Thursday, February 02, 2012

Scaredy Cats

You may have all heard the tragic news that Harper Collins is celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz by destroying the sanctity of the terrifying, bleeding heart that beats in each book: the illustrations. I don't mean that the new illustrations, by the talented Brett Helquist, aren't pleasing if you never saw the originals. I can't stress enough how it is not his fault and would certainly be a very cool job to illustrate some scary books. But if you have seen the originals, and let's pray everyone has, they are seared into your brain by a red hot poker held in the decaying hands of a skin-flaying scarecrow. Stephen Gammell is a genius, pure and simple. Get this-- I have another regret, and it is another regret about not buying artwork! (Who knew I was such an art appreciator? Perhaps that's why I married an artist...) Many years ago at an American Library Association conference, they had an auction where children's book illustrators drew their interpretation of a letter. All I had to do was outbid some people, and I could have had my very own, drippy, creepy Stephen Gammell "S." But Matt and I had to leave early, and we didn't win. If only I could go back in time and wait another hour for the final bid! Alas and alack. But back to the Scary Stories books. As a librarian, it was like a rite of passage to hand them to the bravest of third graders. I fielded my fair share of phone calls from angry parents after their kids had a nightmare thanks to my Scary Stories shilling (hee hee). I tormented my sister forever by making this face:

And don't get me started on Harold, the scariest thing, well, EVER.

Damn, Mr. Gammell, you are one sick and twisted genius. I love this quote from an article on the Children's Literature Network about Gammell's earliest experiences of drawing as a child. "I was four at the time thinking that I really didn't want to go to school next year...I just want to do THIS... Just scare other children so bad it gives them nightmares for the rest of their lives." Hey pancakes!
Of course, the stories stand on their own for their horror brilliance. You will know this if you've ever listened to the audiobook (don't do it alone in a car). And the fear factor changes with age; certain stories that scared me as a kid obviously don't as an adult, but I can find many others that scare me now that I didn't get at all as a child ("A New Horse" is a recent stand-out). Who can forget the relief felt when the viper came to wash and wipe your windows? Or the confusion over the big cat, "Martin?" Yes, these stories will stand the test of time, making each generation uncomfortable, intrigued, and thirsting for more.

So why did the publisher do it? Are kids today such huge wusses that they can't handle the original illustrations? There are heaps of articles on the web now about this topic, and I didn't have time to research or link to all of them. I enjoy this one where comic artists talk about the original illustrations, and this article is where I originally learned of the changes.

To take the photos above, I went down in my basement to find my copies of the three books. I sighed with relief that I did, indeed, have all three originals. But I also shivered a bit. Because there is still something terrifying about going down to a basement with the possibility of finding a big toe.

Thank you, Mr. Gammell, for the nightmares.


The Erratic Blogger said...

I hated those books as a kid! Just looking at the covers gave me nightmares. I read a few of them and have forever been scarred for life. I'm a total wimp (watching commercials for scary movies is enough to scare me - Paranormal Activity excluded because it's so lame). It is sad to think future generations won't have the opportunity to have nightmares like mine.

The Erratic Blogger said...

where are you??? (heaven forbid people be busy with their lives;) )

Julie H said...

Bleh! Sorry. I am sort of in a weird zone. Nothing interesting coming out for blogging, and I have too many things scheduled for my daughter. Thank you for noticing! I will try to get back on track.