Wednesday, November 06, 2013

How Scary is Too Scary? by Clare Havens

I recently had a very interesting discussion about my first book, A Bella Street Mystery: The Secret Formula with one of the judges of a literary festival.

More information about this book can be found here

In her introduction to my book, the judge told the audience that the book was truly terrifying.  She said that she had had to get out of bed to check the locks after she finished reading it as it had scared her so much! When a fan said there should be a movie made of my book, the judge said it would have to be rated MA and there should be a parental warning sticker on the book cover!  She was, thank goodness, being tongue in cheek but she raised an interesting point:

 How scary is too scary for middle grade fiction?

I was genuinely surprised at the judge's reaction to The Secret Formula.  I know that the book is very fast-paced and suspenseful but it is in no way explicit or gory and I have always thought that was what young people (in this case aged between 8-13 — or 'Tween') like to read — I know I did.

There's nothing like that tingle of fear running down your spine as you grip the pages of the book tighter and tighter, unable to put it down! There's nothing like the relief you feel when circumstances rectify themselves and the danger passes.

Children have relished suspense for generations!

Children have been relishing scary stories for generations. 

We have the dark stories of The Brothers Grimm, StruwwelPeter (apparently written for 3-6 year olds!), Hans Christian Andersen, most fairy tales… 

Everywhere you look there are wicked witches, evil queens, children lured to their deaths or abandoned. Many of these stories are told to children too young to even read by themselves. Why should we feed middle graders sugary pap instead of the strong meat of thrilling writing?

Being thrilled is good for you!

There is even an argument that reading suspense is actually good for you.   As your heart pounds and causes an adrenalin rush, you get a natural high and a great sense of relief. 

Pete Nelson, in the (now defunct) WonderTime magazine quotes Susan Engel, a psychology lecturer and author of the book, Real Kids: Creating Meaning in Everyday Life,  "It's a chance to experience a really potent fantasy and almost live it, without any of the consequences. Part of the thrill is realizing it's not true."

Without suspense books are dull!

Sam Leith wrote in The Guardian that if there is no danger in a book then nothing is at stake — a boring premise for a book, surely? To engage and identify with a character, the reader has to care what happens to him/her. The character has to face a real dilemma or danger in order for us to be on their side.

What is it that you remember best from books and movies?

Sam Leith also brought up the question, 'what is it you remember from the things you've read or watched?'

I always think of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz before I think of anything else in the movie.  I think of the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before I recollect the flying car.  I remember so vividly the day my teacher read us Struwwelpeter in German — I can still see her claw-like hand movements as she mimed the cutting with her fingers — and that was a LONG time ago! 

I remember these things with a kind of delightful squirming sensation as if to say, "wasn't that terrifying? But wasn't it good?!"

More information about this book here

First published as Too Scary for Middle-graders? at Avery Olive's blog, December 2011.

About the Author

Author of the Bella Street Mysteries, Clare Havens lived for many years on a street in Manhattan just like the street where Bella lives. She now lives on a high cliff next to a lighthouse in Australia but luckily doesn't have to walk too far to buy bagels.

Recent books I have enjoyed include: 'The Series of Unfortunate Events' by Lemony Snicket, 'Evil Genius' by Catherine Jinks, 'Percy Jackson' by Rick Riordan, The 'Little Fur' books by Isabelle Carmody and my all time favourite books are the 'Little White Horse' by Elizabeth Goudge and the 'Wolves of Willoughby Chase' series by Joan Aiken (which have plenty of scary things in them!)

You can contact Clare


  1. I couldn't agree with you more! Our children are far more resilient than they are given credit for! Love your books, Emma

  2. I agree, I really like the suspense in Harry Potter and The Series Of Unfortunate Events. I think Doc Gutson is pure evil! I can't wait to see what she does next!

  3. Today's world is far too easy on children and they will receive a nasty shock once they reach adulthood. Suspense is a wonderful way for children to experience the "rush" and to appreciate life. When is the next book??

  4. A great topic. Thank you Clare.

    I suppose "too scary" is a book that gives you nightmares but - and this is the tricky thing - you don't know whether its going to do that when you're reading it. The gripping, thrilling books that have me up late at night, needing to find out what happens next are also the ones that I'm most likely to think were too scary for me - when it's too late. At 3am when I'm both satisfied and terrified!

    I recently had an experience not unlike your judge's with a book called The Shining Girls by Cape Town-based writer Lauren Beukes. My 15 year old daughter bought it at the bookseller's table at the Kids' Lit Quiz world final in Durban the previous week and I read it in bed at our hotel in Cape Town long after my family had gone to sleep.

    I had to check the locks too. And check on the kids - though goodness knows what I would have done if a time-travelling psychopath from 1930's Chicago had actually materialised in their room. Some books are better read during daylight hours!

    Interestingly, none of the girls who'd read the book - my daughter and the charming young book sellers who told us that Leonardo DiCaprio has optioned the film rights - had the same reaction. Maybe I'm the only wimp - or maybe kids are more resilient than adults when it comes to dark material.

  5. There's this one book that scared me and it was the only book that had; it was Dancing Jax and although the plot itself wasn't that scary it was a couple of discoveries and lines that made me stay up at night with all the lights at home on. Another book can't remember its name now but it wasn't the best writing though it had a good plot and setting which overall gave the book a sort of macabre/scary feeling which creeped me out slightly.