One of the scariest stories I ever heard was one that I wasn’t even there for. I remember just drifting off to sleep one night with the sound of the TV show my parents were watching barely audible down the hall. Gradually I realized some terrible noise was coming from down the hall. It was a terrifying voice, quietly screeching and whining. I listened, horrified, unable to make out the words but sure that something had taken over our house. The noise continued, softly but steadily growing until a terrific SHOUT made me scream and jump up out of bed.
Turns out my parents had been watching Hal Holbrook’s one-man show Mark Twain Tonight, in which he recreates Twain’s highly effective retelling of the classic Uncle Remus story “The Golden Arm.” Like many traditional tales, it uses repetition, (“Who’s got my golden arm? Who’s got my golden arm?”), an accumulation of details (the voice follows him through the fields, it follows him into the house) and a surprise ending (“You got it!”) to achieve its goal of scaring the bejeepers out of the listener.
Of course, time-honored story techniques like these are too intense for little kids, right? Not necessarily. Creating a spooky story for young ones that gives them the thrill of a good scare without the nightmares isn’t easy, but it can be done.
Linda Williams’ picture book The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything is a perfect introduction to Halloween tales for younger book lovers. As you can tell from the well-worn cover on our family’s copy, it’s good for multiple reads at any time of year.
First published in 1986 and still going strong, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything follows its brave heroine on a dark and lonely walk through the woods. And as in Twain’s story, it uses repetition and a growing list of details to build suspense. Little by little the Old Lady find she’s being following by an animated bunch of clothing, topped off by a Jack-o-Lantern head. But every time she tells the eerie objects, “Get out of my way! I’m not afraid of you!” It’s funny and scary at the same time, a wonderful combination. Helping set the mood are great atmospheric watercolor illustrations by Megan Lloyd. (Lloyd was a classmate of mine in art school — hi, Megan!)
Best of all, Williams’ use of language and rhythm makes The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything a great read-aloud. Your kids may want to chant along with the shoes that go CLOMP, CLOMP, the gloves that go CLAP, CLAP and the hat the goes NOD, NOD.
And while they do, they’ll be developing the skills to become tellers of ghost stories in their own right.