Spooky Stories and Poems to Teach Kids about Literature

When I was a kid, my mom was constantly trying to find ways to make everything educational. From summer classes to seasonally appropriate readings, she was determined that her children should take every opportunity to learn more about the world. If you’re like her – and especially if you homeschool your children – you may be looking for ways to incorporate an educational component into your kids’ Halloween.

For your convenience, we’ve compiled a list of five spooky short stories and poems by literary authors. These literary works, and the suggested lessons that accompany them, are a great way to supplement your children’s English literature coursework and make learning fun this Halloween.

1. “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe, is one of the best-known poems in American literature. Its subject matter is a young man, grieving for his lost love, who is visited by a raven. The bird’s repetition of the word “Nevermore,” and its refusal to say anything else, drives him deeper into despair. The poem allows for many different interpretations, which makes it well-suited to students learning about literary criticism, but it can also be an excellent introduction to literary poetry for middle school students.

If you want to teach your kids about “The Raven,” you can find it online here. A summary biography of Poe, like this one, can help them to understand the poem in the context of the author’s life. For younger students who are just starting to learn about poetry, “The Raven” can be used as a companion and example for an introduction to poetry like this one. They can diagram its rhyme scheme (abcbbb) and identify its meter. If they find this particularly interesting, they might also want to read his “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he explains the stylistic choices he made in constructing the poem.

For high school students, particularly those studying AP English Literature, “The Raven” can also be an excellent exercise in literary criticism and the interpretation of symbols. You can ask them to describe the poem’s symbology for you and give their opinion as to whether the titular raven is a literal bird, or something else entirely. Then, you can have them read a piece of literary criticism which deals with those topics, like this one.

(And of course, if poetry isn’t your thing, Poe also wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart” and plenty of other spooky stories. Many of them can be found online, along with resources for studying them.)

2. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” by Washington Irving, is a well-known seasonal tale and the inspiration for multiple film and television spinoffs (a fact which may make some children more willing to read and study it). It tells the story of the superstitious Ichabod Crane and his terrifying encounter with the “Headless Horseman” – a ghostly figure which, the story implies, is actually his rival Brom Bones in a clever costume.

If you want to study “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with your children, you can find it online here. For younger students, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” can be an excellent exercise in reading comprehension, particularly foreshadowing and understanding the author’s intent. Reading comprehension is an important skill for standardized tests, and if students develop it in elementary and middle school, they will find it easier to do well on some AP exams and the P/SAT and ACT in high school.

To make the most of reading comprehension practice with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” sit down and read it with your child. Ask questions throughout the narrative – why is the author telling us that Ichabod is superstitious? Do you think that detail will be important later on? What role do the ghost stories at the party play in the author’s overall narrative? What do you think really happened in Ichabod’s encounter with the Horseman, and why?

For older students, particularly those studying American literature and/or American history, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is most useful as an example of the work of the Knickerbocker Group and an insight into the culture of late-eighteenth-and-early-nineteenth-century America. The Knickerbocker Group, the loose association of contemporary authors to which Irving belonged, is commonly mentioned in American history courses around this time of year. Reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and a description of the group’s origins and works, like this one, can help students gain a deeper understanding of the group’s cultural significance.

3. “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, relates the story of a young man who falls in love with the beautiful daughter of an elderly doctor, only to discover that her very flesh is poison as a result of her role in one of her father’s experiments. He offers her the antidote, but since the poison had become so deeply a part of her, it kills her rather than curing her.

There are few good resources online for studying “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” but it’s worth including in this list nonetheless because of its relevance to the standard American literature curriculum for high school. Most high school English classes which focus on American literature cover The Scarlet Letter at some point, often at this time of year. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne makes heavy use of color symbolism and other literary devices, which classes typically cover in exhaustive detail. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is a much less commonly taught Hawthorne work which uses many of the same techniques. Therefore, it can be used as an exercise in identifying Hawthorne’s characteristic literary devices without the help of one’s English teacher and classmates – an opportunity to build on the class material by developing one’s independent literary reading skills.

If you want your children to read “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” it is available online here.

4. “I heard a fly buzz – when I died -“ is one of the better-known poems of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive and prolific nineteenth-century American poet. The poem describes Dickinson’s imagining of the moment of one’s death and evokes the sensorium of dying.

Like “The Raven,” “I heard a fly buzz – when I died -“ can be a useful tool for teaching young students about the basics of poetry. In addition to the resources given for “The Raven,” selected portions of this study guide for Emily Dickinson’s poems can help students to better understand her unique style. Additionally, a short biography like this one can help students to put her work in context.

For older students, “I heard a fly buzz – when I died -” is a useful exercise in interpreting poetic symbolism and understanding the significance of poetic imagery. Ask them to think about the significance of the fly in the poem’s imagery, and then ask them to read one or more of these essays by literary critics to see how their conclusions compare. (There is no one right answer, of course, but reading scholars’ interpretations can help students to see nuances they might otherwise miss and draw more nuanced conclusions themselves in the future.)

5. “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner, recounts the story of Miss Emily Grierson, an elderly woman living in small-town Mississippi, and the dark secret discovered in her house after her death. (I would say more, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it – literary significance aside, it’s an interesting read, and more than a little creepy.) Parents are encouraged to pre-read this particular story before assigning it to their children, as it does contain strong language and themes which some parents may find objectionable – though it has nothing that wouldn’t be encountered in a typical junior-level English class.

“A Rose for Emily,” which is available online here, is most relevant for high school students who are taking English classes focused on American literature. The author, William Faulkner, is commonly studied in such classes, and “A Rose for Emily” is a good introduction to his work. It is set in his fictional town of Jefferson, Mississippi, in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County – the setting for many of his stories and all but three of his novels. “A Rose for Emily” touches upon several themes that are common in his more-studied works, including tradition vs. change and the racism of the early-twentieth-century South. In order to appreciate the story in the context of the author’s life and body of work, students might want to read a short biography like this one.

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