Children’s fiction—in literature and in film—faces a curious challenge: Adults usually write the story, dream up the characters, and try, in a somewhat circuitous way, to teach children lessons they believe children should be taught.
Given that fact, creating scary children’s fiction is an even more curious challenge: Many adult writers pull back from fully covering themes they deem inappropriate or too scary for young readers, by giving their stories happy endings and clearly drawn lines between the "good" and "bad" characters. That way, kids have no confusion about what's right and what's wrong.
"It's an understandable impulse," Deborah Stevenson, the director of the Center for Children's Books at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says. "We want to protect kids."
In The Squickerwonkers, actress Evangeline Lilly tries to break the pattern. The book, out Tuesday, is the first in her debut children's series about the adventures of a motley crew of marionette-like beings, each representing a vice: There’s Papa the Proud, Mama the Mean, Andy the Arrogant, and six other members of the Squickerwonkers family.
And these guys are creepy. They’re button-eyed and bursting at the seams. The lone human character, the protagonist Selma, isn’t any better. She looks like a wide-eyed little girl, but her appearance is unnatural, adding to the book’s sinister aesthetic. Lilly’s story is just as eerie: It begins with Selma entering an abandoned wagon before meeting each of the Squickerwonkers. Soon after their introduction, they pop her balloon, and turn her into one of their own, complete with button eyes and strings holding her up—a thoroughly upsetting ending. But that’s just fine by Lilly.