Scarred for Life: Scary Books from My Childhood

Likely StoriesI’m in the midst of packing up my apartment to move, and by far the biggest undertaking has been boxing up my books. It is a fun chance to look through everything—I’ve even convinced myself to donate at least a few of the books I’d forgotten about entirely. But one book that surfaced is one that I will never forget, no matter how much I’d like to: The Tailypo, by Paul Galdone.

Tailypo CoverDid a shiver just go down your spine, too? This book terrified me as a child, and it remains undeniably spooky even now that I’m an adult. For those of you who managed to have a Tailypo-free childhood, allow me to fill you in. This American folktale tells the story of an old man living in the woods with his three dogs. One night, a varmint scampers through his cabin. It’s slim pickin’s out there, so the man goes after the critter with an axe and lops off its tail, which goes straight into the soup pot. MISTAKE!!! It doesn’t take long for a voice to come out of the woods: “Tailypo, tailypo, I want my tailypo.” The menace of this refrain grows as it is accompanied by a scratching that comes closer and closer each night, until the scratching gives way to a tugging of the blankets under which the old man cowers, and giant yellow eyes peer over the foot of the bed. And then . . . well, you do not want a one of these creatures in your house.

The Dollhouse MurdersAnother book that scared me quite a lot, though not as much as Tailypo, was Betty Ren Wright’s The Dollhouse Murders, in which a girl solves a murder mystery after incriminating scenes are re-staged by some supernatural force in an old dollhouse found in her great-grandparents’ attic. I have memories of reading this during a thunderstorm and being completely on edge. I had a dollhouse in the very next room! Obviously, I had secret hopes that my dolls would also reveal some dastardly secret to me, but they were disappointingly silent on all fronts. I never looked at my dollhouse quite the same way again, though.

And though there’s no surprise here, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, which I preferred to read by flashlight in the closet with my friend Sarah. I’m realizing now that I remember little of the stories themselves—instead, it’s exquisite feelings of horror, revulsion, and shock that spring most readily to mind.Scary Stories cover And, of course, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations. Never have there been such mind-searingly ghastly illustrations in children’s books, and we loved them. The ones that I instantly think of are the hairless dog that is actually . . . a giant rat! And the girl whose cheek explodes with spiders after one lays eggs there. Ahhh! You can never un-see these things, and most kids wouldn’t want to. So, when it was announced in 2011 that a thirtieth-anniversary edition of these tales was being released with new illustrations by Brett Helquist, it didn’t go over well. To share only a couple of the headlines: “Publisher destroy Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s amazing artwork” ( and
“They’re Ruining ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’” (Buzzfeed).

I have to agree with them. While Helquist is undeniably talented, his illustrations aren’t going to haunt anyone’s dreams, which is entirely the point of these books. Which one do you find more scary?

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark illustrations

(Hint: It’s the one on the left.)

Disturbing visuals are sometimes all it takes for a book to leave its mark. A quick survey of the Booklist Books for Youth editors found that Dan Kraus will never forget laying eyes on Stephen King’s Night Shift as a child, and now he writes things like Rotters and Scowler. Is there a connection? You be the judge. Sarah Hunter was the unfortunate recipient of Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll. She doesn’t want to talk about it. Ilene Cooper recalls reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula at the tender age of 12 and being too scared to turn the page. And Maggie Reagan has never recovered from Roald Dahl’s The Witches. As she informed me, “There is an aside where the witches turn a boy into A HOT DOG and his dad EATS HIM. I legitimately had nightmares that my parents were trying to kill me for MONTHS!” Poor Maggie. She was also terrified by The Battle for the Castle, by Elizabeth Winthrop, which contains a horrifying giant rat army. That is never okay.

collage of fear

I hope that list contributes to your Halloween enjoyment. Candy and nightmares for everyone!



About the Author:

Julia Smith is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also trained in aerial acrobatics. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

2 Comments on "Scarred for Life: Scary Books from My Childhood"

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  1. Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes scared the bejesus out of me when I was teen. In a word – intense!
    Apples with Many Seeds

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