Happy Hallow-week! With leaves falling, fireworks flaring, and pumpkins grinning, I’m very excited to welcome booktuber Emily of Page Turns to talk about the horror genre in the world of children’s literature!
Tell me about your booktube channel, Page Turns? What’s it all about?
My channel is all about scary children’s books! I talk about books all the way from spooky-themed baby books to YA horror, so I like to look at a variety of creepy stories for different age ranges. I focus mainly on reviews and video essays on my channel, but I’m known to do a book tag and a wrap-up here and there, too (some of them on horror movies and fiction—a real passion of mine). Beyond that, my absolute favorite videos to make are what I call my Analyzing Goosebumps videos, where I look at classic Goosebumps books in-depth.
Why focus on horror? Why did that genre resonate with you as a kid?
So many things about horror resonate with me. I think the most obvious answer to this question is that it’s my favorite genre to read and watch—and it has been since I was a kid! For me, part of the pull of children’s horror is its focus on the empowerment of kid protagonists. So many children’s horror books are about kids proving themselves to be brave, intuitive, and bold in scary situations. I was an anxious kid, and I think reading horror really helped me to “feel out” some of that anxiety by giving me stories of courageous and resourceful kids that overcame obstacles despite their fear. That’s another thing I love about children’s horror books: the emphasis isn’t on simply overcoming fear, but on transforming it. I like to think about children’s horror as “re-framing” fear. In other words, instead of trying to get rid of fear completely, kids horror asks us to look at it in a different way.
Many booktubers do reviews and recommendations, but you really dig into theory and scholarship, especially in your Goosebumps reviews. Why do you find it important to include scholarship in your reviews?
Watch Emily’s take on the Goosebumps classic One Day at Horrorland.
I do find it really important to include scholarship, and part of the reason is that I have so much fun doing the research! I absolutely love reading up on a topic and coming up with an idea that builds on existing work. I find that doing research almost always enriches my reading experience in one way or another. However, the biggest reason I include scholarship—especially in my Goosebumps videos—is that I resist the idea that horror fiction for kids is overly simplistic. There is the notion out there that books like Goosebumps are shallow and superficial, but when I read Goosebumps, I see stories rich in complexity—especially in terms of how the books “speak” to other horror texts. So, I like to bring in scholarship to try and show just how much can be unpacked from these books if we give them the attention they deserve.
Another unique aspect of your channel is how many picturebooks you review. What qualities make for a good ‘spooky’ picturebook?
Spooky picturebooks are some of my absolute favorite things to read, and I’m not sure there’s any set rules to what makes a good one. Something that I love about picturebooks in particular is that their formal characteristics can be played with so much; I think each picturebook brings something totally unique to the table. That being said, there are definitely some qualities that my favorite spooky picturebooks have in common! The first one would be a real concentration on using “spookiness” in a fun and comforting way. I mentioned before about how children’s horror can “re-frame” fear—in a lot of ways, I think picturebooks do this the best. Because so many picturebooks are meant to help alleviate fear in kids, the best spooky picturebooks use gently spooky elements to help transform fear into something manageable, interesting, and even fun or funny.
The second quality is something that I look for purely as an adult reader: I LOVE intertextuality in these kinds of books. Anything in a spooky picturebook that might reflect back on other horror things is so exciting. One of the best aspects of horror is that it is so self-referential and so fond of its genre elements and tropes. As a horror fan, I love to see genre nods in spooky books for kids. It reinforces my belief that just because these books are created for young children, it doesn’t mean that they can’t make use of the many storytelling tools that the horror genre has to offer.
What advice would you give parents who are worried about their children reading scary books?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing for parents to be interested in what their kids are reading, but I do think that it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that kids are (far more often than not) the best judges of what books are okay for them. Let kids explore scary books—if that’s their chosen genre—and talk with them about what they’re reading. If you think a book will be too scary, talk to them about it. I think a big truth that can sometimes be difficult to accept is that even if you don’t want kids to read something, they will usually find a way. I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark under the covers with a flashlight when I was a kid. But if you establish an open line of communication, you can take comfort in the fact that your kids will come to you to talk about books, and that you’ll be able to meet them in the middle.
What are some of your favourite horror books for various age ranges that you’ve read lately?
I recently read a board book called Monster Trucks (words by Anika Denise and pictures by Nate Wragg) that I instantly fell in love with. It’s an amazing choice for young kids that like monsters. My favorite spooky picturebook I’ve read lately is The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (pictures by Mark Fearing and words by Bonny Becker). I am completely spellbound by the super creepy and fun illustrations. I also have to mention the picturebook Monster Mama from 1993 (pictures by Stephen Gammell and words by Liz Rosenberg). It is an absolute work of art. For first fiction and early chapter books, Linda Bailey and Colin Jack released a book last year called Under-the-Bed Fred. It is an adorable, funny, spooky read. In middle grade territory, I cannot say enough good about Flickers by Arthur Slade. It’s an amazing book! And lastly, in the wonderful world of YA horror, I have to put a good word in for The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean. I read it in one sitting and it scared me out of my wits.
As a fantasy lover, I was struck by the similarities between fantasy tropes and the horror tropes you discuss in your videos. A few include:
Characters called or singled out by an ancient power.
Characters going through an ordeal and returning with a token.
The uncanny sense that “all is not well” in horror and the idea of “all is not well”/”the poisoned kingdom” in fantasy.
Why do you think these similarities between fantasy and horror exist? What do you think some key differences are between the genres?
This is such an excellent question! You’re absolutely right—there are some really key similarities between horror and fantasy. Horror is an extremely malleable genre in that it often crosses over with other genres, and the elements that you’ve isolated here are a great example of that. I feel that coming up against something horrifying that needs to be defeated, changed, or simply experienced is, in many ways, an important component of most stories; it all boils down to how fear motivates characters and stories to move forward.
But I think there’s more to be said about horror and fantasy specifically. For example, these commonalities that you’ve noticed are a great indicator of horror and fantasy’s strong roots in fairy tales and folk tales. In many ways, some of the motifs seen in both genres have their origins here. The “token” you’ve mentioned protagonists returning with is an excellent jumping off point for comparison. Magical, supernatural, or simply meaningful objects play a huge role in fairy tales and folk tales as well as in horror and fantasy. There’s Cinderella’s slipper, Beauty’s rose, and Snow White’s apple. Along the same lines, there’s not many other genres that use objects the way horror and fantasy do. What says “fantasy” more than a sword, a wand, or—to bring up a specific example—a ring? And what says “horror” more than a chainsaw, a Ouija board, or a candle in the dark? It’s fascinating.
Both horror and fantasy draw inspiration from the inescapable enchantments and entrapments of fairy tales.
The same can be said about “all is not well” and the idea of an ancient power singling you out or controlling you. Both have flavors of fairy and folk tales. In terms of horror, the latter quality about the ancient power interests me the most. Have you ever got the sense that fairy tale characters have little-to-no agency in their own destinies? When reading fairy tales, I always feel like I’m reading about something happening to some people, rather than some people doing something. The agency just isn’t there. Well, characters in horror can act in exactly the same way. No wonder we’re all yelling at the screen: “Don’t go in there! Don’t split up! Don’t open that door!” I’m not sure if fantasy characters usually have quite the same lack of agency, but it’s interesting to me how fantasy protagonists are often thrust into situations they have little control over. They undergo something in very much the same way that horror protagonists do.
Emily holds a BA in English Literature and a MA in Children’s Literature. Her interests include space and place in children’s picturebooks, noir sensibility in film and fiction, and all things horror. In her spare time, you can find her playing video games on easy mode, re-watching The Big Lebowski, and reading/reviewing scary kids books on her YouTube channel, Page Turns.
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