Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Scary Stories

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I always find it amusing when I travel across the country doing readings in schools for young people, as I was doing today in Regina, that kids love scary stories so much. But it isn't just that. It's also that they often like those stories to be much scarier than their parents prefer them to be. They like "dark."

Adults are always much more worried about upsetting kids with dark stories than kids are themselves. Will they be up all night after they read them? Rarely, I think. They like to be thrilled. And who doesn't? It is a human emotion, one most certainly valid for a writer to explore. Who are we adults to deny them their darkness, when we go from darker to darker all the time in our movie preferences, TV shows, and novels. If a character isn't deeply flawed in 2010, then he or she just isn't worth watching.

The key, to me, in writing a dark story for a kid, is to do it for a reason - make sure it is about something. If it's gratuitous (like in many adult movies), then don't do it. But if it means something, and provides an accompanying thrill, then you can go pretty far with it.

When I read from The Boy Sherlock Holmes series, I often tell the students ahead of time that the section I'm going to read is "really scary." They don't bat an eye, in fact, they grow more intrigued. When I then add, with a deep warning voice, that this may be much more than just scary, that some of them may have to leave the room during the reading, they get really excited, they really rub their hands and hunker down to listen. The strategy I'm using is kind of like that employed in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," one of the best selling kids series of all time. One of the main reasons for its success was the fact that its author, Lemony Snicket, kept warning its young readers that what lay ahead, on the next page or two, was unbearably frightening.

I'm reading Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" right now. I'm not quite done but it is pretty depressing. And you know what? Franzen is a celebrated guy these days, as are his novels. His mug recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine. But the darkness in his work is something millions of adult readers revel in - it isn't something we'd ever dream of denying ourselves. Now, kids shouldn't have to deal with all we deal with, nor do they want to, but when we write for them we shouldn't write down to them either. They can handle more than we often assume.

So, let's lay off the kids with the great cone of protection when it comes to scary stories. Let's make sure that what they read is NOT gratuitous when it comes to scaring them, but if it isn't, if it has meaning and is well done, then let's let them have the same opportunity to have the living daylights scared out of themselves that we enjoy ourselves.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Shane Peacock

Shane Peacock is a biographer, journalist, screenwriter, playwright and novelist. He has received many honours for his writing, including the prestigious Arthur Ellis Award for Eye of the Crow, the first of his Boy Sherlock Holmes series.

Go to Shane Peacock’s Author Page