Scary Stories

Some peo­ple fond­ly remem­ber lis­ten­ing to ghost sto­ries told around camp­fires or at sleep­overs. Every­one jumped at any unusu­al sound, then laughed when learn­ing it was noth­ing sin­is­ter. It was fun and safe to be scared in a group sit­u­a­tion. Accord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources, being scared and over­com­ing our fear is good for us, and this is espe­cial­ly true when read­ing or lis­ten­ing to scary sto­ries (Cap­stone, n.d.; 2021). Scary sto­ries help chil­dren learn it’s okay to be afraid, that they can con­front and man­age fears and emo­tions from a safe place. It helps them devel­op resilien­cy when they see a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter face a fear and solve a prob­lem (August House, n.d.). Sev­er­al Calde­cott Award books could be clas­si­fied as scary sto­ries, and the art­work might be the scari­est aspects of the books.

Where the Wild Things Are In the 1964 Calde­cott Medal book Where the Wild Things Are, Max makes “mis­chief of one kind and anoth­er.” His moth­er sends him to his room with­out sup­per, and Max sails to “where the wild things are.” Author/illustrator Mau­rice Sendak stat­ed, “I want­ed my wild things to be fright­en­ing” (Lanes, 1998, 88), but Max is not alarmed by them at all. Hand on hip, he dis­dain­ful­ly observes them while they “[roar] their ter­ri­ble roars and [gnash] their ter­ri­ble teeth and [roll] their ter­ri­ble eyes and [show] their ter­ri­ble claws.” Max sim­ply tames the com­i­cal­ly grotesque crea­tures by telling them to “BE STILL!” and per­form­ing a mag­ic trick. Wow! Talk about fac­ing and over­com­ing fears. After a wild rum­pus, Max returns home to the safe­ty “of his very own room where he found his sup­per wait­ing for him and it was still hot.” Remov­ing the hood of his wolf suit, Max sheds the wild thing per­sona show­ing that he has over­come his ear­li­er strong emotions.

illustration from Where the Wild Things Are
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Mau­rice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are, Harp­er & Row, 1963

Sendak endured com­plaints from par­ents who thought chil­dren would be fright­ened by the illus­tra­tions of the wild things and then have night­mares. But chil­dren sent Sendak pic­tures of their own wild things that he said out­did his own in terms of feroc­i­ty (Arbuth­not & Suther­land). Rather than chil­dren, it may have been par­ents who were afraid, fear­ing their chil­dren would imi­tate Max’s bad behav­ior. In his Calde­cott accep­tance speech, Sendak said, “Where the Wild Things Are was not meant to please every­body — only chil­dren” (Sendak, 1988, 154.). Its con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­i­ty since its pub­li­ca­tion is a tes­ti­mo­ny to just how much the book pleas­es children.

Creepy Carrots!Though Sendak want­ed his wild things to be fright­en­ing, he didn’t intend to write a scary sto­ry. Peter Brown did, sort of. He described his illus­tra­tions for Aaron Reynold’s 2013 Calde­cott Hon­or book Creepy Car­rots! as “spooky,” but added, “I like the idea of kids a tad on edge, but the last thing I want is to have kids have night­mares” (Kir­iluk-Hill, 2013).

Brown spent a lot of time watch­ing old hor­ror movies and tele­vi­sion pro­grams to pre­pare for illus­trat­ing Creepy Car­rots! He imi­tates the atmos­pher­ic style of film noir using black and white pen­cil, dig­i­tized with orange high­lights. The fad­ed edges and round­ed cor­ners of the framed illus­tra­tions resem­ble ear­ly tele­vi­sion screens. With his use of cin­e­mat­ic per­spec­tive and dra­mat­ic light­ing to cre­ate shad­ows, he increas­es ten­sion and height­ens sus­pense (Brown, 2013).

illustration from Creepy Carrots!
illustration from Creepy Carrots

illus­tra­tions copy­right © Peter Brown from Creepy Car­rots!, writ­ten by Aaron Reynolds, Simon & Schus­ter, 2012

In the sto­ry, Jasper, a young rab­bit, is con­vinced threat­en­ing car­rots are stalk­ing him. After a dizzy­ing illus­tra­tion that gives a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Ver­ti­go, Jasper cooks up an idea to thwart the car­rots by fenc­ing in the gar­den, thus cor­ralling the car­rots. He faces his fears, copes with the sit­u­a­tion, and resolves the prob­lem. This shows chil­dren that they have agency and are resource­ful, while build­ing their confidence.

Hershel and the Hanukkah GoblinsPeter Brown’s car­rots and Mau­rice Sendak’s wild things are humor­ous­ly scary. So are Tri­na Schart Hyman’s gob­lins in Eric Kimmel’s Her­shel and the Hanukkah Gob­lins that won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1990. All the gob­lins are wicked­ly fun­ny except one. The King of the Gob­lins tru­ly is scary look­ing. The gob­lins are haunt­ing the syn­a­gogue, pre­vent­ing the vil­lagers from cel­e­brat­ing Hanukkah. But, Her­schel of Ostropol vol­un­teers to rid the syn­a­gogue of the gob­lins and out­wits them all to save the holiday.

Hyman’s “india ink and acrylic paint” (ALSC, 2020, 125) illus­tra­tions are dark, depict­ing night­time dur­ing win­ter. Her cre­ative use of light illu­mi­nates the gob­lins and Her­schel while the far cor­ners of the room in which Her­schel sits remain in shad­ows. The edi­tor-in-chief of Hol­i­day House said this of Hyman and her illus­tra­tions: “She loved mis­chief, but who thought she could do hor­ror? Her inge­nious art is ter­ri­fy­ing and hilar­i­ous, too” (Maugh­an, 2014).

illustration from Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Tri­na Schart Hyman from Her­shel and the Hanukkah Gob­lins, writ­ten by Eric Kim­mel, Hol­i­day House, 1990
illustration from Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins
illus­tra­tion copy­right © Tri­na Schart Hyman from Her­shel and the Hanukkah Gob­lins, writ­ten by Eric Kim­mel, Hol­i­day House, 1990

All the assort­ed gob­lins are illus­trat­ed col­or­ful­ly in delight­ful detail. But, the King of the Gob­lins appears only as a sil­hou­ette with glow­ing red eyes, so large it fills the door­way. The read­er nev­er actu­al­ly sees the goblin’s face, but rather sees Hershel’s ter­ri­fied reac­tion. Fright­ened as he is, Her­schel brave­ly and clev­er­ly defeats this final goblin.

Her­shel is not a child, but per­haps it is good for chil­dren to see that adults can be fright­ened and still be brave. Like Max and Jasper, Her­shel faces his fears and, through his own resource­ful­ness, van­quish­es them.

Her­schel and the Hanukkah Gob­lins was repub­lished in a 25th anniver­sary edi­tion in 2014, and then again in 2022. It has become a sta­ple sto­ry for the Hanukkah sea­son. Kim­mel wrote, “I wasn’t inter­est­ed in explain­ing or defend­ing the hol­i­day. I want­ed to find its spir­it. My mod­el was Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Car­ol, which ignores the reli­gious trap­pings of Christ­mas to focus on a uni­ver­sal mes­sage of com­pas­sion, joy, and good­will” (Rogers, 2014). It also mod­els brav­ery despite one’s fears.

Sendak, Brown, and Hyman’s illus­tra­tions might be scary to some, but not too scary. They use humor to dif­fuse what could be fright­en­ing to chil­dren. These books allow chil­dren to expe­ri­ence a lit­tle bit of fear from a safe dis­tance, and then feel good about them­selves for man­ag­ing their emo­tions. As adults, we should not be afraid to share scary — appro­pri­ate­ly scary — sto­ries with chil­dren. Scary can be fun!

Picture Books Cited

Kim­mel, E. (1990). Her­shel and the Hanukkah gob­lins. Hol­i­day House.

Reynolds, A. (2012). Creepy car­rots! Simon & Schus­ter Books for Young Readers.

Sendak, M. (1963). Where the wild things are. Harp­er & Row.


Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). (2020). The New­bery and Calde­cott Awards: A guide to the medal and hon­or books. Amer­i­can Library Association.

Arbuth­not, M. H. & Suther­land, Z. (1972). Chil­dren and books (4th ed.). Scott, Foresman.

August House. (n.d.). Why are scary sto­ries so impor­tant? 

Brown, P. (2013). The Creepy Car­rots zone [Video]. 

Cap­stone. (n.d.). Scary books are good for kids

Cap­stone. (2021). Why kids love scary books!

Lanes, S. (1998). The art of Mau­rice Sendak (2nd ed.). Abrams.

Kir­iluk-Hill, R. (2013). 2013 Calde­cott chil­dren’s book illus­tra­tor Peter Brown inspired by N.J. child­hood

Maugh­an, S. (2014). A haunt­ing anniver­sary: Her­schel and the Hanukkah gob­lins turn 25. Pub­lish­ers Weekly. 

Rogers, A. (2014). Putting books to work: Her­shel and the Hanukkah gob­lins. ILA: Lit­er­a­cy Now.

Sendak, M. (1988). Calde­cott & Co.: Notes on books and pic­tures. Far­rar, Straus and Giroux.

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