The Books Briefing: How Horror Stories Empower Kids

Gruesome novels and chilling tales about ghoulish monsters and other dangers: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Maurice Sendak makes a gentle spooky gesture in front of his illustrations.
James Keyser / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty

When he was just 4 years old, the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak caught a glance of a horrifying photo depicting the remains of Charles Lindbergh’s murdered son. A mutated version of the image reappeared decades later in Sendak’s chilling children’s book Outside Over There, in which goblins replace a baby with a changeling made of ice.

From gruesome fairy tales to macabre Victorian fantasy, adults have been terrifying children for generations. R. L. Stine’s blockbuster series Fear Street raises hairs with harrowing plotlines: a haunted garbage disposal mangles a teen’s fingers; a needle hidden in a lipstick tube slices another character’s lips. Outlaws of Time, a tale by the author N. D. Wilson about a boy who has live rattlesnakes grafted onto his arms, petrifies the kids who read it.

Those writing horror for particularly young audiences, such as the actress Evangeline Lilly, mix lighthearted elements into their books to make them palatable to children. But many of the most successful writers in the genre, like Sendak, don’t hold back: Outside Over There was criticized for exposing children to more disturbing themes than they were prepared for, and one of Sendak’s most beloved works, Where the Wild Things Are, depicts the brutal realities of growing up. With grisly honesty, Sendak homed in on an important truth about horror—scary stories empower children to face the terror that lurks in the real world.

Although Stephen King didn’t write specifically for young readers, the same ethos propels his work and explains his devoted teenage audience. King novels turn unsettling truths about the darkness of human nature into literal monsters, then let adolescent protagonists defeat them, granting teens a power that they may not find in other aspects of their lives.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Maurice Sendak

(Associated Press)

Maurice Sendak scared children because he loved them
“His lush visual idiom managed to evoke the strange—and sometimes malign—intensity of real childhood, as fey, unruly protagonists sparred with adversaries (fanged monsters and imperfect parents). All his work demonstrates a strong desire, and uncanny ability, to capture the eerie vividness of youth and its crucibles.”


(Tim McDonagh)

The everlasting joy of terrifying children
“Horror is an escape, of course, but it is also a kind of homecoming for a small child—an affirmation that goblins and mayhem aren’t merely relegated to the dark corners of imagination, but that they occupy entire worlds that can be visited and inhabited.”



Why I write scary stories for children
“I’m not interested in stories that sear terrifying images or monsters or villains into young minds—enough of those exist in the real world, and plenty of others will grow in children’s imaginations without any help. I am interested in telling stories that help prepare living characters for tearing those monsters down.”

Evangeline Lilly's creepy Squickerwonkers characters scare—and teach—children


The importance of scaring children
“Scaring and disturbing children is essential—but it has to be done right. It’s not about scaring the crap out of them, it’s letting them explore a world that only horror can introduce, and opening up that genre to find out what is truly scary, what is creepy, and even what is downright funny to them about these stories.”

illustration of a page in a novel containing a quote from Steven King's "It," that reads: "Your hair is winter fire, January embers. My heart burns there, too."

(Doug McLean)

‘Stephen King saved my life’
“In the same way that King’s supernatural creatures speak to the ugly realities of human nature, King’s non-adolescent adolescents may offer a different kind of truth, a deeper one, about what it means to grow up.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Middlemarch by George Eliot.

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