I love reading with kids. And I especially love reading with my own kids. I admit I am guilty of reading Gordon Korman to my five year old. There are just so many good books I want to share!
I’m not up to sharing EVERY book with them– at the ages of 5 and 7, I don’t think they’re quite ready for Goosebumps— but you’d be surprised at some of what they gobble up. Well, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. There are, as I said, so many good books, so many home runs! You might be surprised to find what children’s books some people think are too scary for kids to read, though (and also, what books some people consider to be children’s books. This article actually identifies The Call of the Wild as a children’s book). In this article, Jennifer Lewis chose nine books she considered to be “unintentionally terrifying.” I can see only one, Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, that I personally see as falling into that category. I’m not a child, though. While I haven’t read the book to my own children, they’ve had it read to them, and it hasn’t yet made them run screaming from the room. The Runaway Mummy by Michael Rex had the same creep factor for me, and I truly thought it would scare the heck out of my son, but he actually wanted to act it out with me!
The first book Lewis picked as “unintentionally terrifying” was No, David! by David Shannon. Perhaps it’s hard to understand the charm of this book until you’ve seen the enthusiastic reaction of a classroom of energetic two and three year old boys. My son and his preschool class (almost all boys) knew this book by heart. Every single one of them completely related to David. Our copy is nearly worn out. The illustrations are similar to the ones David Shannon found in a book he had written and illustrated at nearly the same age, with the word NO on every page. Terrifying to parents, maybe… David is constantly getting into things he isn’t supposed to be getting in to… but scary to kids? Not at all.
Moving on, it’s hard to imagine how, with an entire world of children’s books to choose from, she picked Chicka Chicka Boom Boom! This is a favorite that never goes out of style. Preschoolers and kindergartners just learning the alphabet get into the jazzy rhythm and colorful illustrations, and even second and third graders aren’t “too cool” to hear it and chant out the words– which by then, they know by heart. Alphabet mix-ups, drama, and trauma, are more funny than frightening– check out A is for Salad and AlphaOops! The Day Z Went First to see what I mean.
I have always loved Tomie de Paola. It’s true his books can evoke intense emotions– Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs brought me to tears, and The Clown of God is unforgettable. But it was Strega Nona that I chose as my birthday book for the school library when I was in third grade, not because it scared me, but because it’s funny and gentle in its telling, and it has a certain justice (something children appreciate). I suppose the endless pot of spaghetti might be disturbing if you’re trying to control your carbs, but the story of the apprentice who gets the food going and can’t stop it isn’t a new one– a recent version called The Golem’s Latkes (I bet you can guess what kind of food overflowed into the street in that book) recently made its way into my house. But the illustrations, and the way it’s told, make it a classic– and not one to be feared.
If these books are bothering you as an adult, it’s because you are looking at them as an adult. Children aren’t deconstructing these books. They’re getting a kick out of them. You do not have to wrap children in cotton just because, in a book, the letters of the alphabet fell out of a tree and one of them skinned its knee.
So then we come to books that fit in a category that doesn’t quite meet the criterion that Lewis set of “unintentionally terrifying” books. Because these books are really intended to frighten and challenge children. She mentions Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy, for instance. This is the author of Outside Over There, in which a little girl’s baby sister is stolen away by goblins. While he’s no longer with us, he was no stranger to illustrating our fears. The surreal black and white illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg are magical, but not often comfortable. Jumanji is meant to unsettle readers, not reassure them. Neil Gaiman’s (and Dave McKean’s) The Wolves in the Walls is definitely intended to be a scary story. Children in these stories rise to the challenge set before them, but the journey can be a scary one. These books are beloved by many children (particularly Jumanji and The Wolves in the Walls) although they definitely aren’t every child’s cup of tea. Knowing your kids is the best way to choose what will work for them, since even kids who are the same age can vary widely in reading interests and maturity. Naturally, use your best judgment. But I hope you won’t let your worries about what they can handle stop you from sharing great books with your kids.