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Book Review: Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark Series

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is another of ALA’s most frequently challenged books. This one is harder to argue with, in my opinion. Should it be censored? Of course not, but then, nothing should. There is no arguing that these books aren’t scary, particularly the ghoulish artwork by Stephen Gammel. I’m sure that most of the people screaming to ban these books have had their kids wanting to sleep with them for weeks after reading them.

When I was about 12, I begged my parents to let me watch The Thing, Kurt Russell version. “I’m big. I won’t get scared.” They finally relented, and oh how I made them regret it. I couldn’t even close my eyes without seeing that blood jump out of the dish during the “testing” scene. I saw some things that night that I still remember today.


Are kids too sensitive? Are adults too desensitized? Who knows. I do know that as a child I loved ghost stories, haunted houses, et cetera. But there is a difference between grabbing a copy of Goosebumps–which are about as scary as a Scooby Doo episode–and Scary Stories. Be honest: you are six years old and you open the book. Here’s the first thing you see:


Don't tell me this isn't scary

Don't tell me this isn't scary

These books–there are several–are full of pictures like this. The stories are good fun, mostly of the “And his hand was a hook!” flashlight-under-the-chin variety. I’m married to a woman with advanced degrees in folklore. She’s basically an expert in urban legends and spooky tales. I’ve no doubt that she would recognize 99% of the stories in these books, in some form at least.

But she might not recognize the art. For the record, the art is absolutely incredible. And yet I can hardly stand to look at it for the creeps I get, and I’m now halfway through my 31st year. The fun of a scary story is that you can tell a horrific story full of sadistic, scary crap, but not feel like it’s real. Telling the story about the guy with the hook hand who’s hiding in your back seat does not demand that you actually think What would it feel like if this were really happening?

And that’s my theory on why Scary Stories is always on somebody’s hit list: it makes these fun, scary folktales seem plausible. There’s no looking at this and laughing your way to the next page:

From the laugh riot, "Sam's New Pet"

From the laugh riot, "Sam's New Pet"

The Verdict: If somebody tell me that The Handmaid’s Tale
is going to corrupt our children because it’s irreligious, I get bored quickly. If somebody says The Chocolate War can’t be on our library shelves because it’s full of cruel teenagers and sexuality, I think: “Get a hold of yourself and go splash some water on your face.”

If someone says “Scary Stories is full of disgusting and scary pictures and stories,” I’m going to agree. But then I’ll say, “Isn’t it great! If there’s a heaven for deviant author/illustrator combos, I hope that I’m allowed to go visit Schwartz and Gemmel” on a field trip.”

Be aware of what you can handle and stay within your limits. Your limits are yours. If you’re looking for a scary story to tell in the dark, you can’t go wrong with these books.


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • tara robson June 23, 2009, 9:37 am

    hi, i have a couple of really scary stories that i think you should put on your website! its ok if you don’t want to hear them but if you do, just email to me and ill be willing to tell you them.
    many thanks!
    Tara Robson

    • Jonny March 23, 2011, 7:40 am

      send me them scary story

  • Marie June 25, 2009, 12:36 am

    When reading this book as a sixth grader, I must admit that the artwork in this book was much scarier than the stories. I would read the book with a paper in hand so I could quickly turn the page and cover whatever horrifying black and white drawing popped up. My parents never stopped me from reading them because they always wanted me to learn from my actions. If I chose to read scary books then I would have to suffer the nightmares.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 25, 2009, 6:38 am

      How funny. I never would have thought of simply covering the pictures up, although I’m sure you saw them all no matter what.

  • JASON RYAN QUALLS August 22, 2009, 5:14 pm

    I think Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books were made for entertainment value only, and I feel bad for Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell because they must of felt terrible to find out their books were put on the national banned book list. All they wanted to do was create something for kids to enjoy. I would rather have kids read these books then to be doing drugs and joining gangs. I hope their is an effort to take these books off the banned book list. For those who are responsible for putting these books on the banned list, you should feel very shamed of yourselves. Please people can we make a petition to take these books off the banned list?

    • Josh Hanagarne August 22, 2009, 5:30 pm

      Jason, to my knowledge, the books haven’t actually been banned anywhere. The requests to remove them from library shelves are always rejected. The list of challenged books is basically a list of the books that people wish they could ban, that they try to ban, but that never really get banned.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • The "Real" World's Strongest Librarian August 29, 2009, 3:59 am

    I was an elementary librarian for a few years and these books were as popular as Harry Potter. I would read some of these storie orally and it amazing how scared some students would get. They were great for Halloween.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 29, 2009, 7:31 am

      @The “Real” World’s Strongest Librarian. Crap! I knew you were out there somewhere. I better bring up my deadlift.

      We have about six copies of each of these books. They’re never on our shelves, whether it’s January or October.

  • christopher October 12, 2009, 12:57 pm

    the first picture is not scary at all

    • Josh Hanagarne October 12, 2009, 1:30 pm

      @Christopher: Dude, it’s scary enough for me:)

  • jose May 3, 2010, 2:45 pm

    wow thatS not cool aha but a good book when i was a kiD 😀

  • Jacob Williams September 25, 2010, 3:43 pm

    the only picture that wudn’t get out of my head out of all 3 of these books was the ugly monster thing in the 3rd book. the story was called “Is There Something Wrong?” or something like that. HATE THAT PICTURE!!!!

  • taylor October 30, 2010, 1:41 pm

    i love that book!!!!!!!!!!! Best book ever!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Mare May 12, 2011, 9:13 pm

    The stories NEVER scared me. But the pictures always terrified me to the point I had to sleep in my parents bed. But did I look at them again? YOU BET!

    I’m a HUGE horror film/story fanatic and have seen just about everything and these pictures STILL give me the shivers.

  • alexandra July 16, 2011, 3:49 pm

    i have this book 😀

  • shortnscary July 25, 2011, 2:19 am

    scary pictures…… 🙂 🙂

  • Kam September 29, 2011, 5:43 am

    I can’t believe people are trying to ban these books. I remember when I was 8 or so in ’93 and my Catholic elementary school library had these books, all three of them. The artwork was probably the best part of the books since some of the stories weren’t scary at all.

    Honestly, the only problem I remember was that there wasn’t ever enough copies. Some kids would fight for the books. There was always a line for them. I also think I have a copy of one of these books somewhere in my apartment. I think I’m going to have to have a little read now.

  • Gerardo November 8, 2011, 11:13 am

    I was just reading these stories with my friends for Halloween. I love horror stories

  • alexsandriah May 31, 2012, 10:43 am

    to tell you the truth, i think they need to get scarier