As a part-time job, I work in the children’s department at the public library. I’ve been there for six years, and my main job is collection development (buying new stuff, tossing old stuff), and connecting kids to books by creating topical displays. My annual favorite displays are the ones I do in October. I look forward to it all year, and pull out a little bit for everyone: scary ghost stories, monster stories, and funny stories about how a kid accidentally turns into a zombie and now has to face middle school looking, well, like a zombie. I put out books about vampires and werewolves, books about the holiday itself, Halloween cookbooks and costuming books, picture books about witches and black cats, and plenty of picture books about being afraid, with tips for kids about how to deal with their fears.
The reason these displays are my favorite is because I can’t keep them full. The books fly off the shelves practically as fast as I put them up there. The kids’ and adults’ enthusiasm for the dark and creepy fascinates me, and I work hard all month digging deeper and deeper into our collection to find relevant gems for them. It’s really exciting for me as a librarian. But why? Why is Halloween the most popular event of the year for my readers? Even my own kids who, with such active imaginations, have been haunted by nightmares and the fear of unseen creepies since they were less than two, love this month.
It all comes down to power. When you’re a kid and you’re laying in bed at night, mind wandering to all the possible bad things that may happen to you (what’s in the closet? what’s under the bed? what if someone broke in the house and got to me before my parents could help?), you’re a victim. Kids feel small and vulnerable in situations like that, and totally unable to protect themselves. How many of you adult readers had bedtime rituals as children to keep you safe from the boogie man? I never EVER let my hands or feet extend past the edge of the mattress, and husband-Jamie always tucked his sheet totally under all sides of him to keep the creepies away. Sheets and mattresses make a poor defense against the undead, but as kids that’s all we have.
Ahhh. But that’s where the power of the spooky story comes in. When kids choose to engage in the creepy, they take control. They are safely exploring the terrifying “what ifs” they so dread at night, and better yet, they are experiencing these stories through characters who are in the end triumphant. Usually. But even in short urban legend formats where there is no hero, the child still has control. She’s choosing the adventure, and can leave at any time.
There are other ways of engaging with the spooky than reading books, of course. Halloween crafting and cooking, decorating, dressing up, acting the part of the monster (giving the scares instead of receiving them)…. After finishing our study of the cell in biology, Eva chose to look at the skeletal system, and then the brain – all in honor of the season. All of these activities hand the power of the frightening to the kids who participate. Ian balked at my post title, saying he hates the spooky. But then he had to admit that the thing he was looking forward to most at Halloween is jumping out at teens and adults as they chaperone their kids in trick-or-treating. Taking the power of the scare.
Now of course there is a balance to be struck between the safely scary and the traumatically terrifying. I wouldn’t plop my kid down in front of a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. And sometimes kids will be exposed to things they’re not yet ready for. It would be awesome if we had 100% control of this and could dole out life experiences only as our children were mature enough for them. But we all know life doesn’t work that way. Our just-beyond-ready experience this month was an open mic scary story event at a local artist co-op. Jamie was the featured reader, and we knew that his story was fine. But a couple of high school kids shared their own tales, and weren’t so cognizant of the younger kids in the audience. After a couple of co-sleeping nights to ease lingering fears, we’re back to normal.
The world can be a scary place. There are real-life boogie men, natural disasters, climate change, economic crises, wars, disease, over-population, domestic abuse…. We can’t shield our kids from these things forever, and unfortunately it’s sometimes difficult to add enough sugar to make our real-world creepies palatable. But if we can equip our kids with examples of heroes and heroines overcoming frightening adversity, they’ll have a fighting chance. From Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the world of story is there, waiting to show kids how to kick some serious butt, even when they’re flawed and struggling themselves. You can be scared but brave, damaged but unyielding, small but powerful. That’s why spooky is good for kids. Happy Halloween, ya’ll.
PS: If you want some good scary story book recommendations, let me know and I’ll put some together for you!