It's a natural human urge to protect our kids from everything that could hurt them -- and it's an urge we seem to be indulging in more and more these days. They're being fed organic apple slices, having hand sanitizer smeared on them at every turn, and prevented from playing dodgeball. And it seems only right to us grown-ups that kids' books should be sweet, comforting, and so age-appropriate that nothing dark or concerning ever happens. But not all books can be Good Night Moon or Anne of Green Gables, and sometimes kids want -- or even need -- a jolt of fear to liven up their reading.
While scary stories can seem like nothing more than a risk factor for nightmares, many writers and experts believe children actually benefit from reading stories that frighten or unsettle. Sam Leith argued in the Guardian that fear gives a story stakes that heighten the reading experience and make a book memorable. Some psychologists have suggested that children can learn to cope with the frightening realities of their world -- possible loss of parents, interpersonal conflict -- by exploring these darker facts of life in the safe, fictional world of a storybook. The controlled environment of a children's story allows fear to be mixed with reassuring messages -- at the end, the protagonist may find a way home, escape evildoers, and even achieve a victory. Learning how to fend for ourselves and cope with crises and challenges is a lifelong process, but there's no safer way to start than by reading a few scary picture books and letting our fear impulse run wild!
In this child-protective age of trick-or-treating being limited to daylight hours, we need scary kids' books more than ever. And with Halloween around the corner, what better time is there to embrace the creepy side of kiddie lit? So let's take a moment to celebrate a few old favorites that injected some hair-raising chills and old-fashioned terror into our childhood reading.
1. Der Struwwelpeter
The original scary book for children, Struwwelpeter was one of the first books written explicitly for kids -- and it didn't exactly coddle them. The book consists of cautionary tales for children, who are warned that if they suck their thumbs, a "great tall tailor" will chop said thumbs off with giant scissors. Yikes.
2. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
To an adult, this classic picture book's gorgeous illustrations are familiar and comforting -- but as a toddler, the thought of going to bed and finding oneself transported to a wild jungle full of vicious monsters was pretty scary. It may have even merited a few extra glances under the bed after lights-out. Thank goodness Maurice Sendak returns little Max safely to a hot dinner and a warm bed at the end!
3. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The possibility that your toys may be alive is a particularly eek-inducing proposition for kids. They spend so much time with their favorite playthings, manhandling, drooling on, and sometimes mutilating them. Like Toy Story, The Velveteen Rabbit terrifyingly posits that kids who get rid of toys, or play with them ... creatively... are actually brutalizing innocent and loving companions. Though the Velveteen Rabbit is ultimately saved from destruction, what kid isn't left wondering what happened to the scarlet-fever-infected toys that didn't earn an escape from the flames?
4. Grimm's Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm
This classic compilation collected folklore and fairy tales into a volume that purported to be for children -- but these stories hardly resemble the sanitized fairy tales of Disney movies. The Grimms' version of "Cinderella" describes the evil stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet to try to fit into the glass slipper -- only to have their tactic given away by all the blood. And "Snow White"? Let's just say this take involves attempted cannibalism.
5. The Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine
There are 62 books in the original Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. But it would feel wrong to pick just one. Whether Stine was spooking us with a main character who turned out to have been a ghost without knowing it the whole time, or squicking us out with gross egg monsters from Mars, he knew how to give millions of kids the serious creeps.
6. The Witches by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl can always be counted on for some creepy plot twists. But it was The Witches that filled my young heart with the purest horror. When our hero is transformed into a talking mouse, it turns out there's no easy fix. Even after the witches have been defeated, he remains doomed to live out his (now much fewer) days as a mouse. This fatalistic ending seemed like a betrayal of all that I had come to expect from children's reading, though his cheery, glass-half-full view on the situation may be a good lesson for neurotic readers.
7. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Alvin Schwartz's folk tales and urban legends, adapted for kids to bone-chilling effect, provide nonstop eerie thrills. Each story seems to offer the perfect dose of horror, leaving kids jumpy enough to hide under the covers, but not too scared to fall asleep. And with so many frights per books, there's bound to be one that prods a kid's darkest fear -- and sticks in her memory for years.
8. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Sure, Harry Potter is fantasy, and the first book describes a world that seems like a delightful escape from Muggle reality. But the rapid intrusion of horrific elements like Dementors, giant snakes, and killing curses makes the series a very dark and threatening space for the young readers who have always made up its broadest and most passionate fanbase.
9. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Madeleine L'Engle's brilliant young adult novel pits a teenager and her young brother against the forces of evil. The maturity of the theme is so marked that, as L'Engle later admitted, publishers wondered whether it was really a children's book at all. But generations of kids have proven that they're eager to confront the possibility of a tangible, evil force in the universe. Despite the eerie scenes of mind control and suffering that fill the book, it has remained a perpetual favorite among young readers since its publication in 1962.