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Into the Dark: Why Kids Should Read Horror, a guest post by Ally Malinenko

The scene went like this:

“I would never let my children read that.”

I froze, shame flooding me, coloring my cheeks, tightening my throat. Her words echoed in my head.

 “I would never let my children read that.”

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? One of the things a lot of people might not know about publishing is that it involves secrets. Lots of them. For instance, you’re really not supposed to talk about your book being accepted for publication before the Publisher’s Weekly announcement. It’s fine to tell family and all but you aren’t supposed to go on Twitter and scream about it as much as you’d like to. Back in January 2020 Ghost Girl, my debut novel, had been accepted but we were waiting on contract stuff to finalize before the announcement was made. It had been over a month and to say I was getting antsy would be an understatement. I work in a research library and one day we had an appointment with a well-known biographer. It’s not important who. But let’s just say that this biographer happened to write one of my favorite books about one of my favorite writers.

To say I was excited to meet her was an understatement.

I’m not sure why I said it. It was almost like I couldn’t stop myself.

“My first book is being published.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful, congrats. What do you write?”

The eternal question. What do you write? My lizard brain blurted out the same thing I say all the time, not even thinking it would elicit a response.

“I write middle grade horror.”

Her face wrinkled in surprise that then deepened into disgust. “Middle grade? Like…..for children.”

“Yes,” I said, my voice a pitch higher as the tips of my fingers started to tingle. Anxiety was descending.

“I would never let my children read that.”

And once again I was whisked through time back to the halls of my school, clutching my tattered copy of Scary Stories to tell in the Dark, teased by the other kids in the hall. Or in the library, same book in hand, a teacher giving me a cocked eyebrow and a sidelong look.

I handed the famous biographer her materials, muttered the usual reminder about the archive rules and left as quickly as possible wondering how after all these years, are we still of afraid of children who like dark, strange, scary things?

I have wondered about this before I started writing Ghost Girl, and while editing Ghost Girl and now that my book is out, I’m still thinking about it. Prior to working in the archive, I was a children’s librarian and I knew all the kids that were like me, the ones that beeline straight for the Goosebumps. Those kids are there, looking for these books. So why are parents, teacher and sometimes even librarians – the gatekeepers – worrying about it? What do adults think they are saving kids from? What do they think is going to happen if kids read scary books?

Because the truth is those books offer more than scares; they offer solace. It’s a thing I call Safe Scary. Kids know the world is a scary place. There is no way to shield that from them. Nor should we. Giving kids scary books gives them a place to navigate those feelings, to be scared in a safe way. If it’s too much they close the covers. But if it’s not they have a chance to be the hero, which is the other important thing that horror does for kids. It gives them agency. It gives them power. A thing that children, by nature and status, do not have. They live in a world where they are told when to get up, when to go to bed, what to eat, when to eat it, what to watch, and sadly what to read. When kids read books, they get to play act the main character. My main character is Zee, a girl who loves scary stories but didn’t expect to live in one. She is stubborn and brave and at times makes terrible decisions. She is, fully, a kid. Reading Zee’s story, kids get to experience it with her. They’ll go into the woods with Zee, into the dark, but they’ll come back out on the other side, where the light is. They’ll survive the night. That is what horror books teach us – survival. Let them defeat the monsters on the page so they’ll recognize the ones that will inevitably appear in their lives.

The other thing horror does is tells kids the truth. Adults often forget that kids have the same emotions as they do but often lack the skills to express them. They are acutely aware when things are not okay. But we are rarely honest with kids about the bad parts of life. We lie when their pets die. We tell them everything is fine when Mom and Dad aren’t speaking at the dinner table. We throw the truth in a dark corner and hope they never see it. Horror, on the other hand, doesn’t deal in platitudes. It doesn’t pretend away reality. It puts you front and center against a monster and then it places in your hand the sword you need to vanquish it. Horror believes in kids and trusts them to go along for this ride. It knows they’ll last the night.

Fear is a natural part of life and adults have learned coping skills for their fear. They have had years of experiences to pull from when the bottom drops out. But kids don’t. Horror books offer very important lessons about fear. The biggest being that you either conquer it for succumb to it. Fear offers no middle ground. It is through story telling that we learn how to navigate our emotions. Stories build empathy. They are a way for humans to say to each other “I felt this. Did you feel this too?” They are ways for us to make connections in a world that often seems devoid of them. Horror by nature builds empathy simply because when the main character is threatened, you root for them. You want them to win. You want them to survive the night. A connection is built.  A lesson is learned. A fear is conquered. A hero emerges, dusty and shaken but still standing.

I recently read an excellent piece about the loneliness of horror fandom for kids, especially for BIPOC kids, by Ally Russel. Ally wondered where her horror family was as a kid. Why she felt so disconnected. I understood that. It can be a lonely fandom. But we have now the opportunity to change that. As Ally says, “If you know a young horror fan, protect them at all costs. Let them explore the boundaries of their fear.”

Protect them at all costs.

Protecting them isn’t shielding them. It isn’t placating them. It is letting them know the dangers our there and putting a book in their hand so they’re ready when it happens. Monsters, eventually, come for all of us. It is best to be prepared.

If I could redo that afternoon with that very Important Biographer, I would have done it different. I would have told her all these things. I would have kept my head up. I would let her know I am proud to write horror for kids, proud to have the privilege to write horror for kids.

To watch them go, head up, shoulders back, right into the dark and know they’re going to be okay.

Meet the author

Ally Malinenko is a poet, novelist, and librarian living in Brooklyn, New York, where she pens her tales in a secret writing closet before dawn each day. Connect with Ally on her website at www.allymalinenko.comInstagram

About Ghost Girl

Perfect for fans of Small Spaces and Nightbooks, Ally Malinenko’s debut is an empowering and triumphant ghost story——with spooky twists sure to give readers a few good goosebumps!

Zee Puckett loves ghost stories. She just never expected to be living one.

It all starts with a dark and stormy night. When the skies clear, everything is different. People are missing. There’s a creepy new principal who seems to know everyone’s darkest dreams. And Zee is seeing frightening things: large, scary dogs that talk and maybe even . . . a ghost.

When she tells her classmates, only her best friend Elijah believes her. Worse, mean girl Nellie gives Zee a cruel nickname: Ghost Girl.

But whatever the storm washed up isn’t going away. Everyone’s most selfish wishes start coming true in creepy ways.

To fight for what’s right, Zee will have to embrace what makes her different and what makes her Ghost Girl. And all three of them—Zee, Elijah, and Nellie—will have to work together if they want to give their ghost story a happy ending.

ISBN-13: 9780063044609
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/10/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Comments

  1. Stephanie Zero says

    Thank you for this insight to horror readers! I have a quote on my wall from William Alexander who wrote Goblin Secrets. He said, “Fictional pain works like a vaccine. You inoculate yourself to tragedy by learning that tragedy exists… it’s an unjust mistake to deny children the full emotional range of fictional experience.” I like how you take this idea further to say that horror, ” puts you front and center against a monster and then it places in your hand the sword you need to vanquish it.” This description of giving the reader agency when they feel they have no control, is relatable. Can’t wait to read Ghost Girl!

  2. Awnali Mills says

    Very well said. I use those same arguments to explain to parents why scary stories are perfectly acceptable choices for kids. And parents are usually greatly relieved that they can indulge their children’s inclinations. Parents I’ve spoken to are usually feeling like they’ve done a bad job parenting because their child likes scary literature. I always hasten to explain that it’s a GOOD thing, and not something to worry about.

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