Though I relish everything having to do with ghosts and monsters, I’m also the person who levitates off the sofa during every single jump scare in “Stranger Things,” much to the amusement of my son. Today is Halloween, a time when, it’s said, the veil between the living and the dead grows thin, and we’re allowed both to scare and be scared. It got me thinking about how it felt to be frightened as a child—in particular, to be frightened by a book. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, members of The Winged Pen remembered when I asked them : As a child, what book scared the bejeesus out of you?
Jessica: There’s A Monster at the End of this Book scared the pants off of me every single reading! It was my favorite book when I was a little. It was definitely the anticipation, and the lunacy of it—why on earth would anyone continue turning the pages when we KNEW FOR SURE that there was going to be a monster?!! (But I turned the pages anyway!) There was something deliciously naughty about it…turning each page when we were specifically being told not to. It was empowering. How often do kids get to disobey without consequences?
Kate: I’m too much of a wimp to read truly scary stories, but when I was a kid, my mom read me Little Women, and for some reason, I didn’t catch that Beth had died. I was horrified when my mom explained it to me. I couldn’t believe they killed off a kid! Next she tried to read me A Wrinkle in Time. I heard that first line (“It was a dark and stormy night”) and flat refused to hear anything more. I had had enough trauma.
Rebecca Petruck: I didn’t read a lot of children’s book as a kid–I waited until I was a grown up to do that! There’s a character in The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly who is a hunter, but she’s so proficient that hunting—her passion—has become dull. So she learns how to put human heads on different animal bodies, to make the hunt more equal (in her mind). The way it’s written, the cutting and the person’s awareness of what’s being done, is done to them…gives me the shivers even now!
Karin: Flowers in the Attic! I’ll never forget this book. A mother imprisons her four children in the attic of her parents’ house where they are physically and mentally abused by their grandmother. Their mom even sprinkles donuts with rat poison to try and kill them, so that she can get her inheritance, which stipulated that she have no children. Scary. The older brother and sister fall in love. At one point he even rapes her, but then apologizes. (Several Pennies were shocked at how readily available to kids this book was—and how eagerly we read it.)
Julie: My mom had an older book of fairy tales that were more on the dark side than the Disney versions—the wicked stepmother’s repeated gory attempts to kill Snow White, Cinderella’s stepmother butchering the stepsisters’ feet at the end of the story, a really terrifying version of Rumplestiltskin, and some really creepy brownies all come to mind. The White Witch from Narnia was pretty scary, too.
Rebecca Allen: I was scared by The Hobbit, in particular the scene where Bilbo and the dwarves are in Mirkwood. Spiders capture the dwarves, wrap them in cocoons, and leave them dangling from the trees. One pokes the dwarves to see if they’re ready to eat. Eek! Thank goodness Bilbo and the ring save the day, until…
Richelle: The original Snow Queen with her shard of ice really horrified me as a kid. And pretty much anything with a ghost in it—I’m still terrified by ghost stories!
Gabrielle: I very clearly remember a nap time when I was afraid of monsters. Then I decided that if monsters were real, then so were the Super Friends, so either way, I’d be okay!
Kristi: Mine is really, really silly. You know those I Can Read books? There’s a scary collection. There was a story about a girl with a green ribbon!! Ahhh! I already had a fear of my head falling off—I blame Shel Silverstein for that—so the idea that a ribbon was keeping her head on made me fall asleep with my hands on top of my head just to be sure it didn’t roll off…
And mine? One of my grade-school friends had a copy of Der Struwwelpeter (in hindsight, it probably belonged to her parents), the cover of which is featured at the top of this post. It’s a nineteenth-century book of moral stories designed to scare children into obeying their parents. The cover terrified me—why were the boy’s nails so freaking long?—and the one time I made the mistake of opening the book I happened on an illustration of a man scissoring off a boy’s thumb because he refused to stop sucking it. Done! I slammed it shut, put another book on top of it, and never looked at it again.
What children’s book gave you the shivers?
GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. And wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.