For children, Halloween means plastic spiders, child-sized witches hats, and orange colored candy lurking around the corner of just about every store. Soon they’ll be gone (costumes packed away and handmade ghosts put to rest until next year), but there’s one bit of spooky fun that’s never out of season, especially with the elementary school crowd.
Stories about things that go bump in the night.
Children always want to read about vampire bunnies, haunted houses, and creatures that slither and ooze. There’s a reason why every time I’ve ordered paperbacks for children’s libraries, R. L. Stine’s books have been at the top of the list. Children’s choices may be campier than adult fare, and certainly sillier on average than what their older siblings are reading: but middle graders love horror stories as much as anyone else.
Stories about gruesome mayhem can help kids deal with mortality and the existence of danger in their lives, filling an important developmental need. “But for the most part,” explains Alvin Schwartz in his introduction to More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, “we tell scary stories to have fun.”
But despite the popularity of scary stories among middle grade readers, horror is rarely seen as a proper subgenre within children’s literature. Educators, librarians, and parents know that children read books about ghosts and vampires, but they don’t see any need to discuss them in detail. Not in the same manner that historical fiction—or even animal stories—get recommended and critiqued. Goosebumps may get kids reading, it’s Scholastic’s bestselling series of all time, in fact, but children’s horror novels are treated more like Halloween candy than anything that has the potential to be a proper literary meal.
Horror stories also provoke concerns and fears among parents, prompting challenges to library collections. Goosebumps has earned a certain amount of grudging respect due to its appeal to reluctant readers, but others, such Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, remain frequently challenged in school and public libraries across the United States.¹
The series’ comparative lengths may have much to do with this: Goosebumps can keep most struggling readers engaged for a good year or more, which generates a greater amount of goodwill from educators. Still, Scary Stories is arguably much more effective at its intended goal: scaring the pants off middle graders. This, I suspect, doesn’t help its case with many parents.
Because if there’s ever been a series that takes scary stories for kids seriously, it’s Alvin Schwartz’s much-beloved collections. Schwartz’s books aren’t just campfire scary-tales: they are, in fact, extensively researched folktale retellings - complete with references, bibliographies, and even age-appropriate background information. Most of all, they’re genuinely creepy. And they’re accompanied by some of the most delightfully disturbing illustrations ever found in children’s literature. When young readers ask, “Where can I find the scary stories?” These are the books they want.
Schwartz’s anthropological viewpoint helped many librarians defend his book’s inclusion in their collections. Unfortunately, this same seriousness worries parents. Arriving in bookstores just as schools transformed Halloween Fairs into harvest festivals, Scary Stories became a casualty in the campaign against Halloween. Corpses and bleeding body parts are easier to dismiss when they’re presented comically, after all. Gammell’s atmospheric illustrations, on the other hand, can unsettle even those of us that left elementary school long ago.
Children’s horror rarely takes itself this seriously; slime and absurdity are more the norm. This overall shallowness contributes to horror’s lack of presence as a subgenre in children’s literature. Scary stories are popular, but choices are limited—and not everyone can write about vampire bunnies and still have readers on the edge of their seats.
But this is changing. As it often does, the recent increase in young adult supernatural fiction has led to an echo effect in children’s publishing. (Younger kids always want to do with the big kids are doing, after all.) Although middle grade tales of vampires and werewolves have yet to reach critical mass—unlike the teen section in bookstores—there are more and more popping up each year.
Most still employ dark humor to render frightening situations ludicrous—and fangless. Omniscient narrators wink knowingly at the audience, reassuring youngsters that the danger isn’t real. In the new edition of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Gammell’s haunting illustrations have been replaced by the more gothic stylings of A Series of Unfortunate Events artist Brett Helquist.
One notable exception to this trend is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, arguably the first horror novel to win a Newbery.² Drawing on both gothic and horror traditions to tell a coming of age story that is suspenseful, bittersweet, and developmentally on target, Gaiman has shifted perceptions of what middle grade horror novels can be—especially among adults.
This raises some interesting questions about the future of scary stories for children. Will The Graveyard Book prove to be an anomaly among middle grade horror? Or does Gaiman’s Newbery Medal mark a growing acceptance of middle grade horror novels among the adult, judging public? If adults do begin to praise, rather than restrict, scary stories, will that lead to more and better horror novels for children? Or will scary stories lose some of their appeal if too many of them start appearing on required reading lists?
¹The Goosebumps series ranked 15th on the American Libraries Association’s Most Frequently Challenged Books List during 1990 through 1999, but barely made the same list for 2000 through 2009. Scary Stories ranked 1st and 7th for the same decades, respectively.
²Interestingly enough, The Graveyard Book isn’t the first children’s horror novel to win a Carnegie Medal. I’m not sure how much that is due to cultural differences, or if it’s primarily a consequence of different age ranges for these awards. Anyone have any theories?
Jenny Kristine was a physics student and hovercraft builder in another life. Now she is the youth specialist for a small library in California and spends her work hours designing Hunger Games inspired scavenger hunts for middle school students and teaching patrons how to use the internet.