I recently found myself asking that question after some interesting information came to light. According to a survey of 1,003 people by online bookseller The Book People, a third of parents refuse to read their children books containing frightening characters. On the surface, this isn't really very surprising. I'm a parent. I know how strongly we feel the instinct to protect our children. We would do anything for our kids - and the great temptation is to keep them in a bubble for as long as we can, a safe place where the darkness in the world can't touch them. But is this really the right thing to do? Are we helping or hindering our children by wrapping them up in such a way?
Fear is a primal instinct, one of nature's great drivers. It exists, at the most basic level, to keep us alive. Our ancestors huddled in darkness and told stories of the monsters that lay in wait outside the cave, and today we tell tales of our own monsters. But why? Why do we like to frighten each other? And why does a part of us like being frightened?
I think it's all to do with facing our fears.
Everyone wants to be brave. But how do we know what bravery really is if we have never been scared? Fear teaches us how to be brave. And what better, or safer way is there to face our terrors than in the pages of a book? After all, we can close those pages and come back to the safety of our family and our living room whenever we wish. We are in control.
I have come to accept that my children will be exposed to fear no matter how I may try to prevent it. And whether that fear arrives in response to an intimidating teacher, or a playground bully, or the first leap into the deep end of the swimming pool, I want my kids to be prepared.
I want them to understand that everyone gets scared, that sometimes bad things happen, because I think this will see them better equipped for the journey. Maybe, like chickenpox or measles, it is better to introduce our children to these aspects of life early, because surely a child who has never been exposed to fear or negative experiences will have a much more virulent reaction when confronted with reality later.
Now, I'm not suggesting that we frighten the life out of our children. I won't be encouraging my young daughters to pick up the latest Stephen King (not for a good few years at any rate). But recent research following The Book People survey shows that child psychologists believe scary books and characters can play an important role in helping kids learn how to cope and learn.
A nasty villain might begin to teach them the difference between good and evil. A plot about bullying might instill in them the sense that 'this is wrong'. Seeing that frightening baddie get his comeuppance may show them that the monster can be slayed, whatever form it takes. It's also worth noting that much of the time in children's books the big scary moment is defused by a whopping great laugh. There's so often a fine line between terror and laughter, after all.
From a personal point of view, reading scary books hasn't done me any harm - in fact, I became a writer precisely because of a scary book. In primary five our class read The Witches by Roald Dahl. The book's main antagonist, The Grand High Witch (who incidentally took fourth place in the scariest villains section of the survey mentioned above), was a corker of a baddie. I was frightened of her, no doubt. But I also saw an ordinary little boy and his grandmother stand up to her, and I followed every thrilling moment of their adventure with a racing heart and an imagination lit on fire. Scary though the book is in places, the overwhelming feeling that washed over me when we reached the end was "I want to make people feel the way I've just felt".
That feeling has never gone away.
It is why I write, and why I still get butterflies whenever I begin reading a new story. It changed my life, absolutely. What a shame it would have been, then, had my parents thumbed through the pages of The Witches and thought... 'He's not reading this. It's too scary...'
Ross' latest novel, 'Shadowsmith', will materialise in bookshops across the UK on 15 September. Aimed at readers aged 9-12, this chilling tale follows the attempts of one ordinary boy and one extraordinary girl to hunt down the dark forces engulfing a peaceful seaside village. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shadowsmith-Kelpies-Ross-MacKenzie/dp/1782503048
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