Have you ever wondered why children like scary stories so much? Why they terrorize themselves with monsters under the bed and in the closet? I am wondering about this (not for the first time) because Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, passed away recently. “Wild Things”, was a beloved bedtime story at my house. Also beloved was Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny, Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, and The Boxcar Children series. All featured brave characters venturing out on their own. We moved on to Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, and Pippi Longstocking with more tales of bravery and challenge. I didn’t read the grim Grimm brothers to the girls – I thought they were far too scary for bedtime.
As the girls got older we read pretty much everything that Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches) and Lynn Banks Reid (The Indian in the Cupboard series) wrote. The perennial favorite was The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a story about a brother and sister who run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The children in these stories face all kinds of scary situations – hunger, violence, loss of parents, witches, giants – and they all prevail (actually not that different than the scary Brothers Grimm.) At some very elemental level children seem to know that it is good to face scary things vicariously before they have to face them in reality.
Is that why they like to be scared so much? I wonder if this might be an organic part of their faith formation: A way of learning that the world is kind of a scary place; a way of learning that they have an advocate within. Through literature they get to sample the scary things of many generations, because the scary creatures or circumstances in the books usually reflect the historical context of each author’s childhood. Some generations are defined by war, others by exploration and expansion. Often the fearful thing is defined by something that is missing: a parent, money, or friends. I can’t help but wonder if a lack of familiarity with church and a supernatural God contributes to the current magic and vampire trends in children’s literature.
Whatever the trend, there is fodder for faith talk running through it. Read to and with your kids. Talk with them about what the characters choose to do, and why. Share your own stories of faith and fear. Your children will be blessed.
I am grateful for all the authors who have enriched the lives of children, whose descriptions of monsters and giants and wild things have prepared them for life. Pastor David Hansen of Brenham, TX posted this lovely epitaph for Maurice Sendak this morning: “’And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.’ And now, Maurice Sendak is where someone loves him best of all.”
Thanks be to God, who helps us face our fears.