It’s the season of all things spooky, and readers of all ages are reaching for scary books. But for middle-graders, should parents, teachers, and librarians step in and vet kids’ frightening picks, or let their newly-independent readers decide for themselves how much spookiness they can handle?
To get advice, I turned to two experts: Derek Furr, Associate Professor of Literature & Dean of Teacher Education at Bard College, a reading specialist and former schoolteacher, and Trish Grace Malone, a children’s book author and psychotherapist based in the Hudson Valley.
To start, it’s totally common if the children you know love reading frightening tales. After all, Malone says, “Scary stories are as old as storytelling and they fulfill important human needs. They draw us in with an immediate and compelling message – What would I or could I do if I were in this kind of scary situation? We are hard-wired by evolution to be very interested in how to survive,”
“There is satisfaction, even a kind of physical pleasure, that comes from not knowing, wanting to know, and finding out.”
A frightening page-turner’s attraction may be the same reason that such texts appeal to adults, adds Furr. “When reading a novel for pleasure, most of us read for the plot. A burning question pulls us in, suspense keeps us turning the pages, and a resolution is gratifying (especially if we’ve been right!) There is satisfaction, even a kind of physical pleasure, that comes from not knowing, wanting to know, and finding out.”
Beyond the engrossing thrills and chills, scary books can be beneficial for kids for a variety of reasons. According to Malone, these books “Teach us lessons, like a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign for the psyche. Children need to know what might put them in danger. It might not be safe to trust a stranger with a house made of cookies and candy. Children also can feel a vicarious sense of courage and triumph by reading about how to defeat the monsters that lurk in dark corners.”
And Furr says that when he taught middle school, his students “devoured” the Goosebumps and Animorphs books, and that doing so seemed to set them up for more challenging ‘horror’ like Poe and Shirley Jackson down the line. Any genre that gets kids reading at this stage is, in his opinion, fantastic. “Remember that the intermediate years (grades four through nine) are crucial for the development of reading fluency—that is, increased reading speed by rapid word/vocabulary recognition and a sense of prosody. Reading volume–just the sheer amount of reading that a young person does, regularly–correlates with fluency and vocabulary development. Unsurprisingly, it has also been shown to correlate with academic achievement.”
“Exerting some kind of creative control over what scares us is one of the most powerful ways to deal with our fears.”
I asked both my experts if parents should intervene if they’re concerned their student is going to scare themselves silly. Furr says, “I always think that it’s best to follow the child, especially if they’re reading,” but if your concern is that the subject matter may be inappropriate, he suggests reading along with the young person so you can discuss the book together.
Malone believes that most kids are smart about choosing the level of scary they can tolerate, and typically stop reading if the material is too much for them, but, “if you have a child who is dealing with anxiety, they may need support in avoiding scary stuff that other kids their age find fun, especially as they may feel some shame at their own sensitivity.”
But facing their fears in a safe way — inside the pages of an amazing book or story — is healthy and enjoyable for most #kidlit readers. And, Malone adds, “Ultimately, exerting some kind of creative control over what scares us is one of the most powerful ways to deal with our fears. That drives a lot of writers to write scary stuff in the first place, including me.”
Trish Grace Malone, a children’s book author and psychotherapist based in the Hudson Valley
Derek Furr, Associate Professor of Literature & Dean of Teacher Education at Bard College