Are Scary Stories Okay for Children?

Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, made news in September for having said he believes children’s books today aren’t “wild enough.” It prompted a vibrant debate as to whether, in our natural quest to protect our children, we have over neutralized scary elements in today’s books.

When Sendak won the Caldecott Medal in 1968, he spoke of the value of books infused with themes that might be frightening to young readers. He said, “[A child’s] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.”

As a child, several of my favorite early books were scary reads. My pulse raced when the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk. I worried when Frank and Joe Hardy found themselves in the middle of a dangerous mystery. My all-time favorite childhood story is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken where Bonnie, the central character, faces the loss of her parents, extreme poverty, abusive treatment, and is forced to run away from her evil governess. Pretty scary stuff for a child.

And pretty important stuff too, at least, according to child psychologists.

Dr. Tony Charuvastra, a research psychiatrist at New York University’s School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, believes scary stories act as a form of play therapy, helping a child to control his normal fears.

Dr. Charuvastra states, “The importance of bad things in stories is that they help create pretend space where bad things can happen. It’s better for your child to experience these feelings for the first time with you, in pretend space, than in non-pretend space.” He adds that these experiences help children learn to differentiate between real troubles and imaginary fears.

Other psychiatrists note one of the positive outcomes from scary books is that the child has control of when to turn the page, or to shut the book. That feeling of control transfers to a child teaching himself to control his own fears.

Fairy tales are full of stories that tap into the deepest fears children may have. Many put their young characters in life threatening situations (Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, The Brave Little Tailor). Consider the themes of Hansel and Gretel: parental abandonment, getting lost, death. Worries all children have at some level.

Dr. Sheldon Cashdan, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, says, “When children read or hear fairy tales, they project the good parts of themselves onto the hero or heroine and the bad parts onto the witch figure. Then every time the witch dies, it magically restores children’s faith in their ability to conquer their own troublesome emotions.”

According to psychologists, there is an exception, the occasional book in which the villain is allowed to win. In these cases, the child is often left with the frightful story unresolved within a moral universe, and their feelings of fear carry forward.

Of course, it is up to each parent to guide their child’s reading based on their unique tolerance. But shielding them from the scary stories may not be doing them a service. And perhaps in the end it will turn out that Sendak was right. It’s the dangerous, ungovernable stories which teach children to “master these forces.”

So if you’re looking for a great Halloween read, consider these books!




THE HOUSE OF DIES DREAR by Virginia Hamilton



Jennifer Nielsen’s most recent release, ELLIOT AND THE PIXIE PLOT, is as scary as it is funny. She will also release THE FALSE PRINCE with Scholastic in April 2012. Learn more about her and her books at her website, or follow her on Twitter @nielsenwriter


Jennifer Nielsen