Tuesday, March 7, 2017

North Texas Teen Book Fest: laughing at what scares us

(Editor's note: the following post contains material which some readers may find offensive, insensitive, politically incorrect or downright disgusting. Recommended age level -- 12 years at most!)

It was billed as a middle-grade panel entitled Guys Read: Terrifying Tales. But the crowd packing into the auditorium at Saturday’s North Texas Teen Book Festival boasted plenty of female attendees, and plenty more obviously older than the term “middle-grade reader” (generally, 8-12 year-olds) would indicate.

Even I, significantly past the age of middle grade readers, recognized the major-name panelist – R.L. Stine, author of the long-running Goosebumps series of kid-version horror that has been sending shivers up the spines of young readers for 25 years. He was joined by fellow horror writer Adam Gidwitz and moderator Jon Scieszka (rhymes with “Fresca).

Gidwitz’s writings include both a Star Wars book and fractured versions of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. His latest, The Inquisitor’s Tale, features three kids on a quest, facing enemies such as a dragon whose plentiful farts are not only smelly but deadly, and aided by dog, “recently brought back from the dead,” its jaws clenched around a Newbery Honor award, one of the accolades given by the American Library Association for outstanding children’s literature.

Scieszka was the name behind the panel’s title, having founded the Guys Read literary site and edited a series of Guys Read books for boys who think they don’t like to read. He “moderated” the other writers only in the sense that nobody was actually thrown out of the auditorium as they incited hysterical cheers from the audience.

What does it take to write horror stories for children? And do they ever scare themselves with their writings? “There’s something good about scary stories,” Scieska said, “but I’m not really sure what it is.”

Stine: “If I read a scary story or go to a scary movie, it makes me laugh.”

Gidwitz (gleefully): “Children being scared is hilarious! (Editor's note: see Gidwitz's day job below for explanation of this horrifying statement). . . Both funny and horror are heightened forms of emotion.”

Scieszka: “How do you know what scares other people if you don’t get scared yourself?”

Stine: “Practice, I guess.”

In real life, learning what both horrifies and delights kids (especially guy kids) can come from constant exposure, as Scieszka explained. “Adam and I are teachers.”

Or maybe by not being exposed.

“I was a teacher one year,” Stine said. “It was the worst year of my life.”

He insisted that he was too shy as a youngster to interact with others, so he dragged a typewriter into his room and spent all his time writing. (“Do you know what a typewriter is?” he asked his youthful audience. And of course, they did, because they’d seen in in the Goosebumps movie.)

“My mother stood outside the door and told me to go out and play. Good thing I didn’t listen to her.”

Scieszka: “Were you a fan of horror stories when you were a kid?”

RL Stine (wikipedia)
Stine: “When I was young, they had these great horror comics, Tales from the Crypt. But they always had a funny ending. . . I never meant to be scary – I always wanted to be funny. Then an editor asked me to write a teen horror book. I did, it was a bestseller, so I said, forget the funny. . . I’m actually doing my very first comic book for Marvel. It’s kind of a lifelong dream. I’ve always wanted to be a comic book writer.”

Scieszka: “How about you, Adam. Were you that creepy little guy when you were a kid?”

Gidwitz: “No, I was a moron!”

“Speaking of morons,” said Stine the irrepressible, “I wanted to do a Goosebumps book called Morons from Mars, and the editor said no, because it would offend morons.”

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