The 30 Darkest Books From Your Childhood

This story was originally published on November 10, 2015.

Halloween seemed to be all about nostalgia this year. A Goosebumps movie hit the big screen. We reminisced about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Actually, that was pretty much all it took for us to fall down the rabbit hole revisiting the books that scared us silly in our youth. Scary Stories and Goosebumps are dark in the more obvious sense — they’re meant to be spine-tingling, horror-themed reads. Some of us may have been too scared to pick up most of the Goosebumps series (*cough* me *cough*), simply because we didn't want to read outright "scary books." And forget about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Nightmares for days.

There are many other books we read as children, however, that were dark for other reasons. Some of them continue to haunt us to this day. Actually, it wasn’t until we reread many of these books as adults that we noticed their more subversive themes and elements. Is The Rainbow Fish really about learning to share, or is it about stripping yourself of uniqueness in order to conform and fit in with the rest of society? The little match girl? Spoiler alert: She dies.

These are just a few of the darker depths into which we’ll plunge as we take you on this journey through some of the darkest books from our childhood.

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Photo: Courtesy of Dover Publications.
The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863)
Author: Charles Kingsley
Illustrator: Warwick Goble

Summary: A chimney sweep named Tom falls into a river and drowns. He’s transformed into a water-baby, signaling the start of his moral education. He has to learn the golden rules, save his former boss, and perform a variety of selfless tasks. In reward for his hard work, Tom becomes human again.

Why is it so dark? Not only is The Water-Babies kind of boring, it’s rather preachy. Plus, it contains a lot of insulting remarks about Americans, Jews, Black people, and Catholics (especially Irish ones).
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Photo: Courtesy of MacMillan.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Author: Lewis Carrol
Illustrator: John Tenniel

Summary: Alice falls down a rabbit hole, eats and drinks strange things, and goes on a series of wild adventures with the March Hare, Mad Hatter, and other crazy critters.

Why is it so dark? Alice’s eating and drinking of strange substances — and its trippy aftermath — has been compared to drug use. There’s also some speculation as to why Lewis Carroll was so fascinated with Alice Liddell, on whom Alice is based. And if we’re just going on the plot of the book alone, the fact that the Queen of Hearts walks around screaming, “Off with her head!” is quite terrifying.
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Photo: Courtesy of Gramercy Books.
The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories (1874)
Author: Hans Christian Andersen

The original Danish edition of Andersen’s fairy tales contains 156 stories (you can read most of the 186 fairy tales the author wrote in his lifetime here). Some of his most popular stories include “The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Emperor's New Suit.”

Why it’s dark:
Have you read Hans Christian Andersen’s version of “The Little Mermaid?” Let’s just say it’s a far cry from Disney’s adaptation.
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Photo: Courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton.
Peter and Wendy (1911)
Author: J.M. Barrie
Illustrator: F. D. Bedford

Chances are you know the story, but here’s a quick refresher just in case. A boy named Peter likes to visit the Darling family’s house in Bloomsbury to listen to Mrs. Darling’s bedtime stories. One night, he loses his shadow and wakes up Wendy Darling trying to get it back. He takes Wendy to Neverland to be a mother to the Lost Boys. Her brothers John and Michael come along. In Neverland, the Lost Boys rescue princess Tiger Lily and battle Captain Hook and his pirates. Wendy is kidnapped by Captain Hook, and Peter rescues her. He sails the pirate ship back to London, where Wendy decides her place is with her parents. Mrs. Darling adopts the Lost Boys and wants to adopt Peter, but he doesn’t want to be forced to grow up. He flies off to Neverland, promising to return for Wendy.

Why is it so dark?
The OG boy who doesn’t want to grow up now has a pop-psychology diagnosis named after him: Peter Pan Syndrome. We all have to get older and mature eventually, and Peter’s eternal wish to remain a boy free of responsibility is a plaintive reminder of that. Plus the whole pirates and walking the plank thing.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1947)
Author: Betty MacDonald
Illustrator: Hilary Knight

Summary: Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s husband was a pirate who left behind a whole chest full of magical potions and cures. Now, she gives parents formulas to cure children of their bad habits.

Why is it so dark? Children’s books with lessons were just the worst. No one wants to read about kids with problems (mind you, these “problems” include things like not brushing your teeth) getting curses put on them that fit their crimes until they change their errant ways.
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Photo: Courtesy of Faber and Faber.
Lord of the Flies (1954)
Author: William Golding

After their plane crashes on a deserted island, a group of boys struggle to survive by forming a society with rules and order, versus engaging in power struggles and giving into base urges that result in them killing one another.

Why it’s dark:
At first, the boys’ attempt to form an organized society devoted to being rescued proves virtuous. Over time, however, different personalities start to clash, and it becomes clear what happens when the social contract is ignored in favor of brutality.
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Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday.
The Lonely Doll (1957)
Author: Dare Wright
Photographer: Dare Wright

Edith is a doll who lives alone until two teddy bears, Mr. Bear and Little Bear, enter her life with the line, “Just wait and see what fun we'll have!” They do have fun in a variety of fun settings, but Mr. Bear also chastises Edith and Little Bear when their antics get a little too out of hand.

Why is it so dark?
Many people have taken umbrage with the photograph of Mr. Bear spanking Edith while he says, “I know when a naughty girl needs spanking.” Also, to plumb the depths of author and photographer Dare Wright’s life is to realize that Edith veers almost too far into the uncanny valley. The doll looks just like Wright and is named after the author's mother. Wright was apparently just as lonely as her titular doll, adding a layer of melancholy to the frozen images and stories.
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Photo: Courtesy of Bantam Books.
Where the Red Fern Grows (1961)
Author: Wilson Rawls

A boy named Billy saves up to buy two coonhounds. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann. He trains them to hunt raccoons, and they become legendary in the Ozarks. Billy and his dogs compete against much more experienced hunters in a championship raccoon hunt, which they win. A little while later, his dogs tree a mountain lion, which attacks Old Dan. The dogs save Billy’s life, but Old Dan dies. Little Ann is so distraught at the death of her partner that she stops eating and starves to death. When Billy goes to visit their graves after recovering from his grief, there is a red fern between them, which according to a Native American legend, only an angel can plant.

Why is it so dark? The relationship between Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann is trusting and wonderful. When the dogs die, it’s beyond upsetting.
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Photo: Courtesy of Random House Bullseye Books.
The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)
Author: Norton Juster
Illustrator: Jules Feiffer

Summary: A boy named Milo receives a magic tollbooth and a map of the Lands Beyond. When he drives through the tollbooth in his toy car, he’s transported to the Lands. He gets lost in the Doldrums (Milo is very often bored, so, SYMBOLISM), but is rescued by an alarm clock named Tock. They travel through the Kingdom of Wisdom and then face demons in the Mountains of Ignorance. Eventually, Milo rescues two princesses named Rhyme and Reason, and everyone celebrates. When he wakes up the next day, he sees the world differently and is no longer bored.

Why is it so dark? Milo has to fight demons and travel through the Doldrums to learn the lesson that even when he’s bored, there are things to do if he uses his imagination and intelligence.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper & Row.
The Giving Tree (1964)
Author: Shel Silverstein
Illustrator: Shel Silverstein

A tree that loves a little boy provides him with food, economic prosperity, shelter, transportation, and finally — when he is old and tired and has taken everything the tree has to give — a seat. In exchange, the boy stays away for years on end and only comes back when he needs something from the tree.

Why is it so dark?
There are several ways to look at The Giving Tree. From one perspective, it’s the story of someone loving someone else so much that she’s willing to sacrifice everything for him. From another, the tree is enabling the boy and teaching him to be self-centered and unable to fend for himself. There’s also an environmental interpretation, where the boy represents the decimating effect humans have on the environment and natural resources. Then, there’s the fact that as you get older, you recognize the book’s two divergent characters as the two types of people you meet throughout your life: givers and takers. Their friendship isn’t reciprocal, yet the tree waits and waits for the boy to come back and spend time with her. It’s almost heartbreaking.
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Photo: Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971)
Author: Robert C. O’Brien

Summary: When her son Timothy is taken ill with pneumonia, a widowed mouse named Mrs. Frisby seeks the help of the rats who live near her family. She learns that the rats are part of a highly evolved society because of the experiments performed on them at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Her husband had also been at NIMH, so the rats agree to help her. Mrs. Frisby returns the favor when she overhears that the farmers whose land they live on are planning to exterminate the rats, and the rats are able to evacuate their colony in time.

Why is it so dark? Laboratory experiments on animals, superhuman rats...the usual.
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Photo: Courtesy of Scholastic.
A Watcher in the Woods (1976)
Author: Florence Engel Randall

Jan’s family buys an old house in the country, but she senses the presence of someone watching. The watcher continues to make her presence known until she makes contact with Jan and Jan's sister Ellie.

Why is it so dark?
Spoiler alert: The Watcher is a female alien-humanoid child who accidentally fell through a portal to Earth from her home planet 50 years ago. She has to wait 50 more years until she can go home again. Dark and sad.
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Photo: Courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (1977)
Author: Eleanor Coerr
Illustrator: Ronald Himler

Summary: Sadako was a happy 2-year-old when the atom bomb fell on Hiroshima. Now, 10 years later, she’s dying of leukemia. According to a Japanese legend, though, if someone folds a thousand origami cranes, the person will be granted a wish. Sadako would wish to live. In the book, she unfortunately passes away before folding all of the cranes, so her family and friends finish them for her and place them in her casket.

Why is it so dark? The book is based on a true story.
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Books.
The Best Little Girl in the World (1978)
Author: Steven Levenkron

Summary: Francesca’s secretly been starving herself without her parents noticing, but now she’s starving to death.

Why is it so dark? For many young readers, this might be their first exposure to anorexia nervosa.
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Photo: Courtesy of Lathrop, Lee, and Shepard Books.
Outside Over There (1981)
Author: Maurice Sendak
Illustrator: Maurice Sendak

While babysitting her sister, Ida tries to multitask and also play her horn. When she’s not looking, goblins sneak in and steal her sister, replacing her with a changeling made of ice that melts in Ida’s arms. Ida goes after them, but goes out the window backward, meaning that she enters a place called Outside Over There. She eventually locates the goblins, who have changed into baby form, and plays her horn to find her sister. Ida and her sister return home, where her mother says that her father (who’s been away at sea) wrote to say he’ll be home one day.

Why is it so dark?
Well, goblins stealing babies and taking them to the scary Outside Over There. Many people have noted that Outside Over There might be even darker when you read it as an adult. “A child abducted when you fail to watch, an imposter baby that melts in your arms, an absent father and a seemingly depressed mother...children tumbling out of the house into midnight thunderstorms,” Amanda Katz mused on NPR in May 2012. All of these happenings are slightly scarier for grown-ups.
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Photo: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.
Jumanji (1981)
Author: Chris Van Allsburg
Illustrator: Chris Van Allsburg

Summary: Judy and Peter Shepherd find a game called Jumanji in the park and take it home. The game has a warning message that says, “Do not begin unless you intend to finish.” Once they start playing, they realize that everything that happens in the game also comes true in real life. Their house is soon the site of a monsoon, a stampede, and a real, live lion. Everything vanishes once Judy rolls a volcano and screams, “Jumanji.” They put the game back where they found it, but later see their neighbors bringing it home from the park.

Why is it so dark? What if you can’t finish the game? Are you stuck living with lions, monsoons, volcanoes, and more in your house forever?!
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper & Row.
The Scary Stories Treasury (1981-1991)
Author: Alvin Schwartz
Illustrator: Stephen Gammell

This treasury consists of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1981), More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (1984), and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (1991). Here are just a few titles to jog your memory: “The Big Toe,” “Me Tie Dought-ty Walker,” “The Viper,” and “Room for One More.” Most tales contain an element of the supernatural or the macabre, while others involve people being scared to death.

Why is it so dark?
As a child, we remember being very concerned about the whole “scared to death” phenomenon. Could it really happen? Would someone find our bodies frozen in a scream, exactly as it happens in many of the Scary Stories? Just one of the reasons these books live up to their titles.
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Photo: Courtesy of Holiday House.
The Dollhouse Murders (1983)
Author: Betty Ren Wright

Amy finds a dollhouse in her aunt’s attic that’s an exact replica of her great-grandparents’ house — complete with dolls resembling her great-grandparents, aunt, and Amy’s dad, Paul. Amy’s great-grandparents were murdered in the house, and when she plays with the dolls, they reenact their deaths. Amy manages to clear the name of her aunt’s fiancé, who was long suspected of committing the crime.

Why is it so dark?
Dollhouses can be sweet playthings, but they take on a different meaning when used to recreate a murder scene in hopes of solving a gruesome family mystery.
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Photo: Courtesy of Puffin.
The Witches (1983)
Author: Roald Dahl
Illustrator: Quentin Blake

After his parents die in a car accident, a boy goes to live with his grandmother. He learns that she is a witch hunter, and has spent her career trying to rid the world of witches who want to eliminate children. When the boy and his grandmother are on vacation in Bournemouth, he discovers that all of England’s witches are there for their annual meeting. He overhears their plan to turn all English children into mice so that people will kill them, ridding England of children once and for all. The witches discover the boy spying on their meeting and pour the potion down his throat, turning him into a mouse. He and his grandmother devise a plan to sneak the potion into the witches’ food, effectively using their own plan against them to rid the world of witches.

Why it’s dark:
The witches want to rid the world of children. Reading that as a child was some heavy shit.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (1984)
Author: Alvin Schwartz
Illustrator: Dirk Zimmer

This “I Can Read!” book helped children practice their developing literacy skills while also terrifying them with stories including “The Green Ribbon,” “The Teeth,” and “In the Graveyard.”

Why is it so dark?
Well, it has dark in the title...twice. Plus, stories like the one where a woman’s head falls off when her husband unties the ribbon she wears around her neck are guaranteed to keep many a young reader awake at night.
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Photo: Courtesy of Firefly Books.
Love You Forever (1986)
Author: Robert Munsch
Illustrator: Sheila McGraw

Summary: Throughout a boy’s life, a mother shows her affection for him by singing, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” When the mother is old and gray, the boy comes to her house and sings the song to her as she dies. Then, he returns home and sings the song to his infant daughter.

Why is it so dark? On author Robert Munsch’s website, he reveals that "Love You Forever" started as a song that he made up “after my wife and I had two babies born dead. The song was a song to my dead babies.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Heckedy Peg (1987)
Author: Audrey Wood
Illustrator: Don Wood

Summary: A poor mother goes to the market, promising to bring back a present for each of her seven children. She tells them not to open the door for anyone, but a witch named Heckedy Peg tricks her way inside the house. She turns the children into different types of food. In order to turn the children back, the mother has to figure out which child is which food. She manages to do this, because the kids were turned into the foods they asked her to bring back from the market.

Why is it so dark? Witches tricking their way into your house and turning you into food? No, thank you.
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Photo: Courtesy of Starfire.
The Girl in the Box (1989)
Author: Ouida Sebestyen

Summary: Jackie McGee has been taken by an unknown kidnapper and left in a cement bunker with food, water, and a typewriter.

Why is it so dark? The whole trapped in an underground cement room with no clue how she got there and no idea how to escape part.
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Photo: Courtesy of Hodder’s Children’s Books.
Remember Me (1989)
Author: Christopher Pike

This is part of a trilogy that includes Remember Me (1989), Remember Me 2: The Return (1994), and Remember Me 3: The Lost Story (1995). In Remember Me, Shari Cooper goes to a graduation party where she falls off the balcony and dies. Her death is ruled a suicide, but she's positive that she was murdered. Shari teams up with her friend Peter, who did commit suicide, to find out who killed her.

Why it’s dark:
Suicide, murder, ghosts, and a lot of babies who were secretly switched at birth.
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Photo: Courtesy of Hodder Wayland.
The Deptford Mice trilogy (1989-1990)
Author: Robin Jarvis

Summary: The trilogy consists of The Dark Portal (1989), The Crystal Prison (1989), and The Final Reckoning (1990). A colleague at R29 described it being “like Game of Thrones if everyone was a rodent. It's got rats with hooks for paws murdering innocent mice, peeling their skins, and keeping them as trophies; a demon god demanding blood sacrifices; ominous pagan prophecies — and that's just the first book.”

Why it’s so dark: Game of Thrones with rodents? Hard pass.
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Photo: Courtesy of North- South Books.
The Rainbow Fish (1992)
Author: Marcus Pfister

Summary: A beautiful fish with rainbow scales that shine and sparkle refuses another fish’s request for one of his scales. The other fish take offense to this. The Rainbow Fish asks the octopus for advice, and the octopus says to share his scales with everyone. The next time the Rainbow Fish sees the small fish, he gives him a scale, which makes the fish very happy. More and more fish start asking Rainbow Fish for his scales, and he obliges them all.

Why is it so dark? While the author intended The Rainbow Fish to be a story about the joy of sharing, many people see the Rainbow Fish having to relinquish his scales as promoting socialism and saying that it’s not okay to stand out and be unique.
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Photo: Courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.
The Blacksmith and the Devils (1992)
Author: María Cristina Brusca & Tona Wilson
Illustrator: María Cristina Brusca

This Argentine folktale tells the story of Juan Pobreza, a blacksmith who sells his soul to the devil. After managing to outwit the devil three times (and getting 20 more years of youth, prosperity, and adventure out of the deal) and insulting St. Peter, Juan is left to wander the Pampas of Argentina forever.

Why it’s so dark:
Making deals with the devil is never a good idea, as evidenced by the Juan’s eternal wandering.
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Photo: Courtesy of Ember.
The Giver (1993)
Author: Lois Lowry

Summary: At his Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas is given the job of Receiver of Memory as his assignment in the community. As the Receiver, he’s given all of the memories that members of the community no longer have. These include happy memories, like rainbows and snow, but also sad memories, like starvation and war. Jonas slowly realizes how controlled and colorless his society has become, and he escapes to an unknown place called Elsewhere.

Why is it so dark? The Giver presents a dystopian society which yes, has peace and order, but it doesn’t have color, happiness, or music. Life is carefully controlled, as is death. When Jonas learns about the past, even pain and suffering seem preferable to the sterile present.
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Photo: Courtesy of Health Communications.
A Child Called “It” (1995)
Author: Dave Pelzer

: A child named Dave is horribly beaten and abused by his alcoholic and emotionally unstable mother, who calls him It.

Why is it so dark? See above.
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Photo: Courtesy of Salamandra.
Coraline (2002)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Dave McKean

Coraline and her parents move into a flat in a house occupied by rather odd tenants, one of whom warns her not to go through the mysterious locked door in her living room. She doesn’t heed this warning, and steps through the door one day when she’s home by herself. Behind the door she finds a flat that looks exactly like her own, but instead of her own parents, two beings called “Other Mother” and “Other Father” live there. They look like Coraline’s parents, but they have shiny black buttons instead of eyes. At first, Coraline thinks that everything in the Other World is superior to her real life — there’s even a cat that can talk. That is, until her Other Mother says that Coraline can stay in the Other World forever, as long as she replaces her own eyes with buttons. She also shows Coraline that she has kidnapped her parents and trapped them in a mysterious hallway. Coraline meets three ghost children who the Other Mother convinced to do the button thing, and they tell Coraline to flee. Coraline has to complete a series of riddles and challenges to save her parents and the ghost children from the Other Mother.

Why is it so dark?
Coraline preys on one of children’s worst fears: that their parents — specifically their mother — will be replaced by an uncanny impostor with evil rather than good intentions.

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