Parents have an innate sense to protect their children, and that includes an instinct to shield them from horrific ideas or disturbing images. So much of children’s literature has been abridged or outright censored in the interest of protecting children from the experience of having to process stories or situations that might upset them.
Modern versions of fairy tales are one example. Early fairy tales were disturbing indeed. In the original Grimm’s fairy tale “Cinderella,” the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels in an effort to make the slipper fit, causing blood to run out of the shoe and alert the prince to their deception. The stepsisters were punished in the end by pigeons who plucked their eyes out. In the original “Snow White,” the wicked Queen instructed the huntsman to bring back Snow White’s lungs and liver so she could eat them. However, these fairy and folk tales were originally meant for readers of all ages. It was not until the modern versions were introduced and marketed to children that many disturbing elements of violence were edited out.
Parents may want to shield their children from scary stories, and yet, so many children love to read scary books.
R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series became popular in the 1990s and, according to Stine’s website, has sold more than 300 million copies worldwide, despite the series being number 15 on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-1999. Popular children’s books also on the list for being too scary were Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories (listed at number 1) and Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (an award-winning picture book for children ages 4-8 that involves a boy being chased by chefs who want to bake him in a cake).
Why do children like to be scared? Perhaps for the same reasons all readers like to cringe at ghost stories, laugh at comedy or cry at drama. Reading an emotionally complex story is practice, a way to go through real emotions with little consequence. Literature helps us make sense of our own lives. Through a story, we feel the emotions from the safety of outside the page. Then, if we are ever unfortunate enough to encounter those emotions in real life, the experience is not as shocking, and we’re better equipped to handle it.
By reading scary stories, children might safely gain experience with emotions they may later encounter in their lives.
“By requesting the same alarming story over and over, a child is mastering his fears about death, punishment and scary animals, all of which are part of real life. Scary books are a kind of play therapy,” says Liza Featherstone, writing for the parenting website Babble.com. “Children, like adults, like literature that helps them make sense of their own lives.”
The best stories, even children’s stories, are emotionally complex.
Let’s not forget the simple enjoyment of reading a good story. Tension mounts, and solutions may not come easily. Endings may not work out perfectly but are often realistic and satisfying at some level. Bambi’s mother dies. Hansel and Gretel burn the witch. And yet the characters persevere, and in the end, the story implies that their lives will go on, perhaps altered yet still valued.
Perhaps strong lessons in the differences between “real” and “make-believe” combined with extensive reading from a wide array of materials can prepare children to process less-than-perfect situations while still protecting them from outright shock or alarm.
Most important is to give kids a sense of ownership and freedom in their reading choices.
If a child loves scary stories, then more harm may be done in banning those stories than in letting the child explore his love of reading.
Ashliman, Professor D.L., Translator. “The Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales” University of Pittsburgh
Author Bio, R.L. Stine Official Website http://www.rlstine.com/#nav/rlstine
ALA’s 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990-1999 http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedbydecade/1990_1999/index.cfm
Featherstone, Liza. “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: Could scary books be necessary for kids’ development?” Babble.com.