Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Saturday 3 February 2018

Nothing to fear, but fear itself?

This week Felicity provides a thought provoking post about the place of fear in children’s literature.
An article from The Vintage News appeared in my Facebook feed. It was about Der Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter), a story written by Heinrich Hoffman, a C19th German psychiatrist, as a Christmas present for his 3 year old son. I have no memory of having read this book, but it is a book in which the main characters are children who end up severely punished, or dead. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands was developed from Scissorman, one of the characters who meted out punishment in the story. I started thinking about which scary stories we now offer to our young readers, and whether these have value or are just for the thrill seekers.
Paul Goat Allen, a children’s book reviewer, and father to girls aged 3 and 6, lists five reasons why horror in children’s books are a good thing, in a Barnes and Noble blog. Firstly, it gets kids interested in reading. Think Harry Potter, with plot lines that became darker and scarier as the series progresses. Secondly, by exploring the dark side of humanity and fear, children learn more about themselves; their strengths and weaknesses. Next, there are life lessons to be learned: to keep themselves safe in their dealings with the world and people in it. Fourthly, they learn more about the world, about literature, and have vicarious experiences. Lastly, reading about these experiences are reassuring: kids can be scared, travel with the protagonist, and then close those experiences up and resume their normal lives. I recall that one of my children used to have me take the book we had just read (and that scared her) out of the room. It could sit on the bookshelves in the hallway, but just not those in her room. As an aside, Santa and the Tooth Fairy never visited their rooms either.
Margaret Wild, Sonya Hartnett, Nick Falks (a psychologist and children’s author) and John Marsden acknowledge the power of fear as a fertile ground for writers. Marsden likes to “crank up” the fear to engage readers and make the book a page turner. I recall these feelings when reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, turning pages for sneak peeks, and with my heart beating wildly, wondering what horrors would come next. Perhaps because the premise of The Road was all too a believable reality.
Hilaire Belloc’s poem, Matilda is one of the first poems I learned to recite. Matilda’s lies, saw her die when she was not believed when telling the truth. I loved the fun of the rhyme and the richness of the vocabulary: words such as strict regard, infirmity, gallant and frenzied. I recall finding Harry Potter #2: The Chamber of Secrets to be exceedingly scary. Nick Falks was terrified by Roald Dahl’s The Witches, as an eight year old. Beatrix Potter’s The tale of Samuel Whiskers or the Roly Poly Pudding turned me off reading the rest of the Peter Rabbit books until reading them to my children.
My children then introduced me to the world of Tim Burton: The Nightmare before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Perhaps a different sort of scary, because the images of fear are provided, rather than created in one’s imagination, but a fear they seemed happy to experience and explore. I believe Neil Gaiman has created one of the scariest stories in recent times, with his tale of Coraline, a ‘be careful what you wish for’ and the ‘grass isn’t greener’ response to Coraline Jones wish for a more exciting family. 

What memories do you have of being scared by a book you have read?

The Corpse Bride movie trailer

Felicity Sly
Teacher librarian, CBCA Tas Treasurer

1 comment:

  1. This is certainly a valid genre that can illicit various responses from children, teenagers and adults alike. it is interesting that a number of psychologists such as Bruno Bettelhiem best known for his groundbreaking book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, believe that frightening stories can not only provide great entertainment but also help kids through key developmental stages. Perhaps that is why they have been and still are so popular with young readers throughout the generations.