Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Children's Books

Would it put off a publisher if a picture book story showed both a parent and child being frightened of monsters? From one of your previous posts about layers of meaning, a child could read a whole lot of negative things into seeing a parent being scared.
That is correct.
Most stories seem to avoid that by having the parent either absent, reassuring, or disinterested/disbelieving.
Is this a tried and trusted formula, or is there some leeway - such as Michael Rosen's We're Going On A Bear Hunt?
There is some leeway--there's some leeway in pretty much every "rule" out there. But this is something to be very careful with.

Let's think about We're Going On a Bear Hunt. Most children do not have a built-in fear of bears (the way many do of monsters); after all, many children's books are about cuddly bears. So bears as a plot element are not automatically the source of anxiety other "bad guys" are. The bear in this book offers a mild thrill --just slightly more than an excuse to play at running away-- rather than a source of real conflict. And there's a dose of humor in this book that takes much of the sting from the bear's tension.

The book also doesn't complicate the ending with psychological extras-- when the family is home, they're safe. Period. The book tells small children what they already know and want to believe-- that there are scary things out there, but home is absolute safety, like a law of the universe.

Older children, of course, can explore the idea that home is not so safe.

And very young children can also enjoy stories where the bad guy/source of fear is dealt with a bit differently (Go Away, Big Green Monster; the goblin story in Little Bear's Visit; There's a Monster At the End of This Book; Mrs McMurphy's Pumpkin), but it must be dealt with sensitively. If you can't manage to empathize with the fear that small children feel --to understand in your gut where it comes from and what allays it-- then don't write that kind of story for them.

Many writers seem to have an ideal age range--the one they themselves most strongly empathize with-- and it's an important thing to recognize yours.

Whenever you don't know your audience, you're writing for the wrong crowd.


Anonymous said...




Marc said...

I'm not sure what age group " . . . Bear Hunt" is aimed at, but it scared the bejeezus out of my son when he was three.


Sabina E. said...

"Where the Wild Things are" used to scare me as a kid... hahahahaha

Christine Tripp said...

In the second trade book in a series I Illustrated, I was a bit concerned. On the last pages of the book, though the child has stood up to her "monsters" and evicted them from her room, they then appeared in the parents room and the father was now afraid/believed in their existance. It was not the typical story line where the child deals with their fears and it's confirmed that it wasn't real in the first place. The book did well, recieved children's choice awards etc but I did get some feed back from adults in regards to the fathers reaction (confirming the reality of monsters) as being unsettling to children. I can understand this but perhaps the majority of children reading the book still understood it was "pretend"? Don't know.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I think part of the problem may be that target audiences are too WIDE.

A lot of PBs are aimed at 3 to 5 years olds.

Developmentally (based on that Giselle Institute series and my own kids) 3s tend to be senstitive/ easily frightened, 4s are bloodthirsty maniacs, and fives start to get a little fearful again...

So books like Mars Needs Moms or Captain Raptor might be nightmare inducing for a three, but make a four spend days jumping off the couch screaming "Will THIS be the end of Captain Raptor????"

I think what's more important than not scary at this age is a clear sense that the bad guys lose.

So, for example, my daughter LOVES fairy tales with gruesome witches, scary dragons, people being eaten, etc....

As long as the monster ends up dead. Not friendly and understood. Dead. Slaughtered by the Good guys. So he can never eat people again.

However, I HAVE noticed that in cases where it's not clear the bad guys lose (I.e. real life) she gets nightmares.

I do think that children's books tend to be a little over protective on this count. Mars needs Moms sparked a lot of discussion about being too dark and scary, but it actually holds up well.....

Mommy C said...

Could I also mention "Penelope and the Monsters". It is a little different take on the subject, as well. I have actually just posted an interview with the illustrator, Christine Tripp.

The book is a riot and Christine gave a great interview.

Mommy C said...

Oh. Well, I see Christine has already been here. Should have read the comments first.

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