How is it October already?! Once again, spooky season is upon us, and that means it’s time for the GeekMom Halloween Reading Roundup. As with last year, this will be split into multiple parts, so keep an eye out over the next few Fridays for more Halloween reads, and don’t forget to check out last week’s picture books roundup. Today’s roundup is all about middle grade, so keep reading to see nine spooktacular stories for kids that will also stand up for older readers too. If you can’t wait until next week’s post, why not check out our previous roundups? Links are at the bottom of the post. Happy Halloween!
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The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink
The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink is the first children’s book from one of the creators behind Welcome to Night Vale and maintains much of the same disconcerting style while making the writing more accessible.
Thirteen-year-old Esther Gold LOVES Halloween. She prepares for it all year round, constructing elaborate costumes and meticulously planning out her trick or treating route through her South California neighborhood. So when her parents inform her that she is now too old for collecting candy, she knows she simply has to sneak out. However, after meeting up with her friend Augustin, the pair begin to notice that things seem very wrong. No one is answering their doors, there are no cars on the streets, and the huge orange moon isn’t moving because time has stopped, trapping them all in an endless Halloween night. Soon, they come to realize that all but one of the adults in their area has fallen into a sleep they can’t be woken from and all the youngest children have vanished, including Esther’s little sister.
After teaming up with school bully Sasha and their dentist neighbor Mr. Gabler, Esther and Augustin try to uncover what is happening to their town. Along the way, they find their path blocked by the sinister Dan and Ed, and a nightmarish hoard of trick-or-treaters that are far from innocent children beneath their costumes. But even after Esther finds out what is happening to her most beloved holiday, will she be able to stop it (and will she even want to)?
The Halloween Moon wasn’t my favorite book from Joseph Fink, but it was still a great read that I’m sure will appeal greatly to its target audience. The transformation of a nondescript suburban housing development into a world of nightmares is subtle but brilliantly written, encapsulating in words the way familiar places change once darkness falls and taking that to extremes. The main villain behind the events felt rather cartoonish in a Disney villain kind of way, which felt at odds with their far more malevolent henchmen which was a shame, but entirely forgivable in a middle grade. Meanwhile, the main protagonist Esther is fleshed out just enough to have a defined personality all her own, but also vague enough to allow readers to project themselves onto her, something that feels important when the hidden message within the story begins to surface.
As with everything that comes from the pen of the Night Vale creative team, there is a deeper story below the surface of The Halloween Moon, and in this case, it has to do with fear of change. At thirteen, Esther is on the cusp of adulthood and beginning to see glimpses of what the future will bring. She’s started to notice her parents are getting older, is discomforted by her grandmother’s encroaching dementia, and worries about moving on to high school at the end of the school year. The idea of getting older scares Esther in a way she can’t put into words, and so she is clinging onto childhood as best she knows how—through her Halloween traditions. Even though they are terrifying, the events taking place around her are in some way Esther’s dream—an endless Halloween where she never has to grow up and face her future—but having that future snatched away from her makes Esther have to reevaluate her thoughts about change. While readers are unlikely to be fearing the exact same things Esther is, a fear of change is something we can all relate to (especially at Esther’s age/the target audience age for this book), making this book highly relatable to all ages.
With its setting on Halloween night itself and weirdly relatable subject matter (for a book filled with monsters and frozen time), The Halloween Moon is a perfect middle-grade read this October.
Dark Waters by Katherine Arden
The Small Spaces series by Katherine Arden has been one of my favorite spooky middle-grade series since it began in 2018. Dark Waters is the third and penultimate book in the series and it is set during the springtime, after book one which was set in autumn/fall, and book two in winter.
In Dark Waters, Coco, Ollie, and Brian have spent the months since the events of Dead Voices researching everything they can about the Smiling Man, but to no avail. They live every day in fear of what he will do next, and the stress is beginning to take its toll—even their parents have begun to notice that something is amiss. When they are all invited on a day trip aboard a sailing ship on the local lake, they jump at the chance to relax for a day, even if the lake is supposedly home to both a monster and a lost ship from local legend.
However, their trip is cut short when their boat is attacked and they find themselves marooned on an uncharted island. Here they find messages carved on trees, a mysterious ax-wielding man, and fish hooks hanging from trees. All the while, Ollie’s dad is succumbing to a strange illness brought on by whatever sank their boat. Can the kids find their way off the island in time to save everyone?
This was a great third entry to the series but ended up not being my favorite due to its shockingly abrupt ending that quite literally came out of nowhere. The pacing felt a little off somehow, and I never had the same sense of creeping foreboding on the island that I did from the haunted/otherwordly spaces of the previous two books. I also felt that there wasn’t enough focus on the Smiling Man in this one, nor were some of my favorite series elements like Ollie’s magical watch included enough.
What I did absolutely love was the subplot of the axman. While it was fairly obvious from his introduction who he was—at least to me reading as an adult—there were several twists to his story I didn’t see coming that were all linked to an incredibly tragic and touching backstory. This ended up being a truly beautiful little story within a story and one of my favorite parts of the whole Small Spaces saga.
While Dark Waters isn’t my favorite of the three books so far, it does a great job of setting up a dramatic conclusion to the series. I’m already looking forward to reading the final book, but with no indication so far of when that will be coming out, I’m going to have to live with this cliffhanger for the foreseeable future.
The Hiddenseek by Nate Cernosek
The Hiddenseek by Nate Cernosek takes an innocent childhood game we have all played and turns it into something truly sinister. The book opens on a playground where the main protagonist Holly is playing hide and seek and is hiding from a bunch of kids including her younger brother Hector, however, she has concluded that she has been tricked and none of the others ever tried to find her. Soon, after discovering that neither of her parents seems to be able to see her anymore, both she and Hector meet a strange man named Oliver who transports them to a place he calls the Hiddenseek. There, they meet other children who have also been taken from their lives and brought to the Hiddenseek by Oliver.
The other children teach Holly and Hector the rules, they must hide from It—a terrifying witch with glowing red eyes who can transform into animals—or else be turned to stone forever. They also meet the mysterious Gray Boy who seems different from the others in ways none of them fully understand. Determined to find her way home, Holly sets out to explore the Hiddenseek and uncover its history in order to escape It forever and lead herself and the others back to the real world.
The Hiddenseek was a book that grew better as it progressed. I found myself rather underwhelmed by the beginning, which leaped straight into the action without allowing us to get to know (or care) about any of the characters. The Hiddenseek itself was also introduced with little fanfare and no real explanation about what was going on, so I found myself struggling to engage with the story in these opening chapters. However, that changed once Holly and Hector start to explore the Hiddenseek. This section of the story gave me middle-grade Hunger Games vibes as the kids band together to find hiding places and survive against It, those who have been in the forest longer sharing their learned wisdom with the newcomers. As the story progressed and more history was revealed, including the backstories of It, the Gray Boy, Oliver, and several of the kids who Holly and Hector meet in the Hiddenseek, the tone of the book shifts to something far more mature and tragic, and by the end, I was thoroughly enjoying every page.
The Hiddenseek ended up being a much deeper story than I initially anticipated with enough depth within it that it will appeal to adults just as much as its younger target audience. The corruption of hide and seek into something truly horrifying—the impact of all these missing kids on the people back in the real world is touched upon and heartbreaking—should instantly dissuade anyone who reads it from tricking their friends while playing. This is a well-thought-out and twisted story that deserves a chance.
What Lives in the Woods by Lindsay Currie
Despite some misgivings about its inspiration, I loved Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie last spooky season and was therefore thrilled to spot that the Chicago-based author has another middle-grade creep-fest out this year.
In What Lives in the Woods we follow twelve-year-old Ginny Anderson who has just been given the terrible news that instead of attending a mystery writing camp with her best friend over summer, she’ll instead by spending a month living in the creepy, run-down Woodmoor Manor outside the tourist town of Saugatuck, MI. Worse, Woodmoor Manor is surrounded by forests supposedly inhabited by mutated creatures called Hitchhikers that keep the locals at bay.
When they arrive, however, Ginny quickly discovers that she has more to fear inside Woodmoor’s walls than outside them, as the creepy mannequin in her room seems to move, eerie music plays in the night, and figures with glowing red eyes appear in the shadows. Ginny teams up with her older brother Leo and local boy Will to try and convince her parents that they have to leave the house before something terrible happens, but will they succeed in time?
What Lives in the Woods was a really fun story with some classic haunted house spooks and scares within its pages. I did find the initial chapters kind of misleading—the Hitchhikers are mentioned several times at the start then effectively forgotten about for the remaining three-quarters of the book—but given Ginny’s love of mystery novels and the story’s focus on the tropes used by the likes of Agatha Christie, that may well be an intentional choice, as is the use of numerous red herrings throughout the rest of the book. The relationships between the kids all feel believable and grew naturally through the story, there is even an age-appropriate burgeoning connection between Ginny and Will that while clearly not a romance per se, will be relatable to middle-grade readers experiencing their first crushes.
I found that What Lives in the Woods took the two classic literary tropes of the haunted house and the mystery and blended them together effectively into a story that will really appeal to middle-grade readers. Older readers such as myself may find some elements a little predictable, but not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment, and those who have read Scritch Scratch might just spot a subtle call back to that book right at the end too.
Mine by Delilah S. Dawson
Delilah S. Dawson has been one of my favorite Star Wars authors for many years, but I had yet to pick up any of her non-licensed stories before now, but after reading Mine I know I’ll be sure to read some more.
Mine is a contemporary middle grade about a twelve-year-old girl named Lily who is forced to move to a delipidated house on the outskirts of Tampa, Florida. The house is clearly the former home of a hoarder and is filled with mountains of boxes, bags full of trash, and grotesque somethings lurking in every corner. Lily finds herself taking over the bedroom of a little girl who previously lived there, but soon she begins to see strange things. The words “GO AWAY” appear written in dust on her mattress, and “MINE” is scrawled in green gunk on a bathroom mirror, while outside in the swamp a mysterious and filthy dog can occasionally be seen.
Unfortunately, given her history as something of a drama queen, Lily’s parents don’t believe in any of the things Lily sees, and instead, her father accuses of her more of the theatrics that pressured them to move from Colorado to Florida in the first place. Forced to investigate almost completely alone, Lily soon comes to realize that whatever she is up against is dangerous and can do more than simply write threatening words in the dirt. To save herself and her family, she will need to discover what the restless spirit in her new home really wants.
This was a really enjoyable middle-grade horror filled with classic tropes from scrawled messages to ouija boards and haunted nightmares. The backdrop of the Florida wilderness filled with the threat of alligators, snakes, and encroaching swamp water gives the whole story a close and clammy feel that makes it feel very different from traditional haunted house settings like New England and really helped it to stand out. The ghosts here are such recent additions to the spirit world that they knew about Amazon Prime and that, again, makes this book feel truly unique as it is such a long way from your typical Victorian-era ghost.
Another thing I appreciated was the well-thought-out backstory to this tale of haunting. Once revealed, this story is surprisingly heartbreaking for a middle-grade and doesn’t patronize its readers with condescending tropes. This does perhaps make the book more suitable for older middle-grade readers than younger ones, but with kids always being more resilient than we give them credit for, I wouldn’t have a problem reading this one with any middle-grader (although those with snakes phobias like me will probably appreciate a trigger warning!)
Mine was a truly unusual yet brilliantly crafted ghost story ideal for Halloween or even summertime reading given its hot and humid setting.
Nina Soni: Halloween Queen by Kashmira Sheth
The Nina Soni series is a middle-grade book series by Kashmira Sheth that has been going on since 2019 with four books total so far. While Nina Soni: Halloween Queen is the fourth book in the series, it can be easily read as a standalone which is what I did.
In Nina Soni: Halloween Queen, Halloween is rapidly approaching but Nina hasn’t got a costume yet. When her best friend asks what she is going as, Nina blurts out that she is going to be the Halloween Queen, giving her just days to figure out what that means and put together a costume worthy of royalty. Nina also decides that as queen of Halloween, she needs somewhere to preside over and so, with help from her little sister Kavita, she decides to build a haunted Halloween tunnel in their basement. Can the two create something that will wow the neighborhood kids and can Nina pull together a costume in time for the big day?
While Nina Soni: Halloween Queen is technically a middle-grade story, the highly simplified writing style makes it feel more like a transition between chapter books and middle grade. Throughout the story, new words from the previous sentence such as “intellectual,” “ignore,” “practical,” and “promote” are pulled out into a box and defined; this is great for increasing vocabulary but did serve to keep pulling me out of the story. Another point to note about this book was the clipped, almost robotic conversations between many of the characters. While kids don’t always talk like kids in books (they are written by adults after all), every character spoke like example sentences from textbooks without any contractions. This made them sound unnatural and led to exchanges like this:
Mom: “What will you use to make your palace?”
Nina: “I will use whatever works best for the space and our climate.”
What this means is that more advanced middle-grade readers (and any other older readers) will most likely find that Nina Soni: Halloween Queen feels rather childish in comparison with many middle-grade books but will also make it ideal for younger readers wanting stories with a slightly older feel.
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston was reviewed fully by GeekMom Amy in September’s Between the Bookends, so you can head over to her full review for more, but I simply had to include it in this roundup too given the book’s incredible popularity in middle-grade circles over the last year.
In this series debut, thirteen-year-old Amari Peters is recruited to the highly secretive Bureau of Supernatural Affairs just hours after learning that her missing older brother Quinton had been working there when he vanished. In the Bureau, Amari joins the summer recruitment program where she befriends Elsie (her roommate who is also a weredragon) and Dylan van Helsing, son of the Bureau’s Director and brother to Quinton’s partner Maria who vanished along with him.
When the new recruits go through an initiation ceremony to give them their own supernatural powers, Amari discovers that her own latent power is highly illegal—putting her under immediate suspicion of being connected to the evil threat currently facing the supernatural world. Can Amari prove her innocence while also studying to keep her place in the program and searching for her missing brother, and is everyone inside the Bureau to be trusted?
Amari and the Night Brothers has been compared to Men in Black and while I absolutely acknowledge that similarity, especially at the beginning, I was also strongly reminded of that popular boy wizard series we no longer speak of. The world-building here was second to none with the many departments of the Bureau beautifully rendered and the outside supernatural world touched upon just enough to paint a picture of it without allowing for too many contradictions that would allow you to overthink and spoil things.
While this isn’t the “spookiest” book to read this Halloween, the presence of zombies, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and countless other supernatural creatures both good and evil means that Amari and the Night Brothers might be the perfect read for those wanting something with a supernatural twist but without the scares found in most middle-grade horror.
Bridge of Souls by Victoria Schwab
Several years ago now, I reviewed City of Ghosts, the first book in the Cassidy Blake series. This year, the series appears to have come to an end with its third title, Bridge of Souls by Victoria Schwab. This globe-trotting series has so far taken in Edinburgh and Paris, and book three moves us once again, this time to New Orleans. This review will contain a few mild spoilers for books one and two.
For those unfamiliar with the series or requiring a refresher, this series follows twelve-year-old Cassidy Blake, whose parents are The Inspectres, paranormal researchers spending their summer traveling to the world’s most haunted cities to film a TV show about famous ghosts and hauntings. What her parents don’t know is that Cassidy can see ghosts; in fact, she sees them everywhere since her own near-death experience. In particular, she sees Jacob, the ghost who saved her life and has been attached to her ever since. In book one, Cassidy learned that she was a ghost hunter with the ability to send ghosts on to their final resting place, but she hasn’t been able to bring herself to send Jacob on despite his obviously growing powers.
Bridge of Souls picks up right after the end of book two—Tunnel of Bones—with Cassidy still reeling from her encounter with a mysterious skeleton-like creature that caused her to faint on the Paris metro. Now in New Orleans, Cassidy has discovered that the supernatural world she is a part of goes much deeper and is much more dangerous than she had ever realized. Soon she is uncovering secret societies, magic spells, and much more besides her usual ghostly encounters. But with the skeleton creature still out there, Cassidy must discover what it wants if she wants to save herself and her family.
Bridge of Souls is a great third installment to this series but doesn’t feel much like a finale—if that’s what it is. There is some great character development between Cassidy and Jacob here, and the development of the wider supernatural world really comes to fruition, but the third act’s major confrontation simply felt too easy and I feel like there is still much more I want to explore in this world. I’d also like to see Cassidy finally share her ghostly abilities with her parents and bring them into her world to see what impact that makes on her story.
Hopefully, we will be getting more Cassidy Blake books in the future because there are so many more haunted cities in the world that would make great backdrops to this series, but for now, Bridge of Souls is an excellent addition to an excellent series.
Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters by Dan SaSuWeh Jones
Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters by Dan SaSuWeh Jones is a collection of thirty-two short stories based on the myths and legends of multiple native peoples across North America. The author, himself a member of the Ponca Nation, has traveled across the country and spoken with people from many different native cultures to hear those stories they are willing to share with outsiders, as well as sharing the stories of his own tribe and occasionally from his own experiences.
The book is roughly divided into sections such as ghosts, spirits, witches, and monsters, but many of the beings discussed here defy such simple categories. Some of these tales may be familiar and fans of TV shows such as Supernatural will immediately see where the show writers got many of their ideas, but others will most likely be brand new to anyone raised outside the tribe. While I was aware of the stories of La Llorona, skinwalkers, and Bigfoot, others such as the Stikini, the Chenoo, and the Skudakumooch were entirely new to me. However, even the most familiar of stories felt new coming from the spoken traditions of the people who lived close to the land that these creatures call home. While I have been familiar with the legend of Bigfoot my whole life, never before have I read a tale in which this creature appeared so terrifying and so wholly believable.
Whether or not you choose to believe that the stories in Living Ghosts and Mischievous Monsters are entirely fictional, metaphors designed to teach lessons to the next generation or completely true, it is clear that the people sharing these stories believe in them and live their lives showing respect to whatever may be out there in the woods. That doubt about how real or not these stories might be is what makes this book that much more chilling than many other short story collections. Having read it, I for one will be even more inclined to treat the woods more respectfully.
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2018
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2019
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2020: Babies – Grade School, Middle Grade, YA & Adult Part One, YA & Adult Part Two
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.