Rose Impey, the author of the Creepies series, writes about her approach to the age old problem of fear in children’ s books.
Whenever I visit schools to read my work I’ve been in the habit of asking children which kind of stories they like best. Almost without exception they tell me they prefer funny or scary stories. Certainly for a writer there can’t be much greater satisfaction than seeing a class of juniors falling around laughing at something you’ve written, except, that is, to see them absolutely silent and wide-eyed, balanced on that knife edge between pleasure and fear.
Let me say that this isn’t the perverse satisfaction of someone who takes delight in frightening children. It comes from knowing that you’ve tapped into something which is deeply felt, which strikes a chord with all readers. It’s at such times that you fully appreciate the power you have as a writer and realise the responsibility of it.
Of course it’s a far more risky business than writing humorous stories. When a writer chooses to confront uncomfortable issues she immediately opens herself up to the criticism of putting unpleasant ideas into childrens’ heads where they didn’t exist before. The assumption seems to be that children are all entirely happy and at peace with themselves until you come along to upset them. But as Bruno Bettelheim tells us in his important book The Uses of Enchantment, a psychological study of the significance of folk and fairy tales, even young children’s minds are full of unpleasant thoughts and deep conflicts, which originate in their primitive drives and violent emotions.
He suggests that certain fears are central to the business of growing up in a society where children are relatively powerless in the face of adult strength and authority. Yet happily for most children what goes on in their heads is far more frightening than the reality of their lives.
Any teacher who has given children the opportunity to talk freely about their feelings, and in particular their fears, will be aware of this. It can be like a floodgate, which once opened is very hard to close. The sense of excitement as they clamour to tell you their individual fears, and the relief they gain from sharing these feelings, is surely evidence of their need to externalize them.
Unfortunately, as Bettelheim says, many adults responsible for the care of children, believe that children should be diverted from what upsets them and only exposed to the sunny side of things. They believe it’s better to distract the child, rather than discuss her worries. But evasionary tactics like this can appear to deny those feelings which increase the child’s sense of isolation. If, on the other hand, her fear is acknowledged and openly discussed then the child at least knows that this fear is being taken seriously.
A good place for this dialogue to take place is in the context of a book. Through the right story the child can connect with those inner feelings and have the opportunity to resolve them, providing of course that the story is safe.
There are a number of factors which I think contribute to that feeling of safety. I was particularly aware of these when I was writing the Creepies series – four simple stories about young children and their bedtime rituals and fantasies.
First and foremost the fear must be resolved – not necessarily in a happy-ever-after, all-ends-tied-up way (even young children recognise that to be less than truthful) but in such a way that the terror is controlled. In all four books this was possible because the fear is created by, and so ultimately is in the control of, children themselves.
Secondly, I think it helps if the fear is overt, so that children can see clearly what it is they are being frightened by. I suspect problems arise when it is too subtle, when it is more a question of tone and atmosphere, vague horrors hinted at, rather than what actually happens in the story. Then there’s a danger of leaving children disturbed in a way that they cannot understand. While I think it’s fine to frighten children, I wouldn’t want to depress them – the point Nicholas Tucker made about some teenage fiction in his article ‘Which Books for Which Children’ (BfK 58, September 1989).
Also I think the story should increase the child’s sense of her own power. Providing the fear is resolved, then the reader, along with the hero/ine of the story, experiences the moments of triumph and is strengthened by them. Like the hero/ine, the child begins to feel that she has the resources to deal with difficulties, that she can be in control, which is the best contradiction of powerlessness I can think of.
When a child experiences a story where her own fears are acknowledged, and so validated, she gains the comfort of knowing that she’s just the same as everyone else – that others share her fears and worries too. Whenever I read aloud from one of the Creepies I am interrupted by children’s cries of recognition.
‘That’s like me.’
‘That’s what I think.’
‘I do that!’
This realisation helps children to feel less alone and isolated. It’s surely worse to feel that fears are personal to us and not shared by other people.
In stories where there is a mixture of humour and fear, the humour can provide a helpful balance. The young child will often see the humour before the more frightening implications of a story. Sometimes by being encouraged to laugh at her own fears she can be helped to overcome them. There’s a Nightmare in My Cupboard by Mercer Mayer (Dent, 0 460 06782 4, £6.50) and The Monster Bed by Jeanne Willis and Susan Varley (Andersen, 0 86264 127 6, £5.95; Beaver, 0 09 955320 1, £2.50 pbk) are good examples of this for the very young.
However, when I set out to write the Creepies I was writing for a slightly older audience and even though I chose to employ humour, I intended the books to be frightening, within the limits I’ve already mentioned. So I was particularly pleased with the way the illustrations managed both to exploit the humour and yet heighten the drama. Moira Kemp, the illustrator, and I were in agreement that while the books should be very clearly on the child’s side they should also offer the reader a sort of challenge.
It’s perfectly evident that even if we avoid all the material we think might frighten them, children will still find ways to frighten themselves. They will actively seek them out. The image of a child watching Dr Who through parted fingers has become something of a cliche. We know that there’s no point in saying, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.’ It isn’t that simple. What I think is happening is that the child is seizing a situation in which she can test herself out. She wants to deal with her fear and she’s making it safe for herself to do so. This is exactly how children use some books. By allowing them access to suitable material we can actually help them to do that.
If, on the other hand, we prevent children from experiencing any books which might threaten their peace of mind, or we fear may do so, we’re in danger of over-protecting them, which can be as emotionally damaging and potentially dangerous as physical over-protection. We allow them no scope to learn to judge their own limits.
While I was aware of all these considerations when I wrote the Creepies series, I have to admit that my main motivation was to write some stories which would be scary but fun. I felt confident that you could scare and amuse children at the same time.
Most children, like many adults – evidence the popularity of horror films – do get some pleasure from being scared, just enough. Many of the letters I receive following visits to schools confirm this. They include the words, `The best bit was when you frightened us. It was brilliant!’, or similar.
Unfortunately some adults seem to have difficulty with this idea. I’ve met a few people responsible for the selection of books for children who’ve told me they consider my books too scary. Quite properly they’re exercising their right and sense of responsibility as librarians or booksellers not to make my books available to children or their parents. This doesn’t make me wish we’d produced different, less controversial books. It just means I must accept that it will take longer for children to discover them.
Usually when I’ve asked these adults exactly what they object to in the books, they relate their objections back to their own childhood fears. The stories seem to have re-stimulated some old distress, which may be unconscious but I feel may be colouring their judgement. As Nicholas Tucker suggested in his article, sometimes when adults reject books for their children it’s perhaps their own pain which is being protected.
A friend who used to visit me with her young daughter would choose from my bookshelves books to read at bedtime. Frequently she’d find something in them to criticise. She’d become more and more agitated as she dramatised their bad points and predicted the effect they’d have on her daughter, often within her daughter’s hearing. If she ever did read anything she considered risky, inevitably she communicated this and so, as she’d predicted, her daughter wouldn’t be able to sleep that night.
Similarly Bettelheim tells us that many parents are often shocked and surprised when they return to folk and fairy tales, which they’ve loved as children, to find them so harsh and cruel. They often prefer to read them in softened, bowdlerised versions, or actually edit them themselves in the reading. But what they don’t realise is that children react differently from adults. They’re neither as literal nor as squeamish. The child who reads of the wolf’s stomach being cut open doesn’t literally imagine this in the way that an adult, who may know the realities of abdominal surgery, might.
And children also have a more simple and clear-cut sense of right and justice. As G K Chesterton said, `Like the simple folk of fairy tales children are innocent and like justice, whereas most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.’
Is this why we feel happier to have the wicked queen in Snow White forgiven, or merely banished, rather than be forced to dance to her death in red hot shoes? Is this why we as parents find Hansel and Gretel so painful because it connects us with our deepest fears that we might one day reject our own children? Inevitably as adults we’re looking at stories from a very different perspective and we need to be aware of that.
If, even for the best of motives, we continue to deny children’s fears, and distract where we ought to discuss, then we in fact disable them, rather than enable them to come to terms with those fears. If as adults we were more able to stay clear of our own unresolved fears we might give our children the confidence to learn to deal with theirs.
The Creepies series is published by Ragged Bears at £5.50 each:
The Ankle Grabber, 1870817 07 9
Jumble Joan, 1 870817 08 7
Scare Yourself to Sleep, 1870817 06 0
The Flat Man, 1 870817 05 2