As a child, I resonated towards picture books that were scary, and though psychoanalysts might diagnose this is a morbid attraction to fear, I'd say it is pretty normal, (and so, I should clarify, would they). Fear in children's books comes in many guises, but good writers know to stay within certain boundaries. when dealing with young, impressionable minds. Let's take The Gruffalo, for example. Julian Donaldson and Axel Scheffler could not have hit on a more perfect blend of fear, fun and humour, for a generation of small readers. This delightfully lyrical book, relies upon a cycle of fear for its appeal - the mouse is scared of its predators, the predators are scared of the Gruffalo and ultimately, all of them are scared of the victorious trickster, the super crafty mouse. We cannot deny that most horror movies are built on the premise of a lone survivor triumphing over evil, and at a much less sinister level, isn't this what the clever and brave little mouse does? If victory for the underdog equals fun for readers, then this is a classic example.
The Gruffalo jumped instantly to mind when I thought of books for this blog, but what about Australian picture books? How do they shape up to their international cousins in the fear, humour and fun stakes? I am privileged enough to know three Sydney authors who have produced wonderful examples of how to maximize the appeal of fear as a positive construct for readers of picture books. Anyone remember The Dark, Dark, Night or The Berenstein Bears' Bears in the Night? These are the kinds of stories that stay with you as a child because of the thrill we experience with fear. Lelsey Gibbes and Stephen Michael King's Scary Night is a modern Australian classic that models some of these greats, yet turns them on their head with a terrifically unexpected twist, which undermines the concept of fear completely.
Apologies for the spoiler alert, but the cat, the hare and the pig end their terrifying midnight quest through the woods, with a visit to their friends surprise birthday party, thoughtful parcel in tow as their gift. The build up of scary tension throughout the narrative, is defused masterfully for kindergarten readers, who will be relieved to find out their heroes were really not in any danger at all. Is this not a useful lesson to learn about most of our fears? They are often exaggerated, irrational and not as real as we first thought.
And what about tackling more serious issues of childhood anxiety, in a way that is more fun than heavy-handed? Children's Book Council of Australia's Notable Book for 2018, The Scared Book, strikes just this careful balance. The true test of any picture book is its read-a-loud-ability and I've seen this one performed by the author, Debra Tidball, on a number of occasions. Apart from its meta-fictional skillfulness, it draws on the strange allure of monsters (vividly illustrated by Kim Siew), to capture the audience's attention, and then invites them to try a number of strategies for frightening the symptoms of fear away. Through fun, interactivity and laughter, the child reader is entertained and more importantly, educated in ways to confront and deal with negative emotions. The scariness of the monsters is completely undermined by the close of this much in demand bedtime story.
And finally today, I wanted to mention There's a Baddie Running Through this Book, a new release Australian picture book by author and illustrator on the rise, Shelly Unwin and Vivienne To. The illustrations in this book have an animated film quality, and the concept is so universal, that I can see it picking up rights in the USA, hopefully before too long. Again, this book is a performance favourite for kids, focusing on the rascally adventures of the loveable Baddie. Our fear of those on the wrong side of the law is engendered from a young age, but as much as we want to see the good guys win, we can't help being excited by the qualities of daring and rebelliousness exhibited by this particular character; a raccoon who steals snacks (Yogi Bear, anyone?).
Unwin capitalises on the classic construct of a chase. It does not seem like there is any hope for the good guys until the Baddie finally comes unstuck by his own actions. Order is restored as the Baddie is caught, but are we not just that little bit disappointed? The Baddie's pursuits are exciting and while he is not doing anything that is physically harmful to others, who could blame children for being a little relieved when we think there is a chance he'll be back for a sequel? It's all good harmless fun and kids love it.
And like all the titles I've included today, there is something really important about its use of fear as a narrative construct. If used in a responsible and mindful way by picture book authors and illustrators, it can instill a passion for reading and a healthy appreciation of the excitement we can experience from feeling scared. It is after all, just another one of the spectrum of emotions in life that children will experience, and if we handle it with fun and humour, it can be a useful lesson in building resilience.
Brydie Wright Bio
Graduate, Craft & Business of Children’s Picture Book Writing Course
Chief Editor, Sydney Mums Group and Reviewer, WeekendNotes and Just Write For Kids Books on Tour
Author of Daddy and the World's Longest Poo, IAN Awards 2017 Finalist, & Magic Beans from the Creative Kids Tales Story Collection
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