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Tuesday 28 May 2013

Monsters Under The Bed: Some Thoughts On Scariness In Children's Literature

When I was in Year 4 our class were shown a TV adaptation of Berlie Doherty's novel Children Of Winter. The novel is all about the Derbyshire village of Eyam, a community that famously underwent voluntary quarantine during the Great Plague. I'd be interested to know what I'd think were I to see the film again, but to say that I was disturbed by it at the time would be an understatement. Its depiction of the physical effects of the Plague, and the impact of it upon families and communities, rendered me almost sleepless for several nights. I wrote a letter to my teacher telling her how I felt, and she was very warm and understanding. My mum, from what I remember, was less so.

I had a similar experience a couple of years later, when my parents, in what I now recognise to be a monumentally misguided attempt to educate their 10-year-old son on his heritage, made me watch a documentary about the Holocaust with them. When I say 'made' I do mean, quite literally, forced. I didn't have a choice. And the documentary was not for children. The sight of the emaciated bodies and maniacal Nazi soldiers, this time known by me to be entirely non-fictional, profoundly scared me. For a while after seeing that film I regressed, and became scared of things like monsters under the bed. Once again, when I told my mum about this I found her less than understanding. I suppose it is testament to the quality of my childhood to say that, in my opinion, forcing me to watch that Holocaust documentary was one of the biggest mistakes my parents made. By all means educate, but do so via age-appropriate media. Graphic images are no more appropriate for young children when it comes to Holocaust Education than they are when it comes to Sex Education.

I mention all of this because I have recently been confronting similar issues from 'the other side of the fence', as it were. In producing material for children, I obviously have to think hard about what is and what isn't appropriate, but the issue of 'scariness' presents a particular difficulty in that, up to a point, most children seem to enjoy being scared. Probably my most popular poem is my 'scary' one, about a monster called Ooshus Magooshus (he's not real. Or is he?). I always play up the scariness of this poem before I perform it, and I play games with the children, telling them I don't think they're grown up enough to hear it. By the time I get to perform it, in a melodramatic way that is admittedly far more comical than it is scary, most of them are clamouring for it. But every so often this poem lands me in some difficulties. It is one of the few pieces I have that seems to work with children of all ages, but I usually resist performing it for Reception classes, having made small children cry on one or two occasions. The reason the poem (mostly) works is that it has a strong edge of silliness, strong rhythm and rhyme, and is performed by someone not remotely scary (I hope). And importantly, it is fictional.

So 'Ooshus Magooshus' falls quite clearly on the enjoyable side of scariness. However, I recently had the occasion to discuss with children something much closer to the bone. On the way to visit a lovely school in a village called Watton-at-Stone, I passed through a place called Datchworth, and was reminded of an article I read a couple of years ago, about a family who were starved to death in the town in the 1700s. James Eaves, his wife, his daughter and his son were, it seems, locked in a barn on the village green where they all starved to death, except the 11-year-old son, who went insane following his ordeal. The villagers subsequently tried to cover up their crime, until it was discovered and written about in a pamphlet, which was recently unearthed (hence the news article). This is obviously a highly disturbing story, and I think it would make great material for a novel. I mentioned in assembly that I knew a scary story about Datchworth, but that I was unsure about whether to tell it, on account of its being genuinely disturbing, unlike Ooshus Magooshus. It was probably naive of me not to expect that the children would be very eager to hear it. I ended up telling it to the Year 5 class later that day.

It has to be admitted that none were visibly disturbed by what I think is a terrifying tale. There are several possible for reasons for this, among which are (a) that some of them were, but managed to keep a lid on it, (b) that I didn't tell it in a very scary way, and that (c) children are nowadays accustomed to much worse. I suspect the truth is a combination of all of these.

I was probably a slightly over-sensitive child, and I think that, on balance, it is probably better to indulge a child's desire for scary things, and leave them to deal with any fallout, than it is to shield them, and to patronise them by so doing. But, as with so many things with children, it is something of a balancing act. And, as ever, I hope I am getting it roughly correct.