Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Regular readers of I Saw Lightning Fall know that I enjoy scary stories. Even more, I believe they can encourage moral development. They show us right from the wrong side of the fence, so to speak. But if frightening tales can foment good, a question arises: Are they appropriate for children?

It’s no abstract dilemma. The film version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline hit cinemas last week, and critics are divided. A.O. Scott of The New York Times
praises the film, stating that “the cultivation of fright can be one of the great pleasures of youthful moviegoing.” But Meredith Whitmore of Plugged In Online sniffs, “It's difficult for me to combine the words children's horror, but that's what Coraline callously does. I don't think going there … is ever a great idea. Let alone when there are 8-year-olds around.”

Where ought one to fall on the continuum between license and constraint? Mystery author Andrew Klavan gave his thoughts on the subject
during an interview with Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen bookstore. Klavan decried those who saw the imagination as …

… an empty box and whatever goes into it comes out of it on the other side in exactly the same way. In fact, the imagination is much more like the digestive system. It turns imagery into the things that the mind needs. It feeds on a lot of different things. Like a lot of boys, I read the scene in [Mickey Spillane’s] I, the Jury where Mike Hammer blows that girl away. I must have read that fifty times, and here I am -- a man who hasn’t lifted a hand in anger in thirty years. My own children have never felt so much as a swat. And yet that scene meant so much to me about what it means to be a man, because my imagination translated it into a parable of integrity and individualism and standing up for yourself even against someone you love.
Could it be that some critics have, like Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “read only the wrong books” and forgotten that childlike mental alchemy? Or are storytellers unwittingly warping the minds of our youth? The debate won’t disappear anything soon, especially where Gaiman is concerned. His spooky homage to Rudyard Kipling, The Graveyard Book, just won the highest honor for children’s literature -- the Newberry Medal.

(Picture: CC 2008 by

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