Monthly Archives: October 2011

Are Scary Stories Okay for Children?

Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, made news in September for having said he believes children’s books today aren’t “wild enough.” It prompted a vibrant debate as to whether, in our natural quest to protect our children, we have over neutralized scary elements in today’s books.

When Sendak won the Caldecott Medal in 1968, he spoke of the value of books infused with themes that might be frightening to young readers. He said, “[A child’s] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.”

As a child, several of my favorite early books were scary reads. My pulse raced when the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk. I worried when Frank and Joe Hardy found themselves in the middle of a dangerous mystery. My all-time favorite childhood story is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken where Bonnie, the central character, faces the loss of her parents, extreme poverty, abusive treatment, and is forced to run away from her evil governess. Pretty scary stuff for a child.

And pretty important stuff too, at least, according to child psychologists.

Dr. Tony Charuvastra, a research psychiatrist at New York University’s School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, believes scary stories act as a form of play therapy, helping a child to control his normal fears.

Dr. Charuvastra states, “The importance of bad things in stories is that they help create pretend space where bad things can happen. It’s better for your child to experience these feelings for the first time with you, in pretend space, than in non-pretend space.” He adds that these experiences help children learn to differentiate between real troubles and imaginary fears.

Other psychiatrists note one of the positive outcomes from scary books is that the child has control of when to turn the page, or to shut the book. That feeling of control transfers to a child teaching himself to control his own fears.

Fairy tales are full of stories that tap into the deepest fears children may have. Many put their young characters in life threatening situations (Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, The Brave Little Tailor). Consider the themes of Hansel and Gretel: parental abandonment, getting lost, death. Worries all children have at some level.

Dr. Sheldon Cashdan, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, says, “When children read or hear fairy tales, they project the good parts of themselves onto the hero or heroine and the bad parts onto the witch figure. Then every time the witch dies, it magically restores children’s faith in their ability to conquer their own troublesome emotions.”

According to psychologists, there is an exception, the occasional book in which the villain is allowed to win. In these cases, the child is often left with the frightful story unresolved within a moral universe, and their feelings of fear carry forward.

Of course, it is up to each parent to guide their child’s reading based on their unique tolerance. But shielding them from the scary stories may not be doing them a service. And perhaps in the end it will turn out that Sendak was right. It’s the dangerous, ungovernable stories which teach children to “master these forces.”

So if you’re looking for a great Halloween read, consider these books!




THE HOUSE OF DIES DREAR by Virginia Hamilton



Jennifer Nielsen’s most recent release, ELLIOT AND THE PIXIE PLOT, is as scary as it is funny. She will also release THE FALSE PRINCE with Scholastic in April 2012. Learn more about her and her books at her website, or follow her on Twitter @nielsenwriter


Interview with A.J. Hartley

Today, I am excited to interview A.J. Hartley regarding his first M.G. novel Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact.  But, as you most likely know, AJ is not new to writing great books!

(AJ Hartley) has an M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University and is currently the Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As well as being a novelist and academic, he is a screenwriter, theatre director and dramaturg (and has a book explaining what that is). Other credits include, The Mask of Atreus, On the Fifth Day, What Time Devours, to name a few.  He has more hobbies than is good for anyone, and treats ordinary things like sport and food and beer with a reverence which borders on mania. He is married with a son, and lives in Charlotte.

Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact is about Eleven-year-old Darwen Arkwright, who has spent his whole life in a tiny town in England. So when he is forced to move to Atlanta, Georgia, to live with his aunt, he knows things will be different – but what he finds there is beyond even his wildest imaginings!

Darwen discovers an enchanting world through the old mirror hanging in his closet – a world that holds as many dangers as it does wonders. Scrobblers on motorbikes with nets big enough to fit a human boy. Gnashers with no eyes, but monstrous mouths full of teeth. Flittercrakes with bat-like bodies and the faces of men. Along with his new friends Rich and Alexandra, Darwen becomes entangled in an adventure and a mystery that involves the safety of his entire school. They soon realize that the creatures are after something in our world – something that only human children possess.

Ohhh, sounds great!  Let’s jump in. You normally write for adults. What was the spark that started you on the path to writing Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact??

A combination of factors, really, probably largest of which was that my son (who is now 9) had reached the age when he was starting to devour middle grade books. I found—as I’m sure many parents do—that not only did I want to write something for him, but that I found myself remembering my own childhood through him, as it were. Suddenly I could recall the way I saw the world then because I could see it all being played out again in him. I also remembered the kind of thrill I got from reading back then and found myself hankering both to give other kids the same experience I had, and to get back to those kinds of stories from the standpoint of what I had becomes since, a writer.

What was the timeline from conception to publication?

Once I had committed to the book, the first draft came fairly quickly—less than three months—but I took another couple of months to revise it, another couple for my agent to find the right slot in the publishing calendar to submit it, another couple to sell it. Razorbill bought it and committed to a fall 2011 release which, being about 18 months away, seemed a very long time indeed. All told it was about a two and a half year process.

Were there any aspects that varied between writing this and writing your previous books? Any surprises along the way?

It took me a while to relax into the voice and I spent a lot of time agonizing over whether or not I was pitching the narrative at the right reading level. I got advice from several people (including R.L. Stine) that convinced me that to consciously lower the bar would be patronizing to my readers and would significantly reduce the richness of the story. From that point on, with few exceptions, I told the story in the way that felt most natural and stopped worrying about reader demographics and levels of vocabulary.

As to surprises, I guess it should be obvious, but I found (to my great relief and excitement) that things I’d learned before writing adult fiction about pacing, about writing suspense scenes (for instance) all applied just as well to writing for younger readers.

 Speaking of process, do you outline or dive right in?  Write linearly or skip around?  Does it vary from book to book? 

I used to be a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants). I told myself it was the best, most organic way to allow the story to evolve. With hindsight I think that some of this was just a desire to get into the writing which is the part I like and not worry so much about planning things out. Pure pantsing, when you really don’t know what is going to happen next, may work for some people, though they have to have some very special talents, not least of which is the ability to edit themselves ruthlessly. I find that very difficult, and it can be months, even years, before I can clearly see what a book really needs and, more to the point, what it really doesn’t. I returned to a book I couldn’t sell a couple of years ago and took out 22,000 words in a single pass. That’s clearly a bad sign, doubly so since almost half of that came from the first hundred pages. The book didn’t know what it was going to be and it took me far too long to get the necessary emotional distance from it to edit it adequately. I’m now a committed plotter. I don’t do extensive breakdowns (the whole outline is usually only about 5 pages) and I don’t follow it slavishly, particularly if I discover things in the writing of the actual book that suggest a shift in tone or direction. Nothing is written in stone, but I think that writers who don’t operate with any kind of outline are ultimately making their job harder.

What was your favorite thing about writing for this age group?

I like not having to worry about certain kinds of realism or following a set of genre expectations. So long as the story is coherent and makes sense according to its own logic, I figure my readership will roll with it. That’s very liberating.

Will you be writing other books for your middle grade audience?

Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact is the first of at least three books in this series (the next two coming out about a year apart). I’ve also finished the first draft of a ghost story which I think will be closer to YA than middle grade. I love writing for this age group and hope I can do it for many years to come.

What was your favorite book when you were 12??

My memory is a little fuzzy as to exactly when I read it, but I think it may well have been The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse too, but I suspect I was a year or two older than twelve when I discovered him.

What else do we have to look forward to from A.J. Hartley?

My novelization of Macbeth (co-written with David Hewson) which was released this summer as an audiobook voiced by Alan Cumming will go into print in the spring (and if you’re a Shakespeare fan you might keep an eye open for my upcoming performance history of Julius Caesar!). As far as fiction is concerned, there will—as I say—be two more Darwen books, and I hope to finish up that ghost story. After that, I have no idea. The very uncertainty of it all is quite thrilling.

Wow!  We have a lot to look forward to.  You are prolific!  Is there any advice you can give to aspiring writers of varying ages? 

Read constantly. Write fast and often. Write the kind of book you want to read. When you have a draft, read it aloud to yourself slowly pausing over every phrase, every word to make sure they are exactly right and doing all they can do for the moment. Never get so preoccupied with the market, with large scale ideas, or with plot that you forget that books are finally about characters or that their medium is words.

AJ, It’s been a pleasure!  Thanks for stopping by!



Erin E. Moulton graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2007. She is the author of Flutter: The Story of Four Sisters and One Incredible Journey(Philomel 2011), and Tracing Stars, forthcoming from Philomel/Penguin in 2012.  You can visit her online at or on Facebook as Erin E. Moulton (Author)


A WINNER for the Second Fiddle Audio Book

It’s a busy month here at the Mixed Up Files, but, at last, we have a winner of the Second Fiddle audio book. It’s Ellen Beier!
Please contact me through my website at and I’ll pop it in the mail for you!