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What Horror–Yes, Horror–Can Do For Kids, a guest post by Josh Allen

A few days before the recent release of my second middle-grade horror book, Only If You Dare: 13 Stories of Darkness and Doom, I visited my local bookstore to sign the copies they were preparing to shelve.

“We’re going to put them in the children’s horror section,” the cheerful clerk told me. “We didn’t used to have a children’s horror section, but we get asked for so much of it, we had to make one.” She pointed, and there it was. 

A children’s horror section! In my local bookstore! Finally!

But I knew a lot of people would wander past that section and wonder. 

Children’s horror? In 2021? Don’t kids get enough of that already in their everyday lives? 

Those are fair questions. Obviously, it’s a terrifying time to be to be a kid, and that statement is so apparent I’m not even going to spend a few sentences defending it. 

And yet, children’s horror is rising. We see this not only in bookstore shelving practices, but in School Library Journal articles like “Six Late Summer Scares for Tweens” and “17 Books to Get Readers in the Halloween Spirit.” We see it in the success of the recent Fear Street series on Netflix (based on the R. L. Stine books). And we see it in the rising popularity of writers like Christian McKay Heidicker, Katherine Arden, and Jonathan Auxier. And the list goes on. 

But . . . why is horror rising? When kids visit libraries and bookstores, why, in these terrifying times, are so many of them seeking out horror? Why not reach instead for some pleasant escapism? A rollicking adventure? A magical voyage? A bit of modern day humor? Wouldn’t those kinds of stories give today’s kids the all-too-welcome distractions they need?

But . . . horror? Really?

I believe the answer to horror’s appeal can be explained, in part, by the words of Natalie Goldberg. Literature, she tells us in the introduction of her book Writing Down the Bones, is for people who are “unconsciously seeking peace, a coming together, an acknowledgement of our happiness or an examination of what is broken, hoping to embrace and bring our suffering to wholeness.”

An examination of what is broken

Hoping to embrace and bring our suffering to wholeness

When kids ask for scary books, I believe we’re witnessing exactly what Goldberg describes above—human beings unconsciously reaching out for the stories they know will fill their psychological gaps, for the stories that can help them be made whole. 

Let me explain:

In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall likens the act of reading fiction to the act of practicing in a flight simulator. The simulator is safe. It’s where you go to hone your skills before dealing with the real situation. 

See also: fiction. It’s a flight simulator. “Fiction allows our brains,” Gottschall writes, “to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success.”

Like the challenges that come when we’re afraid. Like the challenges that too many kids are facing in 2021. 

Sure, escape is nice. Escape from what so many kids have had to endure over the past two years—heartache, confusion, anger, loneliness, crippling loss—would be the sweetest mercy. But sometimes when kids come to the library or to the bookstore, they’re not looking for escape. They’re looking to probe the complex (and sometimes dark) emotions they’ve been carrying around inside them—anxiety, tension, horror.  They’re looking for stories that can help them practice dealing with these emotions. They’re looking for a book that can act as a flight simulator, a book that can help then probe the grainy textures of fear and taste the metallic bitterness of it, a book that can teach them how to navigate what it means to be afraid. 

A kid reading a scary book is in practice mode, like a movie character in a training montage. Think of Rocky Balboa whacking away at sides of beef. Or Mulan climbing a towering mountain again and again. Or Daniel LaRusso waxing on and waxing off. That’s what kids with spooky books are—fighters looking to level up—and when kids reach for horror, they’re entering the psychic gym, gearing up to do mental calisthenics.

This means that when a kid comes asking for a scary book, we shouldn’t smile politely and substitute in a book we think is more appropriate, maybe one with a bit of charming suspense and a companionable ghost or two.

No. When kids come asking for horror, here’s what we should do:

Give. Them. Horror. 

If a kid asks for doom, death, monsters, blood, and worse, we should give that kid doom, death, monsters, blood, and worse. True, there are enough of these things in kids’ day-to-day lives already (sadly), but that is the very point. We can’t shield kids from the blows of this too-terrifying world. All we can do is arm them with the tools they need to navigate it well.

Today’s kids know, deep in their guts, that they need to get good at being afraid. So of course they’re reaching out for stories of darkness and terror. 

A side note: None of this means that kids can’t have gobs of fun while also getting scared speechless. They can. And the best horror writers don’t just scare kids. They entertain them. They amaze them. They walk that fine line between horror and humor. (This, by the way, is why the amazing people at Holiday House Books made sure both of my books feature covers that glow in the dark. Spooky, yes. But also, we hope, gobs of fun.)

We need to trust kids’ unconscious yearnings. We need to trust that they know what kinds of books they need better than we do. We need to trust the healthy cravings of their own psyches. 

So, children’s horror? In my local bookstore? In 2021? When there’s already so much horror in kids’ lives?

You bet.

Because kids are smart. If they reach for scary books, they’re doing so for a reason.

They’re choosing terror on the page so they can develop resilience.

They’re choosing stress-filled stories so they can learn to navigate their own anxieties. 

They’re choosing fear in fiction so they can cultivate bravery in real life. 

May we help them to do all these things and more.

Meet the author

Josh Allen’s debut book, Out to Get You: 13 Tales ff Weirdness And Woe, received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Booklist and was named a Junior Library Guild selection. When his second book, Only If You Dare: 13 Tales of Darkness and Doom, came out School Library Journal wrote, “Allen has cemented himself as the heir-apparent of Alvin Schwartz.” His writing has received praise from The Horn Book, The Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and more. Both Out to Get You and Only If You Dare contain artwork by the award-winning illustrator Sarah J. Coleman, and both of these books feature covers that glow in the dark. Josh lives in Idaho with his family where he teaches English.

About Only If You Dare: 13 Stories of Darkness and Doom

Thirteen chilling short stories to keep you up at night—but only if you dare.

You never know what’s out to get you. Though you might think you’re safe from monsters and menaces, everyday objects can turn against you, too. A mysterious microwave. A threatening board game. A snowman that refuses to melt. Even your own heartbeat has its secrets. Thu-thump. Thu-thump. When you stop to listen, each beat sounds more menacing than the last. 

Master storyteller Josh Allen brings thirteen nightmare scenarios to life in this page-turning collection that’s perfect for budding horror junkies. In his wondrous world, danger waits behind every doorway . . . even in the most ordinary places. 

Eerie illustrations by award-winning artist Sarah Coleman accompany the stories, packaged in a stunning hardcover edition complete with glow-in-the-dark jacket. Readers will sleep with one eye open!

ISBN-13: 9780823449064
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/31/2021
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years

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

Friendly Ghosts, a guest post by Richard Fairgray

With the second graphic novel in the Black Sand Beach series coming out and the fourth one being planned, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I like scary stories.

If you’ve read the first one (or the in between one that’s just straight up scary stories without pictures) then you’ll get it when I say that I think being scared can be fun.

There’s no better feeling than the thrill of being terrified followed by the relief that the thing you were afraid of is actually quite funny. There’s also nothing scarier than something funny or silly turning out to be the most dangerous thing in the room. The reason I keep writing scary stories like this is simple: I enjoy being afraid; I always have. I enjoy sitting alone in the dark and wondering if the howling coyotes are getting closer or if they’re just louder because they’ve caught someone.

Text and illustrations copyright © 2021 by Richard Fairgray

I had a friend in high school (shocking, I know) who was terrible at telling stories. She’d get about halfway through the most interesting, gossip filled, thrilling recount of her weekend and everyone around her would be staring down at their Walkman and twirling their devil sticks just to have something to do. The story was great, this girl led an exceptionally interesting life, she just sucked at telling people about it. The worst part was that she knew it.

Then she found twenty dollars.

Text and illustrations copyright © 2021 by Richard Fairgray

Let me be clear, she didn’t really find twenty dollars. I just told her she had. I gave her an out. Now, when peoples’ eyes began glazing over, before they could reach for their Chatter Rings or Pro-Yo II, she’d abruptly stop the story by saying, “And then I found twenty dollars.”

Immediately the story became interesting, short, relatable and had a payoff that was worth it.

You can do the same thing by having someone die.

Let me give another example. I’m not really suggesting you kill all your friends, just do it in your head.

Text and illustrations copyright © 2021 by Richard Fairgray

When I was seven, I went on a field trip to a volcano. I was so excited to see all the lava and fire and duck out of the way of flying rocks that I never even considered this might be scheduled on a day when the volcano wasn’t erupting. So, my whole day was filled with identifying rocks and listening to a man in khaki shorts talk about temperatures and tectonic plates and everything was terrible.

The only saving grace was that the bus stopped at KFC on the way back to school. I was sitting at one of the greasier tables, enjoying my ribs and wings (for more advice on what’s best at KFC email me directly) when a boy I didn’t know joined me and offered to share his gravy. We became fast friends, taking turns to dip our fingers in the rapidly congealing goo and talking about Ninja Turtles. This boy was from a different school, his name was Naish (no idea on that spelling) and I would never see him again. But until that large gravy was entirely consumed (one finger dip at a time) we were friends.

Here’s the thing, Naish was dead the whole time. Turns out he’d been killed almost 400 years ago at that very same KFC, on that very same day, probably by a murderer or a wizard or something.

See how much more interesting that is?

Text and illustrations copyright © 2021 by Richard Fairgray

Now, instead of me thinking back on some kid with a name I can’t spell talking about mutant reptiles for an hour I get to remember the time I hung out with a ghost. That’s categorically better.

In my life I have seen real ghosts three times. Once in a lighthouse, once in a post office that my friend lived in and once in my house in Hollywood right before I moved out. I’m 36 years old and that seems like nowhere near enough. The place I live now was built in the 80s and nobody has ever died here. My office is in a haunted complex, but the ghosts are all at the very back where I don’t have access. My chances to meet ghosts are disappointingly slim. My chances for meeting people I’ll never see again are much higher, and not just because I’m sort of a lot to deal with.

Now, anytime I am bored by a stranger I can just zone out and imagine how much more interesting their story would be if they’d been dead the whole time. I did this the other day and then I found twenty dollars!

Meet the author

Photo credit: Raymond Goldstone

Richard Fairgray is a writer, artist, and colorist, best known for his work in comic books such as Blastosaurus and Ghost Ghost, and picture books such as Gorillas In Our MidstMy Grandpa Is a Dinosaur, and If I Had an Elephant. As a child he firmly believed he would grow up and eat all the candy he wanted and stay up as late as he liked. By drawing pictures when he wasn’t meant to and reading all the things people told him not to, he has made his dream come true. Black Sand Beach is his first graphic novel series with Pixel+Ink. Richard splits his time between Los Angeles and Surrey, British Columbia, where he is able to work furiously, surrounded by plastic skeletons, dogs, friends, loved ones (and possibly the most comprehensive collection of Courtney Love bootlegs on the planet). 

About Black Sand Beach 2: Do You Remember the Summer Before?

A revelation about how Dash may or may not have spent the summer before raises the stakes even higher in this second installment of the eerie and enthralling Black Sand Beach series, perfect for fans of Gravity FallsRickety Stich, and Fake Blood.

Dash and his crew might have stumbled upon the source of the evil at Black Sand Beach when they stumbled into the abandoned and haunted lighthouse, but when Lily reveals that she found Dash’s journal there, the news is anything but comforting. The book is full of Dash’s reflections on his trip to Black Sand Beach the previous summer. 

Only Dash doesn’t recognize the journal or have any memory of being there. 

As the friends read the entries aloud, through flashbacks Dash’s unsettling encounter with two ghost girls, a truly terrifying monster, and a life changing event make one thing very clear: Black Sand Beach isn’t done with them yet.

Deliciously creepy and difficult to put down, Do You Remember the Summer Before? returns readers to a supernatural shore they’ll never forget.

ISBN-13: 9781645950035
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Series: Black Sand Beach
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years