I'm a little bit of a chicken when it comes to scary books, so keep that in mind when I say that Wait Till Helen Comes still scares the heck out of me. The first time I read this (under the covers, with a flashlight, natch), I had to sleep with the lights on for a week.
The book's plot is pretty straightforward: When Michael and Molly's mom gets remarried, they get saddled with a younger stepsister, Heather, who is jealous, mean, and bratty. According to her dad—their new stepdad—Heather has been this way since her mother died in a fire when Heather was just three years old. They also get a new house in the country—a renovated church right next door (of course) to an old graveyard.
That's when things start to get weird. Heather starts talking constantly about her new best friend, Helen. The grown-ups (who, like almost all adults in kids' books from the 1980s, practice a super-relaxed kind of parenting) think Helen is just your average imaginary friend, but Molly suspects there's something more sinister going on, especially when she sees Heather visiting one of the cemetery graves with wildflowers every evening. The old caretaker warns Molly and Michael away from the pond, telling them that children have drowned there under mysterious circumstances. When Molly visits the library to see what she can find out, she learns that Helen and her parents died more than a century ago in a terrible fire—the same way Heather's mom died.
And that's when things get really scary. Because Heather's threats—"Wait till Helen comes," she warns Molly and Michael when she thinks they're being mean—aren't idle. Helen is coming. And she wants something.
What makes this a great readaloud: There’s plenty of spooky in this book—ghostly little girls, haunted jewelry, atmospheric old graveyards—but what elevates it above the classic ghost story is its acknowledgment that the worst horrors can be the ones we keep inside ourselves. Heather is susceptible to Helen's friendship because she has another, darker secret that she has to face if she truly wants to be part of the world of the living. And Molly, who would like nothing better than to get rid of her bratty little sister, finds herself fighting to save Heather. If your kids can handle a healthy dose of scary, Wait Till Helen Comes makes a great spooky season readaloud.
But be aware: The parents in this book are TERRIBLE. I mean, really terrible—they have no idea what’s going on with their children, basically yank the older two kids out of fulfilling summer opportunities so that they can baby-sit their new stepsister, and pay not attention to the worries that all of their children keep bringing them. I did not notice this a kid reader, but as an adult, it really bugs me.
Quotable: “‘Oh, Molly,’ Michael laughed, ‘next you'll be telling me you actually saw a ghost.’”