing his first crush. As the pair learn more about the history of Willow Cove, they realize that many of the adults around them have been hiding secrets, but has Miss Winters arrived to help the next generation of witches discover their potential or to enact her own secret plans against them?
This was a fun, if not especially original, choice of middle-grade Halloween reads. As with Scritch Scratch, the story weaves in some real-life history – in this case surrounding the infamous Salem Witch Trials – but adds in a fictional spin that ties our young, modern-day protagonists to those events. This did get quite intense at times with vivid descriptions of young girls hanging from trees and although this is not done in a sensationalist way, it may still be upsetting for some readers. There is also a strong feminist message throughout this story that is as relevant today as it would have been in the days of the trials.
While The Witches of Willow Cove is told from the alternating perspectives of Abby and Robby, there is a whole cast of interesting and well-developed secondary characters here too. Latinx Becca is not just a simple love interest, burly football player Zeus reveals he is more than his stereotype might suggest, and the girls in Abby’s coven each have their own unique character traits and personalities that prevent them from being simply a bunch of identikit, cookie-cutter background figures.
The book keeps the true motivations of Miss Winters under wraps right until the end and I found myself switching back and forth several times, unable to decide whose side she was really on. Even at the conclusion, enough questions are still floating around that I fully anticipate a sequel and I’m sure I will be picking it up when that time comes. The book also accurately depicts the awkwardness and confusion of middle-grade romance, with several side plots bubbling along beside the main story and helping to keep things moving in interesting ways.
There’s a lot to like in The Witches of Willow Cove and this more than makes up for any shortcomings as regards originality. Young readers will love this one.
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
The next of my middle-grade Halloween reads was another book that has been getting a lot of attention in the middle-grade reading community. Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron is based on West African mythology and the native religion of the Yoruba people.
Twelve-year-old Maya is an ordinary girl who attends middle school in Chicago and is obsessed with a comic book series starring Oya, a Wonder Woman style character rooted in the legends of the Orishas, spiritual beings who take on human form to guide and protect humanity. Maya’s Papa travels regularly for work and always returns bearing stories of the wondrous creatures he has seen and fought off in his travels; werehyenas, impundulu, and kishi among them. Maya has grown out of believing these tales until the day when time freezes and all the color briefly drains from the world. From that point on, she begins to see these magical and dangerous creatures herself as they break into her world through strange, otherworldly cracks that lead to a realm known as The Dark.
As the danger increases, Maya learns that almost no one in her South Side community is who she first thought, including her two best friends Frankie and Eli, and even her own parents. When her Papa is kidnapped and taken into The Dark by The Lord of Shadows who is hellbent on revenge for an ancient wrong, Maya and her friends realize they are the only ones who can rescue him and set off on an adventure of their own.
Maya and the Rising Dark is a stunning book that introduced me to a whole new mythological world I had never heard of before. The story reminded me in many ways of Rick Riordan’s tales, marrying a young, modern-day Chosen One plotline with traditional myths and religious beliefs, and there was also a touch of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – although naturally written in a far more young-reader friendly tone! Maya is a wonderful character who I instantly rooted for and her personal journey didn’t feel cliched the way many Chosen One narratives can.
I wished I had known going into this story that it was the first in a series as that would have slightly altered my perception of the plotting, however, on discovering this near the end, I was delighted to know there will be more from this series; the sequel – Maya and the Return of the Godlings – will be released in June 2021. I hope we will learn more about the various orisha characters and their communities across the globe and I’m curious to see how the story continues and whether Maya and her friends can prevent an all-out war between our world and The Dark.
The Haunted Mansion by Sina Grace
Next up was something completely different! The Haunted Mansion by Sina Grace is a one-shot graphic novel based on the Disney theme park attraction of the same name and the only graphic novel in this collection of middle-grade Halloween reads, look out for some more aimed at older readers next week.
New ghost Sydney has just arrived at the Haunted Mansion because the hotel she was previously haunting has been demolished and she needs a place to rest. A hospitality manager in life, Sydney is full of ideas about how to make the mansion even scarier for its human visitors, but she soon butts up against Constance – The Bride. Constance considers herself the top dog around the Haunted Mansion, and the other ghosts think of her as a bully. When Sydney’s initial ideas fall flat and she finds herself in a challenge against Constance with dire consequences, Sydney has to rethink her approach and realizes that there is more to the Haunted Mansion than just scaring those who choose to visit.
This is a cute story that fans of the attraction will no doubt enjoy, although I do expect to see some backlash against the choice to make the main character a new creation instead of one of the many established ones already present in the ride. Those figures do pop up constantly throughout as supporting characters, however, and I was happy to spot Madame Leota, Uncle Theodore, and Alexander Nitrokoff among others all materializing for this swinging story. Sydney herself is a fun new character and having her as the main star allows us to see the mansion through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with its quirks.
The art style here was utterly perfect for the story and for the mansion itself, filling the pages with ghosts, ghouls, and graves, but keeping everything utterly charming and firmly on the side of spooky rather than scary. The colors too were perfect, the blues and purples used throughout match the feel of the mansion while keeping things light and airy and away from anything too macabre.
This will be a perfect Halloween read for older grade-school readers making their first forays into middle grade, and also for older nervous readers who want something with a spooky flavor but are likely to be frightened by anything too intense, including some of the other choices on this list.
Thirteens by Kate Alice Marshall
My penultimate choice of middle-grade Halloween reads was Thirteens by Kate Alice Marshall, a story that certainly pushes into scary territory compared with the milder spooks present throughout most of these choices.
Elle has recently moved to the picture-perfect Oregon town of Eden Eld to live with her aunt and uncle after her mother lit a fire in their house, apparently in an attempt to kill Elle. Traumatized by the smell of smoke and the taste of ash, Elle simply wants to get by and attract as little attention as possible. She certainly wants to ignore all the Wrong Things she sees that no one else seems to, like the strange grandfather clock outside her bedroom door that counts backward, or the big black dog with glowing red eyes that keeps appearing around town.
At her prestigious new middle school, Elle unexpectedly befriends two other kids – Pip and Otto – and all three quickly realize that they are the only kids in town who notice the Wrong Things. Weirder, they all have the same key-shaped birthmark, palindrome names, and also share a birthday – all three will turn 13 on Halloween in just a few days’ time. When a strange book of fairytales that Elle thought lost in the fire appears on her bed and she learns about the mysterious January Society, Elle, Otto and Pip make a horrifying discovery. Every thirteen years, the town sacrifices three thirteen-year-olds to Mr. January in return for their utopian lifestyles, and this year, it’s their turn.
Thirteens was probably the most genuinely scary book I read out of all my middle-grade selections this year, keeping me up late at night wanting to just keep reading. The town’s secret is deeply disturbing, as is the way those residents not in on the plot have trained themselves to simply not see what is happening around them, and the creatures who follow the children are liable to give even the odd adult nightmares.
I really loved the depictions of teen/tween mental health in this book too. Elle is dealing with PTSD after the fire and this influences much of her decision-making along with her deep-seated anxiety that she may be headed down the same path as her mother who also saw the Wrong Things. Pip too has mental health issues and is open about seeing a therapist which I loved as it helps normalize something that can be a source of anxiety to anyone requiring the same.
As with Maya and the Rising Dark, I wish I’d known this was only the first book in a series, or at least I hope it is given both its ending and the lack of any information regarding a sequel.
The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf
My final choice of middle-grade Halloween reads was another audiobook provided by Audible. The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf is based on Malaysian folk tales and features friendship at its heart in both its best and worst forms.
The book opens with the death of a witch, freeing the dark spirit bound to her blood. The creature is a pelesit – a ghostly dark spirit that needs blood to survive – so the being seeks out the witch’s descendants and after sensing an attachment to a young girl named Suraya, binds himself to her, making her his master until death. Suraya is a lonely child who is unperturbed when the pelesit reveals himself to her. She names him Pink and the two quickly become inseparable.
Pink, however, is a dark creature by nature, and, as Suraya grows she begins to notice that whenever Pink is angered, awful things happen. The girls who bully Suraya at school experience terrible repercussions and her only friend’s arm is broken when Pink becomes insanely jealous of their friendship that he feels is taking Suraya away from him. Pink’s dark side finally threatens to destroy them both, but when they are once again united against a new threat, Suraya discovers there is more to her old friend than she ever knew and her discoveries unite her with friends and family in a way she never imagined.
This was a compelling story that deeply explored friendship and family connections. We see powerful friendships in the strong connection between Suraya and Pink, and later between Suraya and her adorably nerdy best friend Jing, but Pink’s darkness allows the story to also explore what happens when friendships fail. Jealousy is a powerful motivator and Suraya is pushed to her limits by Pink’s obsessive need for revenge. Suraya’s relationship with her mother is cordial at best and we also explore jealously through Suraya’s eyes when she compares this to the close bond between Jing and her mother. Suraya’s mother is little more than a supporting character but she also presents one of the book’s deepest mysteries that is uncovered slowly as the story progresses.
I loved this book because of the relationships at its core. I could identify with Suraya’s lonely childhood, as many kids will be able to, and her connections to both Pink and Jing. These relationships touched every part of this story and were its heart and soul, so even though this was, on the face of things, a ghost story, it became much more than that. The ending was unexpectedly heartbreaking and the equally unexpected villain at the book’s conclusion easily one of the creepiest I have read this year. There’s a lot to be found here about not making assumptions based on how something appears at its surface, and this is a lesson equally valuable to readers of all ages.
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.