Friday, October 29, 2010

One kid's thrill is another kid's chill

NPR had a segment this morning on scariness in children's television and how, while producers of kids' tv shows want to thrill kids without terrifying them, sometimes one can't predict what will scare kids. A funny example was an Arthur episode in which one character describes what happens when you bottle up your feelings, and demonstrates by shaking up a bottle of soda. The other kids imagine Francine's head flying off and landing in someone's yard - which seemed silly and funny to the grown-ups creating the show but apparently super-scary to hundreds if not thousands of young viewers.

Children's librarians are well aware that some kids are more easily frightened by others, and as a result lots of us tend to go easy with our Halloween programming. My audience was usually quite young, so I stayed on the Plumply Dumply Pumpkin end of the scariness spectrum, and never got much scarier than an interactive telling of The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything - and even then I kept watching my audience to see if I should make my clomp-clomps and clap-claps goofy rather than ominous.

How lovely, then, to get to tell and read stories to older kids, who WANT to be scared! For them, it was always The Peculiar Such Thing and Sopdoll, and any number of other folk tales, told with maximum suspense and creepy sound effects.

But one can't always predict what will scare a kid. When I took my older daughter to Knott's Berry Farm, she did just fine on her first roller coaster ride on the "Jaguar". What really freaked her out, though, was the atmospheric lead-up to the ride, which took the line through a dimly lit, Aztec-like temple full of eerie noises. In fact, any dimly lit and somewhat mysterious place had her clinging to me in terror, even if it was a museum - this one in particular literally made her run for the door. Granted, it's a weird museum, but scary? I wouldn't have thought so.

We had a coffee table book of Life photos in the house when I was a kid, and I pored over it incessantly, even obsessively. The context for most of the photos was unknown to me, so I just took the photos at face value, aided (sort of) by the short captions next to each one. Some photos were obviously tragic and disturbing (dead soldiers), some were obviously funny (a baby with spaghetti on its head) - but some I couldn't interpret at all.

It strikes me as odd now, but this photo filled me with dread. The caption used the term "pied piper" and said that he was leading the children away - and I knew the terrible ending to that particular tale. What was going on here? The photo seemed light-hearted on the surface, but I sensed very dark and sinister depths and was chilled everytime I looked at it.

Kids can't quite distinguish between real life and fantasy until at least age 5 (and in my case much later - and in fact I'm not sure I've ever quite figured out the distinction) - so we need to be careful about sharing spooky books with young kids. But on the other hand, a child may shudder with fear at a story or illustration that would strike almost anyone else as innocuous.

So this Halloween, read and tell stories to little kids that are thrilling but not too chilling - and when in doubt, throw in a bit of humor and silliness, give kids a warning and an out ("this next story has a scary pumpkin in it that says 'boo!' - so if you hate pumpkins who yell 'boo!', you could cover your ears at that part"), or even talk with kids afterward about the story to let them relieve a little nervous tension.

Just please don't tell any stories about pied pipers.


  1. One of my favorite all-ages Halloween library program, I set up a contest called, "Pumpkin Scary, Pumpkin Sweet"

    Kids were given an orange die-cut pumpkin and told to decorate it -- the "sweetest" pumpkin winner got a package of funny and gentle fall themed books.
    The "scariest" pumpkin winner got a package of mysteries and scary stories.

  2. Oh, that's good! Something for every type of kid....