Mercer Mayer's illustration from
Don’t cry little girl!
An oldie, but one that leads to a question I have for you. Why do we like things that scare us?
Let’s follow with this question, at what age can you read a scary story to a child?
I’ve noticed a resurgence of complaints against the fairy tale lately, so let’s talk about it. Let’s go back to the fire circle as the wooly mammoths lumbered about. As our ancestors made up stories, what do you bet they were scary stories? Of course they were! They didn’t want to talk about why Og picked flowers for Thog. They wanted to talk about the big booming noise that came when the skies turned black.
“Whoa, something is very very angry,” is how that went. "What could it be?"
We still have campfires and we still tell scary stories.
But what about children and picture books? How young is too young to hear about that silly Goldilocks breaking and entering into the bear’s house and stealing their food and vandalizing the house? Do kids need to hear about Jack’s thefts from the giant?
Of course they do. But, I’m also the first to admit that there’s a time and place for each and every tale. If a child has had a fright, perhaps gotten separated from you in a store, you certainly don’t want to add to their troubles by reading Hansel and Gretel. You are the best judge of what your child needs and wants. Always pay attention to that “mommy” sense (or daddy sense). (My daughter has a sixteen-month old little boy and she knows, if she gets that mommy tingle and doesn’t think he should have something. She’s learned the hard way to make sure to follow through, even if it means some tears).
Hearing the story is just part of the picture book experience. Looking at a scary picture gives a child the chance to study it. To say, “No, you can’t scare me!” And then if they want, close the book.
The debate over whether or not they’re for children began with the Brothers Grimm and continues today. One Grimm said, “Yes! Children can learn a lesson from these tales!” and the other said, “No, they are too frightening. They should only be for academic research.”
The debate isn't going to be settled with one post. But I urge parents not to be afraid of scary. Don't be afraid of fairy tales because your child needs them just like they need geography. Fairy tales are part of the human map. You can start with funny retellings and gradually add in the darker sides. For beautiful artwork look at the work of Trina Schart Hyman or Mercer Mayer. Go through the story and make up your own words the first time through.
You'll find what's right for your child. There are many retellings.
Here are two witches from two retellings of Hansel and Gretel.
Notice how the one on top by Paul O. Zelinsky is a kindly, sweet woman while the one on the bottom is terrifying. The scary one is from a German retelling and the illustrator is Dorothee Duntze. Your child, you decide which one they can handle. I like the German one. But then, I like a little fright now and then.