It’s Spooky Season once more and it’s time once again for the GeekMom Halloween Reading Roundup. As in previous years, this will be split into multiple parts, and this week we’ll be looking at Middle-Grade books. Check out last week’s post for Adult recommendations and stay tuned for YA and Picture Books coming on the next two Mondays.
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Dread Wood by Jennifer Killick
If you hate spiders, then Dread Wood by Jennifer Killick might not be the book for you!
Angelo, Hallie, Gus, and Naira are having to spend their precious Saturday serving detention at their secondary school: Dread Wood High, after all being involved in a massive food fight that has already been immortalized as “The Dread Wood Riot”. However, not long after the teacher in charge has signed them in and locked away their phones, he vanishes entirely, leaving behind only his cap and evidence of a disturbance.
The kids, who have now named themselves Club Loser, set out to investigate but are soon even more deeply disturbed when they spot the caretaker’s wife throwing a live chicken into a well on the property while whistling Incy Wincy Spider to herself. It doesn’t take the group long to figure out that the school’s creepy caretakers are somehow involved in their teacher’s disappearance, and that something is lurking below the ground, something that can sense their movement whenever they touch the ground and attack in an instant.
With their phones confiscated and the gates locked, the four of them quickly realize that they’re in much bigger trouble than just detention, but as they begin to talk, they begin to understand that it’s no coincidence that the four of them are all stuck there that day. Someone has been watching them and planning everything that has happened, but who is behind it all and why have they been targeted?
This was a brilliantly creepy middle-grade horror that will make you nervous about ever walking across your school playing field again! The slow build-up of tension was well-written and the reveal, while slightly bonkers, was a lot of fun and sets up for the next book: The Fear Ground which will be book two of a planned four-book series.
Camp Scare by Delilah S. Dawson
Twelve-year-old Parker is excited about her first-ever sleepaway summer camp at Camp Care. More than anything, she hopes it is far enough away from her home that she’ll be able to reinvent herself and leave behind the bullies who have tormented her for the last year. However, upon arrival, she discovers that the leader of the mean girls at her school – Cassandra – is not only in her cabin but a lifelong friend of all her other cabinmates. Within hours, Cassandra has turned all the girls against Parker, convincing them that she is a liar and a thief and instantly scuppering all Parker’s hopes for a fun week away.
As fake rumors about her spread across camp, soon enough Parker’s only friend is Jenny, a girl she met by the lake on their first night. Jenny also understands how isolated Parker feels and the two form a close bond. However, Camp Care holds a secret. Something happened a long time ago that the adults want to keep a secret but that secret is refusing to stay buried. As the girls in her cabin begin falling victim to a series of strange accidents any time they’re mean to her, Parker begins to wonder if there’s something dark at the heart of Camp Care, and how her new best friend Jenny might be connected to everything.
I loved Camp Scare, as I loved Delilah S. Dawson’s previous middle-grade horror – Mine – last summer. There’s a sense of creeping tension and mounting dread as events unfold throughout the story, gradually getting more and more dangerous. The paranormal aspect of the book is actually surprisingly minimal with much of the horror coming from the all-too-believable actions of the girls in Parker’s grade at school and her cabin, as well as the dismissive attitude of the adults around her who don’t want to believe bullying could possibly be taking place at their oh-so-perfect camp and so choose not to see it. This is a book that will have you shouting in frustration at the pages, especially if you yourself have ever not been believed when going to an adult for help. And although I, as an adult reader, found one of the book’s biggest twists very obvious from the beginning, I imagine it will come as a brilliant and shocking revelation to much of its target audience.
Camp Scare is, at its heart, a story about bullying, and the very specific form of bullying that tween girls in particular excel at. This isn’t the stereotypical, physical, steal-your-lunch-money kind of bullying often seen on TV. Parker is isolated by her bullies both at school and at camp and the mean girls work to manipulate events and people to keep Parker alone. The flashback at the book’s beginning in which Parker believes Cassandra might actually want to be her friend, only to learn that she’s merely acting as a distraction for other girls to go through her journal and share photos of it on social media, is something that will, unfortunately, resonate with many young readers. The paranormal elements of Camp Scare give Parker the power and opportunity to get back at those who have bullied her, and it’s great to see Parker’s choices when presented with this situation. I also appreciated the book’s conclusion which showed us how making choices to bully others can have tragic consequences that will ripple on through the years.
Camp Scare is a brilliant book that is terrifying more for its realistic parts than its paranormal ones. I would advise caution before handing this one to any young readers dealing with bullying in their own lives as it has the potential to reopen wounds, however many readers in that position may also find it deeply cathartic so perhaps read it first so you can be ready to support your young person if they need it.
The Girl in the Lake by India Hill Brown
Celeste is about to spend two weeks at her grandparents’ lake house along with her little brother Owen and their cousins Capri and Daisy, but she’s not looking forward to it. Having just failed her swimming test, Celeste has decided that the water is just not for her, but her grandparents feel differently. Having grown up during a time when pools were segregated and Black people simply never had the opportunity to learn, they are firm believers in making sure everyone in their family knows how to swim. Grandpa was even a lifeguard back in his youth and Celeste knows that something terrible happened to her Great Aunt Ellie – grandma’s sister. However, the deep, dark waters of the lake that backs onto her grandparent’s house are nothing short of terrifying for Celeste and she would rather spend her days drawing.
However, strange things begin to happen as soon as the kids move into the house. A light shines out from the attic even though the wiring is broken and no bulb even hangs there anymore, Celeste hears giggling and someone whispering her name, a storm blows into her cousin Daisy’s room and terrifies her, and someone who looks just like Celeste seems to push Capri down the stairs. Even spookier, the kids see a photo of their long-lost Great Aunt Ellie and discover that she looks almost exactly like Celeste. Soon convinced the house is haunted, can the kids convince their grandparents that Ellie is back and trying to harm them, or does grandma already know something about the secrets hidden inside her lakeside home?
The Girl in the Lake is a brilliantly spooky middle-grade story that weaves in a lot of history about segregation and the lasting effects that time has had on Black families across America to this day. As the author notes at the end of the book, 64% of Black children cannot swim (compared to 40% of caucasian children) and this is often generational, passed down from parents and grandparents who were never given the opportunity to learn themselves due to racist rules and policies. Celeste learns about how racism has impacted her family in the past through what happened to her Aunt but also sees how it is still happening today when she visits a local private pool with her grandpa and an all-too-believable incident occurs with a white neighbor.
Away from this more educational side of the story, The Girl in the Lake is filled with classic haunted house tropes from footsteps in the hallways at night, floating objects, and whispering voices. It’s fairly obvious what (or who) is behind the haunting from the beginning – probably even from the synopsis – but the question here is less about what’s causing these events than why they are happening and how the kids can stop them. It was also great to read a story that shows a bunch of cousins of different ages working together (eventually) and becoming friends in the process.
The Girl in the Lake is a unique take on the traditional haunted house story with an important message subtly hidden within it that will hopefully encourage some families who have never considered learning to swim to give it a try.
Read The Girl in the Lake: Amazon
Apple Crush by Lucy Knisley
Apple Crush is book two in a graphic novel series that began with Stepping Stones, however, it can easily be read in isolation without picking up the first title, as I did.
It’s almost Halloween time on Peapod Farm where Jen lives with her mom, her mom’s new boyfriend Walter, and her new step-sisters Andy and Reese which means it’s time to start preparing for the pumpkin patch celebrations. Jen will be helping out on the haunted hayride with her new family and their neighbors, but she also has other concerns including starting at a new school where she doesn’t know the rules. Even worse, everyone around her seems to be obsessed with love and romance, making her feel like a permanent third wheel. Why can’t people just be friends?
Thankfully, Jen finds solace in a new book series about dragons recommended by the school’s friendly librarian and a new friend from her bus who loves the same nerdy things she does. Ignoring the girls who tease her about having a boyfriend, Jen begins enjoying more things about her new countryside life, although she does still appreciate visiting her dad in the city where she can grab an everything bagel at the bodega and pet all the bodega cats and by the time Halloween rolls around, Jen is finally starting to settle into both sides of herself.
Apple Crush is fall/Halloween vibes perfectly captured in a way I haven’t seen since Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hick’s Pumpkinheads. There are haunted hayrides, apple cider donuts, costumes galore, and pumpkin picking a-plenty to be found here but even those elements that could usually be scary – Jen’s zombie costume or the trio of witches in the field – are rendered quaint and fun rather than even mildly spooky. The art style helps with this through its watercolor style and fall color palette. The whole book has a timeless quality that made it impossible to pin down exactly when it was set and I loved that about it.
Apple Crush is the perfect book for anyone who wants to read something filled to the brim with Halloween vibes but with absolutely nothing spooky or scary going on either.
Tales to Keep You Up at Night by Dan Poblocki
When I started out reading books for this year’s Halloween reading roundups, I didn’t expect that the book that would freak me out more than any other would be a middle-grade, and yet, here we are! Tales to Keep You Up at Night by Dan Poblocki is a relatively short book that somewhat defies a simple explanation, but that very much lives up to its title.
Amelia is helping her moms to clean out her grandmother’s house a year after her mysterious disappearance when she comes across an old library book in the attic titled Tales to Keep You Up at Night. The book seems strange, and not only because it’s very much not the type of book her grandmother would ever have read, but in order to get out of helping with the clearing (Amelia is dead set against this because what if her grandma comes back?), she offers to return it to the local library. However, when she gets there, the librarian tells her that the book didn’t come from her shelves and instead, suggests that she should read it.
As Amelia begins reading, she discovers a book filled with spooky short stories that we get to read along with her with every story somehow linking back to a family long ago persecuted for witchcraft. But as she reads, she notices that things in the stories seem to be coming to life. The characters share surnames with people she knows – including herself, sounds heard in the book start happening in the library, and strange objects start appearing that Amelia swears weren’t there before. The stories all begin to intertwine and Amelia begins to suspect that not only is this no ordinary book but that it might be linked to her grandmother’s disappearance. As she continues to read, the stories grow ever more dangerous. Can Amelia make it to the end or is she destined to become just another story trapped within its pages?
Tales to Keep You Up at Night is a brilliant book that, as I said at the start, genuinely creeped me out and got under my skin in ways I wasn’t expecting. Across the many interconnected short stories here there is every trope going from axe-wielding maniacs to creepy clowns, gigantic worms to clay monsters. However, it wasn’t these more traditional horror elements that bothered me, more the psychological ones of bullying middle schoolers, lonely kids, and what that noise up in the attic might or might not be.
If I had to recommend just one book to read this Halloween season, this is the one.
- 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
- Halloween Reading Roundup 2021: Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult
GeekMom received copies of these books for review purposes.