The fear factor in fairy tales

Jun 12, 2003, vol. 27, no. 4
By Julie Ovenell-Carter



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When her daughter was young, Marsha Lippincott (above) ran a Montessori preschool in Tennessee.

Every day for months the children chose the same storybook for her to read aloud: Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are - the enduring story of a little boy who bravely encounters the mythical ghoulies living in the closets, under the beds, and in the imaginations of children everywhere.

“I became curious about the appeal of fear to young children,” says this year's winner of the dean's medal for graduate studies in education. “I wanted to understand what it was about scary stories that would pull children in like that.”

Lippincott, now a grandmother working in California as executive editor of an educational publishing house, enrolled in a doctoral program at SFU in 1994. Her resulting dissertation, An analysis of fear in children's literature, was hailed by her external examiner as “an exemplary accomplishment” worthy of national recognition.

Lippincott's thesis examines the history of fear in children's stories from Anglo-Saxon to modern times, as well as the psychological underpinnings of childhood anxieties. She also studied dozens of picture books and classic children's novels, which she found “contained a lifetime curriculum for learning about fear, courage, bravery and hope.

“From the picture books I distilled a set of implicit messages about fear that a child might learn: you are safe; you are not alone; laughing helps; blankets and teddy bears help; magic words and magic tokens help. Most of all, stories help.

“From the novels, the main point children might learn is that people who do brave things are often filled with fear: knees knock, hearts pound, faces pour sweat, bones turn to water. And yet they go forward. One can take courageous actions despite feeling fear.”

Lippincott hopes her thesis, which she plans to publish, will have practical applications for parents and caregivers.

“I think it's important that parents don't avoid scary stories - they are full of rich gifts and important lessons for children. I hope they will let their children be the guide in the selection - and repetition - of books.”

And she plans to follow her own advice with her new grandson: “Kieran and I will definitely be reading Where the Wild Things Are together.”

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