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Putting the 'boo!' in children's books

Picture, if you will, a smiling, well-adjusted child. She's tucked into a corner of the couch, reading happily, quiet but for the occasional giggle. Is that an "American Girl" book she's reading? A silly fractured fairy tale? On the cover, you spy a slime-drenched, bloody snake; the title is spelled out in dripping, neon-bright letters: "The Zombie Chasers: World Zombination!"

Horrors! This child is reading horror!

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Many grownups are a little uncomfortable when a kid exhibits a taste for stories of terror and mayhem. They worry that their children will become desensitized to violence or will have nightmares. Some just want their kids reading "better" books. There's a perception that scary books like the "Goosebumps" series by R. L. Stine are of low literary quality and have no value.

It's true that "Goosebumps" books, along with series like James Preller's "Scary Tales," "Spooksville" by Christopher Pike and P. J. Night's "Creepover," are short, formulaic, and written at a fairly low reading level. However, librarians know that these books sometimes play a crucial role in inviting children into reading, or helping a reader bridge the gap between books he is beginning to find "babyish" and longer books with more complexity.

Many people who grew up to be very accomplished readers — and writers — claim to have read nothing but "Goosebumps" for years when they were kids.

In addition, children are very aware of their ability to handle scary stuff. When I help a child pick out a book, I'll often ask, "How do you do with scary books?" Of all the questions that I ask during the book selection process, this is the one they answer most forthrightly: "No scary books!" or "I can handle medium-scary." And then there's the little angel who proclaims, "The scarier the better!"

Psychologists have found that a variety of personality types find horror appealing. There's your risk-taker, your sensation-seeker, the kid who climbed to the top of the refrigerator when she was 2 years old — that kid may be bored by stories that don't thrill.

Paradoxically, however, fearful children — kids who imagine monsters under the bed or in the closet — also look for scary stories. These readers take comfort in the idea that the bad things in the book aren't real. They are pushing their own boundaries, exploring their fears in the safe space that exists between the covers of a book.

And well-adjusted, well-behaved children are sometimes also drawn to stories with sinister characters and harrowing escapes. This can be disconcerting for grownups, until we remember that our kids are experiencing massive change — in themselves, in their peers and in their awareness of the world's complexity — on a nearly daily basis. Books that reflect this disruption and uncertainty might be just the ticket for a little while.

Here are some new, beautifully written scary stories for kids ages 9-14:

'The Jumbies'

By Tracey Baptiste

Young Corinne and her friends battle fierce and eerie spirits in this scary but cheerful tale that draws on Caribbean folk traditions. A great update on the "town under supernatural attack" story, with a marvelous setting.

'Took'

By Mary Downing Hahn

The newest book from the Maryland author of scary kids' classics like "Wait Til Helen Comes" and "All the Lovely Bad Ones" pulls out all the stops, with a witchy hag and a possessed doll in a sinister rural setting.

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'Wipeout of the Wireless Weenies'

By David Lubar

The seventh short-story collection in this series features bite-sized doses of creeptastic fun — zombies, cat litter gone bad, and a classic "monster under the bed" story. Great for kids who are hesitant to commit to long novels and very popular with elementary school readers.

'The Nest'

By Kenneth Oppel

Steve is a worrier, and with his baby brother very ill, he is desperate to find a way to save him. The answer comes to him in a dream — or is it a nightmare? Psychological horror with a monstrous twist from the author of "Airborn" and "This Dark Endeavor."

'Hoodoo'

By Ronald L. Smith

This debut from Baltimore writer Smith weaves features a rural gothic tale of folk magic in 1930's Alabama. Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher must follow cryptic clues to discover the truth behind his father's death if he is to protect himself and his family from a supernatural Stranger out to collect a debt.

'Lockwood & Co.'

By Jonathan Stroud

The most recent in this series about teenage ghost hunters in an unusual version of London is titled "The Hollow Boy." Gripping adventure, great descriptions and a captivating world.

'Castle Hangnail'

By Ursula Vernon

Not all magic is devilish and grim, as proved by this charming new book by the author of the popular "Dragonbreath" series. Twelve-year-old Molly is the new Wicked Witch at Castle Hangnail, due to be decommissioned by the Board of Magic unless a she proves herself worthy.

'Guys Read: Terrifying Tales'

Edited by Jon Scieszka

This collection of short, spooky stories is not for guys only. Young readers will be drawn to stories by familiar authors like Adam Gidwitz ("A Tale Dark and Grimm") and Dav Pilkey ("Captain Underpants"), and may find a new favorite along the way.

'I Used to be Afraid'

By Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Lastly, here's one picture book for the scaredy-cats among us. In colorful, chunky collage paintings, a little girl lists her fears — spiders, shadows, making mistakes — and shows us that when you see those things in context, they're not scary after all.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children's and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. She can be reached at pinkme@gmx.com.

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