In my last post, I talked about the benefits of reading spookier books and how to approach scary books with your kids. This time, I want to dig a little deeper and talk about the history of horror in kid lit.
When you think of children’s literature, horror is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But the truth is, scary fiction has permeated children’s publishing for hundreds of years.
I, of course, cannot in a single blog post go through the entire horror for kids timeline, nor its history across the globe—but I wanted to touch on some highlights that were impactful to me and my own experience growing up as a child who loved horror. You’ll find that my experience as someone who grew up in the United States, that this history is very focused on the Western history of horror for kids. It will also feature authors that we know now (and knew then) to be problematic. I still wanted to touch on their roles as authors in the genre and their mark on this part of history. This is not the entire history—but is what I will be focusing on today. However, I am a firm believer in a “spooky isn’t seasonal” mindset, so you just might get another more global history from me later.
Jakob and Willhelm’s Kinder und Hausmarchen (meaning “Children and Household Tales”) was first published in 1812 as a collection of 86 stories. By the seventh edition in 1857, The Brothers Grimm had collected 211 fairy tales. They, of course, weren’t the only ones collecting stories, and it’s important here to note that they were compiling stories from the oral tradition, and that spooky/creepy stories were (and are) part of a worldwide tradition that is likely older than when they were being written down.
While we may be familiar with these tales from their washed down Disney-fied versions, the originals were highly criticized. Although the anthology was titled Children’s Tales, most readers did not find the subject matter suitable for children. These children’s tales contained premarital sex (Rapunzel was impregnated by the prince who visited her often), graphic violence (Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels in an attempt to make the slipper fit), child abuse, incest, and of course wicked mothers.
At this same time, Hans Christian Andersen was also writing tragic tales for children. Fairy Tales Told for Children, his first collection published in booklet form between 1835 and 1837, contained some of his most famous works such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Princess and the Pea.” While not as gory as the Grimm’s tales, Andersen’s stories also featured tragic deaths and violence.
The Early 1900s
Here we start seeing books being published explicitly for children. The fairy tales from before, while written for children, were less for entertainment and more for teaching lessons or establishing morals. Finally, in the 1900s, we see books being published for the enjoyment of children. One of the most famous children’s books from the early 1900s was The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. While there have been some slightly spooky adaptations of Dorothy’s adventures, the truth is that the original was pretty scary!
I won’t go into all of it, but let’s look at the making of the Tinman. The Tin Woodman wasn’t always made of tin. He was once a human in love with the witch’s munchkin servant. The witch couldn’t have her servants getting married and leaving her, so the witch enchanted his ax to cut off his limbs one by one until tin prosthetics replaced his entire body.
I’m sorry… what?
The 1970s and 1980s
I know we’re taking a big leap here, but there just wasn’t a lot of scary stuff being published for children. Although children’s publishing was booming, most of it was sweet. But in the 70s and 80s, we saw a resurgence of darker books for young readers. There are a lot of them—but I want to cover two that stood out to me specifically:
First, I want to talk about The Witches by Roald Dahl, published in 1983. This book starts with a death, causing a now orphaned boy to live with his grandparents. His grandmother reveals that she is a retired witch hunter. It is discovered that there are child-hating societies of witches in every country and that the witches are ruled by a vicious and powerful Grand High Witch. So the retired witch hunter and her grandson do everything to stop and defeat the witches. But, it’s not so much the witch part that is dark; you see, the witches kill human children by turning them into mice and releasing cats to kill them. Our main character gets turned into a mouse and decides to stay a mouse…. so he and his grandmother can die together.
Again… I’m sorry… what?
The next book I want to bring up is probably one of the most important additions to scary books for kids: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. This franchise is a series of three children’s horror books written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Stephen Gammell. The stories in these books are drawn heavily from folklore and urban legends. Again, we have another instance of someone collecting stories that often started out as oral tales. The first volume was published in 1981—and these books have some scary illustrations as well, which adds to the creep factor.
These stories are scary and hold nothing back. Here is a snippet from “The Hearse Song,” which originates as a World War I song, but is in this anthology written for…. do I need to remind you?… children.
“Don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by,
For you may be the next one to die…
All goes well for about a week,
Until your coffin begins to leak,
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jelly between your toes.”
Contemporary Horror Lit for Kids
Spooky literature for kids has come a long way. From Goosebumps to Gaiman, there are tons of books spanning the spectrum of “scary.” As the publishing industry is focusing more on LGBTQ+ authors, authors of color, and “own voices” in fiction, we of course are seeing that in Horror Fiction. We are also starting to see publishers, librarians, and other people in the “book business” recognize horror for children as not just a growing genre—but a valuable one. For example, the groups United for Libraries, Book Riot, Booklist, and the Horror Writers Association create a “Summer Scares” reading list every year for readers of all ages. This list is designed to promote horror as a great reading option for all ages during any time of year.
I wish I could talk about all of the great scary stories for kids. I want to talk about all of them, but I’m at 1,000 words here, so instead, I’ll leave you with some lists that feature some of my favorite contemporary scary stories.