Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

Dec 12, 2023
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Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

Merry Christmas everybody! Thank you for checking out our YA and Middle Grade reviews across the year. Just to be clear, ‘Young Blood’ is a specialist YA review site, I feature Middle Grade when it comes my way, but it is a fraction in comparison to what we cover for older teenagers and not particularly my area of expertise. Having said that, we have still featured enough books to put together a strong ‘best of’ which includes some of the most outstanding authors in the business and a few of my personal favourites.

I will start with two novels which could also qualify as YA or could happily be read by any teen depending on their reading ability. First up is Frances Hardinge’s Island of Whispers, a mediative coming-of-age tale of the connections the living has with the dead and the responsibility which falls on a young boy living on an isolated island community after his father dies. If that sounds a bit sombre, then instead take a huge chunk out of Bite Risk, the howling debut of SJ Wills, who gives the werewolf myth a serious shake. I’m already looking to chow down on Bite Risk 2: Caught Dead which drops in March. 

Next up are two of my favourite authors, Lindsay Currie and Kate Alice Marshall, neither of which can do no wrong. Lindsey is the queen of Middle Grade USA horror and It Found Us is the latest in an impressive run of books from her. She is criminally under-exposed in the UK and deserves to be stocked by every school library. Kate continually amazes me, effortlessly moving from YA to Middle Grade and her latest Extra Normal is a very cute, light and hugely entertaining supernatural family drama for younger kids who do not want big scares. 

The next four authors have all previously been reviewed on Ginger Nuts, Gabriel Dylan wrote the superb YA Red Eye horror Whiteout and in Shiver Point book 1: It Came From The Woods he effortlessly shimmies down to Middle Grade with a small-town horror mystery. Shiver Point 2: A Tap at the Window arrives in February 2024 and I’ll be preordering that for the younger kids in my library ASAP. Jennifer Killick of Dread Wood and the Crater Lake series curates the anthology Read, Scream, Repeat, Thirteen Spine Tingling Tales which features many top Middle Grade authors and because it is not too scary can be recommended to younger kids with confidence. Yvette Fielding’s Ghost Hunter Chronicles series just seems to get better and better, with book three The Witches of Pendle being my favourite thus far. Delilah S Dawson is a veteran of all sorts of fiction, including a fair bit of Middle Grade and Scare Camp takes in ghosts, bullying, loneliness and standing up for yourself in a summer camp setting. 

The final three authors are making their Ginger Nuts debuts. Hilary McKay is a highly distinguished Middle Grade writer but an unknown in the horror field and Jodie is a dyslexia friendly high interest ghost story aimed at children with lower reading ages. Field of Screams is the engaging debut of Wendy Parris and a ghostly tale set in rural America of a lonely girl on a family holiday who gets involved in a supernatural mystery with a touch of history. Finally, and last but certainly not least, we have Emma Read’s The House Trap where a group of friends get trapped inside a haunted house. I would have absolutely devoured this book when I was nine or ten and wouldn’t have wanted to leave. 

The books are listed A-Z by author and were all published in 2023. Do contact us if you have something we might like to feature on the site in 2024.

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

Lindsay Currie – It Found Us

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Sourcebooks Young Readers 

Lindsay Currie – It Found Us

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

Lindsay Currie was, far and away, my top Middle Grade discovery of recent times and in quick succession I read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed three of her other novels Scritch Scratch (2020), What Lives in the Woods (2021) and The Girl in White (2022). If you are a school librarian looking for not-too-scary horror fiction this author is indispensable and one of my top tips. Currie returns with It Found Us, another engaging horror thriller, which also keeps one eye on historical events (but this does not become apparent until quite far into the plot) being built around the disappearance of a teenager who is fooling around playing hide and seek in the local graveyard late at night. This tightly constructed plot then plays out over the next two to three days as the small town are shocked by vanishing of Everett, who seems to have disappeared into thin air, with no clues to his whereabouts.

However, even though the police fail to find clues this is not the same for twelve-year-old Hazel Woods has always had an unusual knack for sleuthing and dreams of running her own true crime podcast (even if her parents said no). The missing teenager, Everett, is the best friend of her elder brother Den and together they try and solve the mystery which they soon connect with the supposedly haunted graveyard. Hazel is the type of character Lindsay Currie loves to put front and centre in her fiction and I enjoyed the manner (with her methodical lists of clues) she solved the creepy mystery, with her best friend also joining the team. It quickly becomes apparent that something supernatural is going and young readers are going to have fun with the strange presences which follow the kids, cracking the clues and identifying what lurks in the cemetery. It Found Us is a beautiful blend of suspense, ghosts, mystery, friendship and family. Highly recommended and another winner from Lindsay. AGE RANGE 10-13.

Delilah S Dawson – Camp Scare

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Delacorte Press

Delilah S Dawson – Camp Scare

If you are looking for a top-notch Middle Grade horror, which is scary but not too scary, then the character driven Camp Scare is irresistible. There is not anything in this plot which is particularly new or been used in old Goosebump of Point Horror stories, but Delilah S Dawson gives familiar surroundings a shiny new lick of paint and kids aged ten to twelve will have a lot of fun with it. Parker Nelson struggles to make friends and in the opening sequence is bullied by classmate (Cassandra) who pretends to be her friend so a wider group of girls could mock her on social media. With that incident several months behind her, Parker hopes her time as summer camp will be amazing and dreams of making new friends, however, her worst nightmare comes true when she discovers that not only is Cassandra at the same camp, but they will also be sharing the same bunkroom and very soon she feels herself isolated, lonely and accused of theft.  

Any reader around the same age as Parker will quickly identify and relate to her attempts to fit in, no matter how clunky. The fact that she tries a little bit too hard made her even more endearing as she goes up against a very stereotypical group of mean girls and uncaring camp counsellors who refuse to listen to her side of the argument. The ghost story was filtered nicely into the plot and sits on the backburner, when Parker meets Jenny who appears when nobody else is around and there is the mystery of what happened at camp some years earlier when there was a death which nobody talks about. Camp Scare is probably more aimed at girls as there are no boys in the book and readers will quickly be sucked into the trials and tribulations of poor Parker, always knowing things will work out in the end. Go Parker! AGE RANGE 10-13

Gabriel Dylan – Shiver Point book 1: It Came From The Woods

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Piccadilly Press

Gabriel Dylan – Shiver Point book 1: It Came From The Woods

The number of authors who can write both Middle Grade and YA horror fiction successfully is relatively few, but you can add Gabriel Dylan to that exclusive list. In 2020 Ginger Nuts of Horror listed their favourite fifty horror novels of the previous decade, ranking Dylan’s superb Whiteout (2018) at 37, published on the excellent Red Eye Series. It Came From The Woods is the first book is a projected quartet called Shiver Point and now that this Invasion of the Bodysnatchers inspired opener has set the scene for the ‘Shiver Squad’ I cannot wait to see what the team of twelve-year-olds get up to next. There is a lot of terrific Middle Grade horror around at the moment and this new series is very much in the same vein as the Jennifer Killick (Dreadwood) and Lorien Lawrence (Fright Watch trilogy). It Came From The Woods was an easy-to-read page-turner and is an engaging gateway horror novel, with a splash of science fiction, for kids who do not want to be scared too much at the top end of primary or first year of secondary school. 

Twelve-year-old Alex is new to the small town of Shiver Point and has struggled (refused even) to make friends with his single parent mum often working long hours. One night he spots a meteorite plummeting into the local Howelmoor Forest and decides to investigate, only to find four other kids from his class, Oli, Sophia, Mo and Riley, with the story featuring them all in the narrative. Before long lots of weird things begin to happen in the town and the group realise that what fell to the ground definitely was not a meteorite. It Came From The Woods does not break any new grounds, but it was an engaging fun read and would be perfect for kids to get lost in for a few hours. The characters are nice and diverse, many will relate to Alex’s struggle sitting into his new school, and there are lots of nice horror jokes scattered here and there (the dog was called Cujo). In the end friendship triumphs and the ‘Shiver Squad’ gear up for another adventure, with A Tap at the Window arriving in February next year. Bring it on! AGE RANGE 8-12

Yvette Fielding – The Witches of Pendle (Ghost Hunter Chronicles book 3)

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Andersen Digital

Yvette Fielding – The Witches of Pendle (Ghost Hunter Chronicles book 3)

In the third of the Ghost Hunter Chronicles Eve, Clovis and Tom make a welcome return, following The House in the Woods (2021) and The Ripper of Whitechapel (2022), both of which were reviewed favourably on the site. I do not know how successful these terrific Middle Grade horror thrillers have had, but I have certainly soaked them up and the series deserves to pick up momentum with the kids getting involved in a secret government department which monitors supernatural activity, which was introduced at the end of book two and is a major factor in The Witches of Pendle storyline. I particularly enjoyed the manner in which Yvette Fielding skilfully weaves the true story of the infamous Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 into the story, giving young readers plenty of scope to investigate the horrific events in how a group of women were tortured, accused of witchcraft and eventually put to death. However, in this story the ghosts of the restless dead (guilty or not) will not stay dead and the young teenagers are sent to investigate, supported by Eve’s uncle, Professor Rufus. 

I love Middle Grade horror as it is scary enough to keep most kids happy and you can be rest assured that even the most sensitive readers should manage this novel no problem. The Witches of Pendle pitches it perfectly, the kids eat lots of cakes and drink hot chocolate being supported by a bunch of kind adults as they leave their London homes, with Christmas just around the corner, to investigate weird goings at Pendle. The spooky murmurings begin after a family move into a new home and a kid finds what turns out to be a Witch Bottle (again, kids might have fun looking this up!) and then gets ill and if followed by others getting sick, seeing things or acting strange. This third book had a particularly exciting finish, with Evie coming good which promises future storylines. I also enjoyed the kids staying at a hotel that existed out of time, with Sir Winston Churchill almost making a guest appearance! I hope there is a fourth book in the pipeline as this series is going from strength to strength with a quality blend of sympathetic characters, chills, clever historical references and page-turning chills. AGE RANGE 10-13

Frances Hardinge – Island of Whispers (Could also qualify as YA) 

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Two Hoots; Main Market edition

Frances Hardinge – Island of Whispers (Could also qualify as YA) 

Frances Hardinge climbs down to Middle Grade with the gently impressive Island of Whispers, illustrated by Emily Gravett. In recent years Hardinge has been setting the bar incredibly high with her YA fantasy and this latest is more in tune with some of her more junior fiction from earlier in her career. This is one of those books which is aimed at upper primary to kids around thirteen, but ultimately it could be enjoyed by adults. Not a word is wasted in this brief 120-page novella in which the younger of two brothers, Milo inherits the family occupation of Ferryman, responsible for ferrying the dead over to a nearby island where they can be sent on their next stage of their journey. If not handled properly the dead are doomed to wander the island for eternity as lost ghosts. Written in a dreamy, almost melancholic style, when the action begins Milo has always believed that his elder brother Leif would ultimately become the next Ferryman, Island of Whispers concerns how this is not the case and why destiny can be both strange and unpredictable.

I loved the manner in which the dead were presented, dangerous if not controlled, but at the same time deserving to be treated with compassion and respect. Which is partly the job of the Ferryman, who collects the shoes of the dead and then takes them to the Broken Tower with Milo not performing the task in the same way as his recently deceased father might. The moving story revolves around a rich Lord who cannot accept his daughter Gabriella is dead and refuses to give Milo her shoes, whilst Milo is able to see the sad ghost girl, who is also unable to accept that her life is over. The matter of life and death is handled very sensitively and younger pupils should be able to read this without too much distress. Island of Whispers tackles some big themes with some style; destiny, bravery, facing the unknown and how we accept death. A beautifully atmospheric story, which although sad, finishes on a beautiful note of hope and acceptance. AGE RANGE 10-14  

Jennifer Killick – Read, Scream, Repeat, Thirteen Spine Tingling Tales

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Farshore 

Jennifer Killick – Read, Scream, Repeat, Thirteen Spine Tingling Tales

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

Read, Scream, Repeat has an impressive ‘who’s who’ of Middle Grade authors, although I would only regard editor Jennifer Killick (Dread Wood and Crater Lake), Polly Ho-Yen (Boy in the Tower and How I Saved the World in a Week) and Phil Hickes (Aveline Jones series) with genuine track records as horror names. But there are plenty of others featured who write excellent dark fiction, including Dan Smith (Big Game, Boy X and Below Zero) and Kirsty Applebaum (The Middler and Troofriend) and a host of others who write thrillers, dramas, mysteries and even poetry. I was also interested to see terrific YA horror writer Kat Ellis make an appearance, with a ghost story set in a remote part of Wales. 

I would recommend this anthology for the top end of primary as it lacked serious scares and was very mild. If anything it could have been a touch darker, even if several of the stories end with cliffhangers which imply something nasty lurks around the corner. However, for kids who struggle with long books this is ideal and is even an option for parents who still read allow to their children when bedtime comes around. Included in the mix are zombies coming out of arcade computer games, haunted houses, spooky graveyards, trips away from home, scary attics, robots and dodgy friends. My favourite was probably Sharma Jackson’s Charlie’s Twelfth which perfectly pitched the anxiety of being excluded from a birthday party with something darker. Sharna wrote the excellent High-Rise Mystery duology and clearly has a good eye for horror. AGE RANGE 8-11

Kate Alice Marshall – Extra Normal

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Viking

Kate Alice Marshall – Extra Normal

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

I love Middle Grade supernatural novels with big beating hearts where you know everything is going to pan out just fine and on the journey along the way the kids involved are challenged, scared, but grow and discover something new about themselves. Extra Normal totally nails this.  Kate Alice Marshall’s books are often quite tricky to track down in the UK, but they are definitely worth the effort and she is one of the few authors who is equally versatile at writing Middle Grade as she is YA. Extra Normal follows hot on the hells of the Thirteens (sometimes called The Secrets of Eden Eld) trilogy, 2020-2) and has another young girl as its engaging lead character who finds herself in extraordinary situations. Thirteens was set in a town where ghosts roamed free, in Extra Normal Charlie (Charlotte) Greer is the elder sibling in a family which includes other adopted children who have supernatural gifts. Much of the story is built around the fact that Charlie is very normal (boringly so she things) and her parents rely upon her to be the mature responsible big sister, which she does brilliantly. This is no mean feat as her adopted siblings are Opal (a ghost), Mateo (a werewolf) and Gideon a very nervous boy who has powerful telekinetic powers. The family also includes a very creepy doll which starts fires called Miss Sinister and causes untold mischief.

Extra Normal was such a fun book to read, younger kids are going to squeal with delight as Charlie begins to investigate their very suspicious new neighbours, whilst trying to keep her sometimes annoying and unpredictable siblings in check. The werewolf, ghost and telekinetic kid were incredibly well drawn and Charlie hangs onto them as she has few friends of her own and was a very sympathetic character children are sure to engage with. Another twist to the story was the fact that Charlie’s parents worked for a government department which investigated paranormal activity, with her mother having powers, but her father not. At the start of the novel the parents go away for a few days leaving Charlie in charge and when things start getting weird and neighbours disappear and others go into trances she refuses to turn to adults for help, except from another paranormal expert whom she emails for advice. There was so much to enjoy in Extra Normal, from Charlie discovering her special power to the engaging scenes with the nervous ghost and the angsty werewolf. The baddies (Mr and Mrs Weavers) were fairly cartoony villains which was perfect for this level. AGE RANGE 8-12.   

Hilary McKay – Jodie

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Barrington Stoke 

Hilary McKay – Jodie

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

I am a huge fan of both publisher Barrington Stokes and author Hilary McKay, who does not normally write ghost stories, so I just had to read Jodie and was not disappointed. Barrington Stokes specialise in ‘High/Lo’ books which are a combination of dyslexia friendly and have high interest plots but are aimed at children with slightly lower reading ages. In recent times they have published some outstanding novels and two of their novels reached the later stages of the 2023 Carnegie Medal and even won it a couple of years ago with Anthony McGowan. Jodie is a ghost story with a light touch and is more of a character study or a young girl who has a lot of personal (and family) problems and is very isolated at school and is supported by a kind teacher. As the whole story is set on an overnight school trip, any genuine child reader would quickly tap into the nervousness and anxieties Jodie feels, especially when she realises the supportive teacher will not be there due to a family emergency. 

Once the class arrive at the field centre Jodie immediately isolates herself from the rest of the group, feeling trapped and alone she wanders around on the salt marshes. Whilst avoiding the girls’ dormitory, her idea of a nightmare, she hears a dog barking but is unable to pinpoint where it is coming from and sees nobody apart from a strange old woman. This was an eerily atmospheric ghost story, with Jodie unaware of the dangers of the tide and sucking mud as she tries to locate the obviously scared dog. I really enjoyed how the resolution of this played out on both levels, both supernatural and Jodie coming out of her shell. It’s amazing how a book which can be read in an hour can be so satisfying, but that is exactly what Jodie does. AGE RANGE 8/9 TO TEEN.

Wendy Parris – Field of Screams

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Delacorte Press (

Wendy Parris – Field of Screams

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

I enjoyed being absorbed into the rural farmland setting of Field of Screams, the debut of Wendy Parris, but as this is a Middle Grade novel the screams were relatively mild and is pitched at ages eight to eleven or twelve. The action starts with paranormal enthusiast Rebecca Graff heading for Iowa to stay with relatives of her dead father whom she barely knows. There is a realistic feeling of loss throughout the book as Rebecca struggles to accept the death, whilst believing that living on the farm her father once ran around on as a boy somehow brings her closer to him. When Rebecca finds a note hidden in a comic belonging to her late father the connection becomes even stronger, especially when it is revealed that he was also a ghost enthusiast as a boy. Rebecca was an engaging lead character, who was easy to feel sympathy with, initially pushing people away, including Nick, a fellow baseball fan she slowly finds herself softening towards. 

The supernatural angle is connected to a neighbouring farm and after Rebecca believes she sees a ghost begins to investigate, whilst at the same time starts to find out a great deal more about her father’s side of the family. Her cousin Kelsie, they initially clash, adds some extra family drama and there is a nice balance of scares, adventure and intrigue into what the ghost actually wants. The fact that the ghost also haunted Rebecca’s father adds extra spice and the manner in which the spirit was connected to a local historical incident that the kids researched was convincing with the ghost getting slightly scarier as things moved along. A nice read for younger kids who like scary stories, but not too scary. AGE RANGE 8-12

Emma Read – The House Trap

Chicken House

The House Trap was an engaging Middle School blend of friendship, thriller, adventure and supernatural story. This page-turner will undoubtedly grab readers in the top end of primary school and into Year 7 of secondary who are after something not too scary. Early in the story, Amity, the younger sister of Claude runs off into the local forest, Badwell Woods, and is then followed by Sam and Delilah who go looking for her. The back story involves the fact that Amity and Claude will shortly be leaving the area and moving to the seaside, breaking up a long-standing friendship which Delilah already thinks has changed as Sam thinks he is now too cool for the nerdy stuff they used to get up to, but she still enjoys. Written in the third person, young readers are bound to see some of themselves in either Delilah, Sam or Claude. The three spot Amity’s scarf close to a house they had never seen before and follow her in and then the fun begins. 

What follows is a mash-up of escape room logic puzzles, computer game skills and a supernatural story which gets more pronounced as things move on, with the kids with the ‘nerdy’ type skills coming into their own. When the kids enter the house they realise they are trapped in a three storey-building with no stairs, by surveying what is around they discover hidden doors, secrets and ways in which to climb the levels of the house, like those of a game using both logic and instinct. The House Trap really came into its own when the ghosts were introduced into the story, children who had been trapped there from earlier generations. The backstory was interesting too, I grew up in a small Scottish town which had a house which was once own by a magician and was supposed to have similar traps to those in the story! This magician has been dead for over one hundred years, but his old property is still known locally as the “magician’s house.” This was a charming tale with the right balance of chills, friendship, action and character development. Even the funny and absolutely true adult patronising “when I was a kid” references to the days before mobile phones hit the spot. The author obviously has very cool taste in music as there is a sly Pixies reference which made me chuckle near the end! AGE RANGE 8-12  

SJ Wills – Bite Risk (could also qualify as YA)

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Simon & Schuster Children’s UK

SJ Wills – Bite Risk

Best of 2023: Middle Grade Horror and Dark Fiction

Bite Risk, the entertaining debut of SJ Wills, is a funky modern spin on the werewolf story. Interestingly, the word ‘werewolf’ is virtually never used in the book until near the end and there is a clever reason for this when everything is knitted together. If you are a fan of Stranger Things, The X-Files or anything with dodgy research scientific corporations then you will know where this story is heading. It does not do much new but puts more than enough shiny gloss on a shaggy-dog story which will keep most eleven- to-fourteen-year-old kids amused. It was not too deep; characters were sketchily but nicely drawn and the world building around this take on the werewolf myth was solidly developed. You might wonder what was going on beyond the bounds of the town where the action takes place (I certainly did) and there were plenty of clues to keep young readers entertained. Gore was fairly limited, but it was balanced nicely with a dashing of mystery and engaging teen characters railing against authority and the powerful controlling company watching their every move. 

Sel Archer lives in a normal town with normal residents, except for one night a month almost all the adults turn into creatures. The town has all sorts of complicated systems, traps and safety nets so that all the adults are secured before turning as nobody wants to eat their kid! We are told that this has been going on for over 25 years and that it is seen as a normal part of life. Teens usually turn into werewolves for the first time when they are fourteen or fifteen and early in the novel some of the ‘Turned’ escape with Sel and his friends suspecting foul play. Because the werewolves (called ‘Rippers’) only turn once a month the story is probably more spread out than it should have been, but Bite Risk was great fun and a top-notch blend of horror, adventure and dodgy scientists. The science behind everything was nicely explained in an ending which everything fell together nicely when things might have got much darker. AGE RANGE 11/12+ 

Tony Jones

The Heart and Soul of YA and MG Horror Book Reviews

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