As a child I was deathly afraid of The Monster at the End of this Book, but I was also intrigued by it. Each time the story was read to me my imagination took over and got the better of me. I imagined all sorts of different monsters each one scarier than the last. After several reads I figured out that the monster at the end of the book would always be Grover. What a relief! I was not only working on my fears, but also forming a better understanding about how books, and the world work. The Cat in the Hat, and Green Eggs and Ham both caused me anxiety. I felt so nervous for Sally and her brother. Why was this Cat torturing them? The same went for Sam-I-Am: Why wouldn’t he leave that guy alone? Needless to say these books became favorites of mine. I overcame my anxiety when I learned how the humor in the book worked, and that in the end everything worked out.
Many children between the ages of 3 and 6 have multiple fears, both rational and irrational. At this stage in their life their brains are growing to almost full size, and they are developing a sense of self-concept. At this age children are really trying to figure out the world, and how they fit in that world. Children, like adults fear the unknown, but unlike adults, children cannot make the distinction between what is rational and irrational. From the ages of 2 to 4 children develop the ability to create mental images. This opens up the possibility of creating fantasy, but does not come with understanding of what is fantasy.
Picture books often contain elements of fantasy and can also conceptualize an idea in an abstract way. A picture book about monsters can be many things. It can be about a monster that is scary like Abiyoyo. It can be a metaphor for a certain type of behavior like in Angry Dragon. It can even be a book about being afraid of monsters, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet is a perfect example of this type of book. Children are faced with not only understanding the real world, but also understanding the rules in several fantasy worlds and how they connect to the real world. This is important because children are learning that there are different possibilities that exist and different ways to interpret them. Children may approach these new worlds with caution. The world of Dr. Seuss is an excellent example. The creatures, the landscape, and the machines are like no other world. A cautious child might have to figure out how the machines in this world work, and what kind of animal a Sneetch is before he/she can feel comfortable with the stories.
Most picture books that tell a story have basic story elements such as conflict, and a climax. The tension that is created in these stories is often centered on fears that affect children, such as separation anxiety, and bullying. How I Became a Pirate deals with separation anxiety, and Bootsie Barker Bites deals with bullying. These depictions of “real” fears can sometimes cause more anxiety. The nice thing about picture books is that they tend to end on good note where the fear is overcome, and the child protagonist in the story is empowered.
Another positive aspect about being afraid of picture books is that the reader or viewer is in control. Books allow children to deal with their fears on their terms. Books are much easier to control than any other media. It is easier for a child to close a book than to turn off a television when something scares them. It is through this power that children not only learn how to face fears, but learn emergent literacy skills, such as how books work, and how stories work.
As an Early Childhood Educator, I have seen many children be afraid of a story during book time, then face their fears later in the day, by picking that book out and exploring the book at their own speed. Sometimes children will wait several days before picking out the book. Often this book becomes their favorite, because they have learned to conquer their fears. Fear also adds a level of excitement. Children sometimes will continue to work out their fears in their dramatic play, and art. Re-enacting parts of the story, and creating pictures from the story is a great way for children to continue to process their fears. Abiyoyo is a favorite at the childcare center I work at. It also scares some kids. I remember a child who would not be a part of group time during that story. Within the week, he started to take the book out on his own, still refusing to join the group when it was read at group time. On the playground, he began to play the father in the story, by holding up a stick and saying, “Zoop!” Those familiar with the story know that the father makes Abiyoyo disappear with a magic wand and saying the magic word, “Zoop!” Within two weeks, the child was choosing the book to be read during group time.
If your child or a child you know is afraid of a book, talk to the child about what they are afraid of, and don’t just dismiss the fear as being silly. If you dismiss children’s fears, the fears don’t go away; the child just won’t talk to you about them. It is extremely important to validate the child’s feelings. Let the child offer solutions to the problem. Like any great children’s story it is always more powerful when the child solves the problem. Often the solution to the fear is contained in the story. Books are a safe way of dealing with fears. Don’t hide the book or throw it away, let the child deal with his/her fear at his/her own speed. If that doesn’t work, before you hide or throw that book away continue the conversation.
After my debut picture book, A Dog is a Dog, came out Betsy Bird wrote a review for School Library Journal. She stated, “For every twenty kids who love this book there will be one that screams and runs in horror.” Sure enough on Goodreads several reviewers called my book “creepy.” This is not a bad thing when it comes to picture books. Those children who go running away screaming, and those who find it creepy, are just as likely to go and revisit that book on their own, and it might even become one of their favorites. My book is dealing with abstract ideas, and impossibilities. Some children will just accept it as silly and others will try and dissect it for logic, until they get the humor of the impossible, while others might never look at their pet dog in the same way again.
In the 10+ years that I have worked in Early Childhood Education, I’ve notice that kids like to be a little scared, as long as they know they are safe. A book is a very safe thing to be scared of. When opening Where the Wild Things Are most children go right to the wild rumpus, and study those monsters, or they look at Max being naughty. I’ve never seen a child study the image of Max when he gets home and his supper is waiting for him.
I hope this post opens up a larger discussion on the topic. Which picture books were you afraid of? Why were you afraid of that picture book? Which picture books are children you know afraid of? How did you deal with those fears? What was the result?
Stephen Shaskan grew up in Upstate New York, graduated from Rhode Island School of Design, and moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota to become a rock star! Since then Stephen has played in four rock bands. He has taught art classes for the Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul Academy’s Artward Bound program, and Jordan Park School of Extended Learning, a Minneapolis Public School, where he met his beautiful, and wonderfully talented wife, Trisha Speed Shaskan.
Stephen now works as an early childhood educator at the Seward Child Care Center, where his musical talents have brought him rock star status among the children at the center. Whether he is writing and illustrating, or having a sing-a-long with the kids at SCCC, Stephen brings his love of art, music, children and humor to all his work.