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Why scary reading for kids is a good thing and 5 of the Best

“Fear is a wonderful thing. In small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again.” Neil Gaiman


Illustration of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tales of the Macabre‘ by Benjamin Lacombe

Halloween. Even here in Kenya there’s no getting away from it, despite the fact it is most definitely not a part of this country’s cultural calendar of customs. Like many children from the UK, my kids love Halloween. No, more than love, they adore it and excitement levels reach possibly beyond that of Christmas. Last year at a party we threw, the highlight of the event was Old Man Joe, a story I remember my mother telling me at our Halloween parties when I was young. Whilst I’d forgotten the actual tale, I remembered the ‘feeling’ part of it. So I made a story up about an old man who died in a dark cave and then in small groups I brought the children into a darkened room and got them to feel (not look) in plastic bags Old Man Joe’s intestines (cooked spaghetti), eyeballs (peeled kiwi), teeth (popcorn kernels) and heart (peeled tomato).

Utterly revolting, right? Despite the screams that emanated from a number of children and the fact that I was informed by the parents that a few of the kids were unable to sleep that night (eeeek), it was the highlight of the party and people haven’t stopped talking about it since. Even the adults wanted a go and for the joint party we’re holding tomorrow night, Old Man Joe came at the top of the list of requests from the children.

This got me thinking. What is about scaring ourselves we love so much, and how much scariness really is OK for children? Let me give you another example. My nine year old recently read The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis. She kept telling me how ‘completely terrifying’ it was and giving little whoops of fear from the sofa where she was reading it. And yet she couldn’t drag herself away from it. As for me, I’m currently reading a book by fellow Bookouture author Angela Marsons called Lost Girls which is utterly horrifying in so many ways. Yet despite this, I’m hooked.

Neil Gaiman, author of books for both adults and children (perhaps, most famously, the unsettling Coraline), as his quote above attests, believes that stories must have an element of fear in them, in order for this fear to be triumphed over. In his words,

 In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.

I am not saying that we should let our children watch Nightmare on Elm Street. What I am saying is that so much has been dumbed down and deemed inappropriate in children’s literature to purposely keep fear at bay. I hate with a passion those insipid re-writings of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen & the Brothers Grimm (click here for a stunningly illustrated original version of the latter) created for children, especially as early readers. For example, in The Little Mermaid she stays alive and marries her prince rather than disappearing into the sea foam for evermore after her refusal to kill the man she loves.

There is obviously a fine balance here and if you know your child is particularly sensitive or susceptible to being scared, perhaps don’t read them the original quite yet of Sleeping Beauty. It’s natural to want to protect our kids, not traumatise them. But also, don’t let your own fear stand in the way (i.e. you being scared that your children will be scared) and don’t underestimate the far-reaching subliminal workings in a child’s mind of good triumphing over evil.

What we want to do is help provide children with the emotional intelligence to understand perfectly normal ‘negative’ emotions such as fear, sadness, jealousy and grief. If their stories are constantly dumbed down, they cannot go through the process of natural dualities that exist in each and every human being. Rather a child is presented with a series of vapid, entirely unrealistic scenarios and resulting emotions, if indeed the emotional state is conveyed at all.


Harry Clarke’s Illustrations for Goethe’s Faust (1925)

There are some brilliant writers out there who have created multi-layered characters and fictional, sometimes terrifying worlds that give children the freedom to explore, feel unsettled, and then come back to the safety of their armchairs and their homes.

Here are five of the best.

  1. Coraline by Neil Gaiman – When Coraline moves into a new house, she finds a secret door to another eery, parallel world.
  2. The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis – A gothic tale set in the atmospheric town of Whitby where two children are sent to live with a 92 year old woman who is not all she seems….
  3. The Witches by Roald Dahl – Needs little introduction. The witches are plotting to get rid of all the world’s revolting children, but one boy and his grandmother plan to stop them.
  4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness – A young boy’s mother is battling with cancer and as he struggles to come to terms with this, a monster appears in the form of a yew tree…
  5. The Original Folk & Fairytales of The Brothers Grimm – The unabridged and darker versions of these well-loved tales.

Happy Reading and Happy Halloween!

1 reply
  1. Elizabeth Jacques
    Elizabeth Jacques says:

    This is brilliant Bex. There is a lot of talk here at the moment about the TV series, Jekyll and Hyde that has just started on ITV at 6.30pm on a Sunday night. Many say it is far too scary for children to watch but somebody must have decided it’s okay to show at peak children’s time and maybe they are right. I have to say though, for me, parts were quite terrifying!


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