Fear in Writing: Childhood Favorite Comes Back to Scare

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Childhood Favorite Comes Back to Scare

I read a book to my son last night that I had read as a child.  It was Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall.

The book--or one character, really--scared my son to shaking!  If you haven't read it (or it's just been a really long time), the premise is this (from Amazon):
The kids in Room 207 take advantage of their teacher's good nature until she disappears and they are faced with a substitute.
And that subsitute is one Viola Swamp.  I thought about putting her picture on this post, but, honestly, she scares me, too!  The cartoon is dark, menacing, ugly...everything you want in a witch!  But, if you want to see her for yourself, click here.
I remembered the books (there are actually three in the series, and we have two of them) as great children's tales about misbehaving in school.  That's not how my son saw it.  He said he liked the books "except for viola swamp--she's scary."

The scariness of the antagonist actually takes away from the plot for its audience!  Now, I know this book has pleased generations, even making it to DVD and the stage.  But in our house, she is now banned.  I agree with my son--she's too scary!

So my question today is this: how do you find balance?  How do you make your antagonist someone readers can understand and feel for, but still fear?  Is that important to you?

Alternately, here is another set of questions: Have you ever had a childhood favorite come back to bite you?  Did it surprise you when you read it as an adult, leave you wondering why it was a favorite back then?

Oh, and we have two Viola Swamp books if anyone wants them.


  1. She is one scary subsitute teacher! I would be afraid of her too. I never read those books.

  2. She's just so....dark! Ugh and Uck. But I KNOW my teachers read them to me in grade school!

  3. You're right about Viola Swamp. My high school students think she's awesome (yes, I read PB's to them), but I think she's much more their speed than younger kiddos. She's a bit much for them. :-)

  4. I can't think of a childhood book that's come back to bite me. But I can definitely comment on making your antagonist a sympathetic character. I did this in my current WIP by explaining how the antagonist had been plagued with paranormal experiences through her childhood, and then when she was an adult a dark force took hold in her and has been using her ever since. She struggles against the darkness, using her faith as a shield, but it's steadily crumbling, being replaced by greed.

    Well, I like it, anyway. ;)

    Nice post! Thanks for sharing!

  5. I don't know about childhood books, but I recently read Armadale by Wilkie Collins and I would argue that the antagonist, Lydia Gwilt, is the main character of the book. She is really a horrible person, but she's had some pretty tough shit happen in her life. The reason I bring it up is that my friend and I absolutely loved Lydia and sympathized with her, but 80% of my class hated her and thought she was the scum of the Earth. I just think it's interesting how some people obviously need more of a connection with an antagonist than other people, or maybe my friend and I just don't think as black and white as the rest of our class does.

  6. I agree - kids can't be too young for Viola. :)

    I've been surprised by rereading childhood faves - I was shocked by how wordy and ... prissy (that's not the right word - but it's close) Little Women was. I LOVED that book as a kid - read it multiple times. Put it down as an adult - but I still love the memory of the book.

  7. I've talked about the topic of fear in writing on my blog a few times. Here's the issue:

    Everyone views things from a different perspective and it can be difficult to know just how much is enough fear. In horror, I don't think there is such a thing as too much, but in children's literature, there needs to be more caution used.

    As parents, we have to be careful and recognize when enough is enough and we can step in and pull the plug, so to speak. In my situation, for example, I have 5 kids and all of them have different levels of scare in them. I just have to recognize it when I'm reading to them and if it's too much, I stop.

  8. Reading a childhood book is sometimes like watching a movie you loved as a kid - when you see it again as an adult, it either lacks a bit or just plain sucks.
    So I've tried not to ruin any of my favorite childhood books, too.

  9. OH my gosh I am so going back to memory lane right now!!!! Viola was wicked... wicked good!

  10. I think the disturbing thing about Viola was...she was another side of Miss Nelson who was so sweet and kind and wonderful! So now the kids are wondering who ELSE has that nasty side!

    With cozies, I tread lightly with the scare factor. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  11. I loved scary stories as a child, probably because I loved traditional fairy tales, which are very dark. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast... The strange thing when I re-read Beauty and the Beast a while ago was how awful her father was, leaving her behind to appease the beast. It wasn't all tearful, as in the Disney version. She was traded like a commodity, and I think it disturbs me more now than it did back then.

  12. Shannon- I thought about that--this book being more for older kids. But then, she really bugs ME, too! Good for you for reading to your high schoolers.

    B- She sounds really interesting. I hope you'll let us read some of it soon! It is so much more intriguing to have deep characters--even antagonists--than static ones.

    Ash- I have been meaning to read that book! I read 'The Woman in White' last fall and fell in love with Collins. Thanks to you, this book has moved waaaaaaaaay up on my TBR list.
    I also agree that some antagonists are more compelling than the intended MCs. I often root for the bad guys to win--sometimes just for something different, somteimes b/c I'm actually pulling for them!

    Jemi- I have wanted to reread some of my real favorites--Witch at Blackbird Pond, Jacob Have I Loved--but I'm almost scared to do so. What if they don't hold up to the magical place I remember from childhood?

    Void- You make a really good point. My son is much more emotional than my daughter b/c of his greater awareness of reality (he's older). But he is also not easily scared, so when something really bothers him I know it's serious.

    Alex- I'm with you there. But it's a little harder when you have kids you want to share books with.

    Jen- I thought so, umtil I reread it! She's creepy. (shudder)

    Elizabeth- Exactly! I was wondering what affect this book would have on Jake's view of real people...

    Lorel- I loved them, too. It's really the drawing of Viola that is so disturbing. I, too, enjoy those original fairytales, as well as the scarier stories for kids--but the drawings have to been somewhat fantastical, not just flat out disturbing!