This question was posed in The Atlantic Wire and then circulated via Twitter yesterday. I am sure it’s not the first time such a question has been asked and I would hazard a guess that it always sparks a healthy debate.
Scaring children is not necessarily something that I advocate, but there is something to be said for making children aware that the world is not all fluffy and sweet. It’s impossible to decide the effect a book will have on an individual. For example, I remember our middle froglet crying when she read The Ugly Duckling, because she was so upset that he had no friends. Does this mean that the story wasn’t suitable for 4 year old children? Of course not! And does it mean that she shouldn’t have read it? No! Life is tough; we all encounter instances when we may feel like the outsider and we would be doing our children a great disservice to shield them from such life lessons.
Perhaps if there was no positive resolution at the end of the tale, then it would an be unnecessary lesson? I think that creating a sense of fear in children’s fiction can be a good thing, especially if the lines of morality are clearly defined. Where it could ‘go wrong’ is if the villain doesn’t get some kind of deserved comeuppance at the end, whilst the hero suffer a terrible injustice. Although the cynic in me might say, well that’s life! (Only if I’ve had a really bad day).
Where do we draw the line on what would scare a child and what wouldn’t? There’s been so much written about the fairy tale. We know that the original versions of many were very gruesome indeed and have been doctored to suit more delicate palates over the years.
But who’s to say that the original texts are inferior to the ‘newer’ versions? Roald Dahl certainly saw the benefits of creating horrid caricatures in his stories. Did such characters result in nightmares? On the contrary, they caused delight in the reader, whilst teaching lessons of morality if you cared to look for them.
Of course, there’s the question of non-fiction or historical fiction too. For example, when is a child old enough to cope with a text such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas? There is no doubt that this book is frightening, but in a more real sense than say, for example, the Point Horror series. Is it ok to scare the reader? I would say, without any doubt, yes. If we don’t pass on such messages to the next generation then we have failed in some way. Again, as with fiction, the timing needs to be right for each individual, but I do believe that as adults, we should not shy away from presenting challenging texts to children.
So, in conclusion, should books scare children? Yes, I think that they should, as long as there is an adult close by to field tricky questions and place the fear into a manageable context for the reader.