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October, 2008 : Review:

A Review of Horror—For Kids

Works Reviewed:
Dirk Bones and the Mystery of the Haunted House by Doug Cushman
(HarperCollins, 2006)
The Wolves In the Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
( Harper Collins, 2003)
The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest by Stan and Jan Berenstain
(Random House, 1988)
Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer
(Atheneum/Anne Schwartz Books, 2003)
The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss
( Random House, 1961)

At first glance you may be thinking: Wait a minute. Kids' books? Not even graphic novels, but children's picture books? Why do you think I care? But as the thoughtful and broadminded reader I know you are, you'll soon realize that we are talking about the preservation of the SF community. We are considering gentle yet calculated guidance to lead tomorrow's readers and writers down that briar-rosy path we all know and love so that phrases like "the greying of Science Fiction" may never be heard again. If you don't have kids, than you might have a niece, or nephew, or perhaps an uncle who is younger than you due to a complex and somewhat scandalous family tree. If nothing else, you must know someone who knows children. Come on people, the future of SF is at stake. Influence some children.

But where do you start? Especially if you don't see that five-year-old uncle of yours very often, it can be a daunting task to filter through the endless stacks of oversized, glossy, brightly colored books out there. And just because you think a book is cool doesn't mean that the kids will. So I have put together a team of experts (me and my two sons) to give you a complete view of what's out there in children's literature.

Today we'll look at a Skovron Family favorite: Horror. People forget that kids like to be scared too. They just have a very low threshold. For example, Dirk Bones and the Haunted House, by Doug Cushman, is a relatively new series that stars a cheerful skeleton newspaper reporter who solves mysteries in his town of Ghostly. All the citizens are cute, cherubic versions of classic horror archetypes like werewolves, vampires, mummies, and ghosts. Something is making noises in a house on Ghoul Street and the ghosts who live there are frightened. Dirk Bones follows clues that lead to a tomb beneath the house where a vampire is earnestly pounding away loudly on a typewriter. He is writing a vegetarian cookbook.

The prose is simple enough for a new reader to work through and the illustrations are charming, if a little bland. But that's really the point. This is an excellent gateway book to introduce the classic creatures in a way that is guaranteed to not give them nightmares. It was just a little bit too cute for my five year old, but my three year old loved it. And really, simple bland children's stories are just a little bit more palatable when they star a skeleton in a trench coat.

The one that I am saddest about is Wolves In the Walls, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. I am a long time fan of the Gaiman/McKean team, so when this book came out the same year that my eldest son was born, I was delighted. I picked it up "for his birthday," and was not disappointed at all. The writing is crisp and pared down, but still with that mischievous Gaiman sparkle. McKean's artwork, his usual blend of illustration and photography, switches between wacky chaos and the sort of elegant, mournful simplicity only possible in children's books.

The plot is slightly more complicated than your average children's book. Lucy hears noises in the walls and for some reason, she thinks its wolves. Everyone in her family assures her it's just rats. It couldn't be wolves, after all, because as each of them says in turn, "If the wolves come out of the walls, it's over." But when she asks "What is over?" they never answer. Of course, the wolves do come out of the walls and the entire family flees from the house in terror. They sit out on the lawn in sad defeat, listening to the wolves wreck their home. Then Lucy realizes that she left her pig puppet in the house and decides to rescue it. She sneaks in through the walls—the same way that the wolves entered. She rescues her pig puppet, and as she's escaping through the walls, she hears one of the wolves telling another wolf that "if the people come out of the walls, it's over." So she convinces her family to sneak in through the walls, and they come into the house and scare off the wolves. It's a fun story with a nice lesson in trusting your instincts and getting perspective of how others might view you. I couldn't wait to read it to my kids.

The problem was, they panned it. The three year old lost interest after two pages. The five year old sat through one reading (barely), then looked at me gravely and said that the artwork was "too messy," and walked away. I've tried to introduce it again at various times, but neither of them will humor me.

Sometimes, it's difficult to understand what appeals to children. For example, both of my sons love The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest, by Jan and Stan Berenstain. I have vague memories of liking Berenstain Bear books when I was a kid, but now, I can't for the life of me remember why. For the uninitiated few, it's a long-running series about a family of bears who live out in some rural, vaguely Midwestern town. The stories are all taken from real life, usually about going to the dentist for the first time, or not eating too much junk food. The characters are as generic as their names. Papa Bear is a bumbling, somewhat immature and not especially bright carpenter. Mama Bear is a homemaker with the patience of a saint and a seemingly bottomless well of folksy wisdom. Brother Bear likes sports and action figures, and Sister Bear likes ballet and dolls. While I don't have any problems with the specific morals they teach, I do find the entire thing frumpy and outdated.

Of course, the kids love them. Random House could publish The Berenstain Bears Discuss the Works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky At Great Length and my two boys would sit through it as long as Mama still caught Papa doing something amusingly immature or Brother and Sister got into a gender conflict. The Berenstain Bears and the Ghost of the Forest is one of their favorites, because not only does it have the Berenstain Bears, it also has spooky ghost stuff. It's also one of the few that rhyme, and there's nothing like rhyme to hook a three year old.

In the Ghost of the Forest, Brother and Sister are camping out with their bear-scout troop. They tell Papa that they don't want him to come along because they're old enough to go alone. In retaliation, Papa tells them he wouldn't want to go anyway because that forest is haunted. Once they leave, he sneaks off to the forest himself and puts on a ghost costume, intending to scare the crap out of them that night. Fortunately, Mama and Scout Leader Jane put that silly old Papa in his place, dressing up as ghosts and scaring him. Oh, that silly old Papa. There are many places during the story that the adult can make spooky ghosts sounds, and that's always a crowd pleaser for the five-and-under set.

Speaking of a crowd pleaser, Ian Falconer's Olivia series is one of the best things out there for kids books these days. Both parents and kids agree with that. The one my kids like most is Olivia and the Missing Toy. Olivia is a pig about six or seven years old who's as ornery and dramatic as an opera diva (which is what she wants to become). In this volume, she requests that her mom make her a red soccer shirt, even though everyone else on the team will be wearing green. While waiting for her mother to finish the shirt, she notices that her favorite stuffed animal is missing. After a feverish search, she discovers that the dog has ripped it apart. Her family tries to console her, even offering to buy her a new one. Eventually Olivia decides to sew it back together herself.

It all sounds very sickeningly sweet when I describe it, but curiously, the book doesn't have that feel at all. Maybe it's the artwork. Falconer takes a very minimalist approach—mostly black and white pastels, with a occasional splashes of bright red or green. Maybe it's Olivia's perspective, which is both dryly matter of fact and histrionic. After her fruitless search for her toy, she is practicing her piano on a dark and stormy night. Then she hears an "awful noise." She creeps down the hallway, lighting her way with a candelabra, all the while listening to gruesome chewing sounds. Then, like the revelation of a Lovecraftian monster mauling some hapless mortal, the page folds out into a double spread of the dog ripping the limbs off of her favorite toy. Falconer strikes a very interesting balance of finding humor in her horrified reaction and subsequent anguish, but at the same time, he's careful never to mock her.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to the other books by bringing in a Dr. Seuss book. But I just can't help it. Because the last story in The Sneeches and Other Stories is one of the finest examples of children's Horror even written. I never tire of reading What Was I Scared Of? to my children. Like a roller coaster that is neither too tame nor too terrifying, it consistently brings to their faces that special wide-eyed sparkle that only comes from a pitch-perfect ghost story. It's a simple plot. The nameless narrator keeps seeing a "pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them" that move on their own. It's a perfect Seuss image, both silly and somehow unnerving. The narrator thinks the pants are after him, so he keeps running away from them. Eventually, he encounters them in a place where he can't escape. But just has he is yelling for help, the pants start to cry. That is when he realizes that "they were just as scared as I." So he sits down, puts them in his lap, and comforts them.

Like the image of the ghostly pale green pants, the shadowy artwork combines with the light rhyming verse to create an entire world that is both fun and darkly nonsensical, like a preschool version of Alice in Wonderland. But isn't that what childhood is? It's often full of play and laughter, but sometimes adults come in and change things in ways that, to a child, make absolutely no sense. And there are times when the entire world seems to howl and moan with destructive force and no matter how many times we say it's just a thunderstorm and everything will be okay, to them it's still scary as hell.

That's what good horror does, for children or adults—exorcises the demon. We want to take the incomprehensible chaos that swirls around us and pin it down with details so that we can look it in the eye and know it, and by knowing it, feel some measure of control over it—at least for the duration of the story.

Copyright © 2008, Jon Skovron. All Rights Reserved.

About Jon Skovron

Jon Skovron is a writer of magical fiction and technical manuals. He abhors sweets of any kind, drinks tea excessively, has very special blood, and only has nine fingers. He lives with his wife and two sons just outside of Washington, DC. His first novel, Struts and Frets, comes out in the Fall of 2009 from Abrams Amulet. Visit him at


Oct 7, 05:32 by IROSF
Express thoughts on these books or related topics here.

Article is here.
Nov 22, 16:41 by Pat Gracey
I just stumbled across this site and decided to poke through the archives to see how well children's litereature was represented (I'm a children's librarian at the Hospital for Sick Children). I'm glad it didn't take me long to find your article which I really liked. I agree with your metaphor of the roller coaster for presenting scary stories to kids, thrilling and scary but not over the top, and I also agree that Dr. Seuss' What was I Sacred of? is a perfect mixture of silly and scary.

I think your disappointment with The Wolves in the Walls is understandable but also a bit predictable. I like Neil Gaiman and find he's very imaginative and a capable writer. I think he's made a successful transition as a children's author as well. I loved Coraline! His picture books are a little problematic however. The story itself is not bad, but I think McKean's art may not be the best match if you have younger kids in mind. It's just a little too disturbing IMHO. I don't profess to know your children and I'm not sure how old they were but kids don't always want to own up to being spooked. I do find it noteworthy that your child's criticism was of the art, even if the complaint was that it was 'messy' rather than scary. I don't know about you but I think the humans with their vaguely geometric not quite animate faces (especially Lucy) are actually scarier than the wolves! That's what gets me anyway. I think as a young child I would have found this all the more disturbing. It worked really well for Coraline which is more likely to be read by kids in grade 4-6. But not knowing a given kid really well, if I had to take a shot I'd go for something with gentler art. Paul Galdone's Tailypo, or King of the Cats for example. It's interesting to note that both these stories are folktales and as such are actually darker than the Wolves strictly on the narrative level, but the art tends to mitigate. Robert San Souci's Hobyahs also comes to mind.
Apr 2, 17:55 by Jon Skovron
I completely agree. I think Gaiman's new book, Blueberry Girl, with Charles Vess, is a much more appealing aesthetic for children.

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