Picture Book Horror! By Pippa Goodhart

I recently bought a very beautiful new picture book by Kate Read. It’s called One Fox, and it also has a strapline under that title; A Counting Book Thriller. That’s exactly what it is. 

We count up from the ‘One famished fox’ to ‘Two sly eyes’, ‘Three plump hens’, ‘Four padding paws’, and on as the tension mounts between predator and prey; simple, exciting, and thrilling. 


Then comes the moment of crisis. Really dark menace!


But of course all is not lost. 

A great colourful rush of ‘one hundred angry hens’ turn the tables on the now ‘one frightened fox’ who is seen running away. A wonderful book! 


Other picture books also deal with characters in mortal danger. There’s even a ‘best seller’ board book that does this for very young children. 

In Ellen Stoll Walsh’s Mouse Count a hungry snake goes looking for dinner, taking mouse after mouse, and popping them into a jar until, ‘Ten mice are enough. Now I am going to eat you up, little, warm, and tasty,’ said the snake. But of course the mice are clever, and trick their way to freedom. Phew!


            In both those stories, the intended victims get away, and the predator is left hungry. 

            But another way to play horror to be fun rather than harrowing is to put the child reader in control. In Ed Emberley’s Go Away, Big Green Monster!, the text, and the child turning the pages, create a monster, brilliantly using layering of die-cut pages.


It builds and builds until we have the whole scary monster facing us. But the child who created the monster can then reverse that process, telling the monster to ‘Go away’, and reducing its features one by one as we continue the page turning. By the end the monster is gone, and the text shouts, ‘GO AWAY, Big Green Monster!’ turn the page ‘and DON’T COME BACK! Until I say so.’ So it leaves with a new little thrill of possibility, but still under our command!

But what about Jon Klassen’s powerfully simple picture books, This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back, which give us the evidence and let us come to the conclusion that murder has actually been committed, albeit with strong reason? It is left to the child audience to join the dots and decide what has really happened, and then talk and think and talk some more about exactly what has occurred off-stage, and whether or not it was justified. When I first say I Want My Hat Back I thought it too worryingly scary to offer to a young child. But I was wrong. Most young children LOVE the thrill of it! 


            So, is there a line over which picture books should not step when serving up thriller stories? I think that all these examples show that the thrill is fun for children, just so long as we are in very clearly story territory, with characters who aren’t human. Such books are safe and fun places to play with the scary. Even for the very youngest children.  

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