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Inside Practically Paradise

Not Scary, Scare ME!

Scare Me! "I want a book that’s SCARY" pleads the tenth child in a row. If your collection mirrors mine, you dread this question because you don’t have enough scary books to meet the demand of elementary students. Students aren’t looking for mysteries and adventures. They want scary books with a suspenseful atmosphere – horror without gore. What can you provide?

Stone Arch Books staff Joan Berge, Maryellen Gregoire, & Michael Dahl answered questions on a conference call today focusing on this topic. As they noted there are two universal themes kids recommend to each other: books that make them laugh and books that scare them. They want the thrill to be scared out of their wits and know in the end they survived. Stone Arch is rising to meet this need with new fiction sets of books for the striving (struggling and reluctant) reader. 

Stone Arch prides themselves on marketing safe books. Even in their graphic novels you won’t find vulgarities or inappropriate topics. As Joan said, "We market ourselves as safe. If we violate that message, we’ll no longer be trusted." So how can a safe company meet the needs of the readers for an edgy topic? 

Maryellen discussed how their development team considered what would a 3rd grader be okay with and not get nightmares from. They used focus groups in TX, MN, and CA to learn there are levels of violence educators and parents have that guide their determining suitability for students. For example, nature vs. human is acceptable as are robot to human, or human to a monster that doesn’t exist, or even animal to human, but human to human violence is not acceptable.

They took out human to human violence. If it has to be in a retelling of a historical story, it’s very minimal. They worked to keep murder out of books and to keep gore out so students won’t have nightmares. The atmosphere, the creepiness, the thought that something might happen is far scarier than resorting to violence. Michael Dahl quoted Oscar Wilde "This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

Michael Dahl is the author of over 100 different titles and a respected speaker on nonfiction books and books for boys. His recent title Attack of the Paper Bats is part of the Zone set which is written for the striving readers with a  first – third grade reading level. The design of the Zone series is very sophisticated, creepy with ambiguous endings that make you ask "What is going on here?" The summary of Attack of the Paper Bats indicates: A weird book left on an empty street flips its pages in the wind. The breeze vanishes, but the pages keep moving. They take on a horrible, and hungry, life of their own. Only the Librarian can prevent a young boy falling prey to the razor attack of the bats. Only the Librarian knows the one thing that could possibly defeat them. Adventure.

How can you argue with a Librarian as a defender against evil?  This series creates an atmosphere of suspense in 32 pages with spooky covers intended to draw your reluctant reader into opening the book. I predict these will become favorites among your students with "word of mouth" recommendations keeping the titles flying off the shelves. I found my struggling readers finish these quickly, seek others in the series, and go back to re-read them. Isn’t this the effect we want books to have on students? 

Fortunately, Stone Arch has created several more series to meet the needs of students as they advance through the grades. The Shade books offer the same reading level (2nd-3rd), but a higher interest level 5th-9th grades with about 5000 words. They include the familiar kind of scary where a family inherits a doll and the girl thinks the doll is alive and making her mother sick or the type where a boy goes skateboarding in a storm drain and hears the ghost of someone drowned in a flood. Deliciously scary.

The Vortex books are not strictly horror/suspense books. These include mystery, adventures and fantasy books with some scary elements. For those teachers demanding(!) books with one hundred pages, the Vortex books will satisfy everyone. The series description includes this statement "Less-proficient readers will take a giant step towards confidence as they rush through these cliff-hanging chapters and discover with surprise that they have finished a full-size suspense novel." One of SLJ’s January 2007 reviews of  Curse of the Wendigo states "While these elements [Lots of end matter (discussion questions, writing prompts, and instructions for using Facthound)] may put off more advanced readers, reluctant readers will find it hard to resist Wendigo." I have to suggest that the reviewer shouldn’t be worrying about the advanced reader for this book – it matches the needs of the intended reader – the reluctant, struggling reader. 

If you have other scary titles to add to my quest for collection development, please comment here and share with our readers. Let’s help students find books that enable them to do as Michael Dahl suggests that these books help the reader deal with the big questions of life. What just happened? What’s real? Are there creatures like that out there in the world? These books show how to abate your fear. You close the book with a sigh of relief. They did it. They survived. Readers can absorb the lesson without realizing it.