Are Your Books Unintentionally Scary?

McAdam, Claudia Cangilla cropped



Claudia Cangilla McAdam

I was recently in the car, driving a three-year-old passenger. A conversation we had got me thinking about what’s important in the books she reads, in the ones I read . . . and in the ones I write.

Here’s a recap of the conversation that sprang up out of the blue:

HER: “I have big girl books now.”

I read with her frequently, and I’m familiar with her books. So, what exactly was she talking about? I wondered what constitutes a “big girl book” to a three-year-old. Do they have more pages? Are they larger in dimension? Just what did she mean?

“But they’re kind of scary,” she added.

Hmmm. That confused me even more. She can’t read, so I was left trying to imagine what kind of books her parents might be reading to her. Mysteries? Suspense? Horror stories? Oh, the horror of such a thought!

ME: “What’s scary about them?”

HER: “They don’t have any pictures.”

ME: “Oh. With books like that, you need to use your imagination and make up your own pictures in your head.”

In the weeks that followed that conversation, her comment about books without pictures being “scary,” got me thinking on a number of different planes:

Why Pictures Matter in Picture Books

When I read picture books to young children, I enjoy watching their eyes roam over the page, taking in all the illustrations. A good illustrator tells his or her own story on the page, apart from what the writer pens. And good illustrations can bring the reader (or listener) even deeper into the story. Examples:

Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back has a bear searching for his missing red hat. Astute young eyes can spot the hat before the bear does, and kids love knowing something the main character doesn’t.

Wendy Silvano’s Turkey Trouble follows a turkey on the farm who disguises himself in order to avoid winding up on the Thanksgiving table. He dresses as other animals, and his disguises work . . . almost. The illustrations provide a wonderful opportunity to have the kids verbalize what the turkey put on to look like another animal, and why that disguise didn’t work.

There’s much more to a picture book than the words and the illustrations. There’s the discussion that ensues. And when it comes to books that aren’t illustrated, such as novels, engaging the imagination is critical.

Importance (for the reader) of Creating Pictures in Non-illustrated Books

A book that brings the scenes to life in the reader’s mind should do so beautifully and unobtrusively. I love it when I read a scene, and I’m there! But when a book fails to do that, it seems like such a waste of time . . . mine and the author’s.

I’m currently in the middle of such a work (title and author will go nameless). I’m only still with the book because I’m listening to it in the car, and I have a modicum of interest in finding out “who done it.” But the author’s writing doesn’t allow me to picture the settings, the characters, their movements, etc. There’s plenty of “telling,” but very little “showing.”

In order to have the best experience possible with a book, I believe the reader needs to be able to enter into the story, to visualize the surroundings, to sympathize with the characters, to wonder, to worry, to wrestle with the same emotions the characters experience.

Importance (for the author) of Creating Pictures in Non-illustrated Books

There are books galore on “showing vs. telling,” so I’m not even going to go there. I’m just going to try to remind myself constantly that as an author, it’s my responsibility to paint pictures with words. I’m going to try to take every adverb I’m tempted to use (angrily, happily, sadly, etc.) and find a way to express that same emotion through what the characters do or say. And adjectives such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “boring,” etc., that are used to describe scenes absolutely need to go. As an author, my job is to create a picture in my reader’s mind that enables that person to realize the scene is “beautiful,” “ugly,” “boring,” or whatever, without ever using those words.

Therefore, as I write, I try to remember the wisdom of a three-year-old who knows that books without pictures can be scary. And unless I’m intentionally trying to keep my readers on the edge of their seats, that’s something I don’t want to shoot for in my writing.

I want collaboration with my readers: my writing and their imaginations should join together to create a story that is vividly illustrated . . . without one single picture in the book. It’s only “scary” when I don’t do that.

1 Comment

  1. What an interesting way for books to be “scary.” I remember when I switched from picture books to novels…and that first non-picture book set my imagination on fire.


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