Children's author Margaret Wild vividly recalls the terror and fascination she felt as a child devouring the gruesome, darkly humorous cautionary tales of 19th-century German author (and psychiatrist) Heinrich Hoffmann in Struwwel-peter. His protagonists included an unfortunate girl named Harriet, who played with matches and was burnt to death, and Conrad, a thumb-sucker, who had his offending digits snipped off with scissors. "That mutilation of children's bodies was the most disturbing thing I'd ever read," says Wild, whose books include Vampyre, Woolvs in the Sitee and Fox. "I was fascinated by them."
For a five-year-old John Marsden (Tomorrow, when the War Began, Creep Street, So Much to Tell You), it was Dorothy Wall's Blinky Bill that frightened. "The scene where Blinky's father gets shot, I found that overwhelming, really; traumatic," he recalls. "I read it with a sense of horror. I'm not sure whether that was so much fear as shock and grief, I suppose. I don't think there was a book that scared me in the sense of it gave me nightmares or anything, but that was the one I felt just blown away by."
US author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi (The Spiderwick Chron-icles, The Spider and the Fly) was "creeped out" by the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, the brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang (Red Fairy Book), and the illustrations of Arthur Rackham. Alan Lee (Tolkien) and Brian Froud (The Dark Crys-tal) created a realistic take on fairy lore in the 1970s that "made me think that at one point, long, long ago, all this stuff really happened", DiTerlizzi recalls. "That's the thing that I loved about those stories, and it never left me, even as I grew older and came to understand that these were folk tales. I really return to that feeling continually when I'm trying to craft stories of my own."
British-born Nick Falk (Toggle the Troll, the Saurus Street series), a practising child psychologist in his adopted home town of Hobart, was hooked on the psychological thrillers of Stephen King in his early teens. "The physiological fear response is very similar to the physiological response you get when you're excited," Falk says. "The rapidly beating heart, the tingling in the fingers . . . the racing thoughts." It's an enjoyable, temporary state, and a far cry from the heavy, fixed dread he recalls reading Roald Dahl's The Witches at seven or eight. His image of the head witch's scabby, warty red hands – fuelled by Quentin Blake's vivid illustrations – gave him nightmares. (His own children are unfazed by the book.)
The problem with this sort of fear, Falk says, is that we often fixate on it and try to push it from our minds, which makes matters worse. And it's a bad habit to unwittingly teach our kids. "If you look at people who suffer from a phobia or another form of anxiety or depression . . . generally you have fixed thoughts that they battle with," he says. "[These] . . . create very difficult feelings, and they don't like those feelings, so they try to avoid or suppress or get rid of that particular thought process."
Master storytellers have always understood the power of fear. Falk likens enjoyable, suspenseful fear – who am I locked in the attic with; what's going to happen next? – to riding in a roller-coaster rather than watching from the sidelines.
Marsden says irrational fears provide particularly fertile ground. "Those fears come out of the unconscious mind, which is always more interesting than the conscious mind," he says. "They're not to be dismissed. They're to be engaged with and possibly even used creatively."
Marsden likes to "crank up [fear] as much as I can". "It's a way of engaging readers and making the book a page-turner." His challenging plots often place teenagers in perilous situations and explore their responses. "Fear strips away masks and shows you the real person," he says.
Sonya Hartnett (The Children of the King, The Midnight Zoo, Thursday's Child) also grounds her characters in challenging, unpredictable realities and tests them with desperate situations. "Who wants to live in la-la land?" she asks. "The children in The Mid-night Zoo have lost everything and have nowhere to go, they're just wandering through war-torn Czechoslovakia lost and alone. That is a fearsome situation for a child to be in but you rely on the fact that children are adaptable. They say, 'OK, this bad thing has happened but let's just move on and accept that as the way the world is and deal with it.' They're frightened but they're being tested, made to think . . . and act . . . and survive. That's what a fearsome situation does.
"I grew up in a house where there were occasional moments of real fear, and maybe that somehow affected the way I think about it. I have a respect for toughness and a deep lack of respect for sookiness. That kind of behaviour in anyone – man, woman or child – really repulses me. When you think of Hansel and Gretel, how brave they actually are, and that's one thing about those stories, the children in them never curl up into weepy little balls. They always act defensively and strongly and bravely."
Like J. K. Rowling and a raft of other teen-targeting authors unafraid to expose their readers to life's dark complexities, Marsden and Hartnett have been criticised at times for pushing young readers into territory for which they're not yet emotionally prepared. "I get worried when I see people trying [to] dissuade [children] from their reasonable fears or trying to placate them or comfort them in a meaningless way," Marsden says. "It's as though they're trying to rob them of their fears, which is not doing them any favours at all.
"Feelings like shame and guilt are given to us for a purpose. They're there to let us know when we've done something that is damaging and is wrong and we need to take steps to remedy it. The reason we have fear is so that we can judge situations and make appropriate responses. So if you take that function away from people, you make them less capable of existing efficiently and effectively in the world." He says children are excellent self-censors, and simply put down books they find too scary. His youngest child did so recently with the final book in the Harry Potter series.
Hartnett has no time for overprotective adults. "I certainly have done more than my fair share of having to defend myself against parents, teachers and all sorts . . . who go, 'Oh, what about the children?' " she says in mock horror. "When it comes to children, some come attached with idiot parents. There's going to be a percentage. I have learnt from experience those sorts of people are not to be reasoned with. You can do nothing for them but to hold them in contempt and their children in pity.
"I have to say, as I get older, I'm getting angrier," she adds with a belly laugh.
While the notion of what's scary varies widely from one person to another, some fears – such as death – are primal and common to readers and authors alike. DiTerlizzi says death is a theme in many of the books he adored as a child and is revisiting as a parent, including Peter Pan and Watership Down.
"I've tried to hold on to that when I've done the series I'm working on now, The Search for WondLa books," he says. "Death is always present in those stories because I think when you're a kid, at least for me, I was scared to die, I was scared of the people who loved me dying. That's a huge, very important point in many of the Grimms' tales. Many of those start off with the parents dying. Orphans. It's a primal fear. What would I do if I was left all alone in the world with no one to take care of me?"
His best-selling picture book for young readers, The Spider and the Fly, based on the 19th-century cautionary poem by Mary Howitt, tackled death head-on, albeit with witty illustrations inspired by black-and-white movies, packed with visual puns to warn readers of impending danger. He concedes some within his publishing company considered it too scary.
"We were just about done, the editor was thrilled, the art director was really happy. I remember there was a kerfuffle ... with some of the higher-ups, they were worried that it was too scary," he says.
"One of the notes we got from on high was, 'Is it like a show? At the end of the book can they all come out and take a bow?' Including the fly. We were like, 'No! This poem has existed this way for 200 years. Why would we think that?'
"That's the thing people love about this, it's a warning. It's the truth. So we kept it."
DiTerlizzi recently read Charlotte's Web to his five-year-old daughter, who was untroubled by the constant threat of death to the central character, Wilbur the spring pig. "She gets that, she understands it, she has no problem with that, but we talk about it."
And that's the nub of it. Authors of children's literature write with the expectation their books will be read to kids by parents who can unpack the themes as they go – dark and light. For many, in fact, this ritual is one of the great delights of parenthood. DiTerlizzi recalls that when he and his siblings had outgrown being read to, his mum read their favourite books independently so she could keep talking with them about the literature they loved.
"These conversations then led to other conversations about life," he says. "I think that's so important when maybe you're older and it's your child and maybe there's things you can't just blurt out, like, 'What are you afraid of?"'
Many authors are parents themselves. Some, such as Falk and Marsden (a teacher and the founder-principal of his own school near Romsey, north-west of Melbourne), bring with them insights into children's development from their other careers. But when they sit down to write, they're thinking like artists, not parents or educators.
Wild says many of her picture books are born of a haunting idea she can't shake. Hartnett writes to entertain a younger version of herself. "I write to the child that I was, that fairly brave, independent, questing kind of child that I was. The child who had the freedom in the '70s to roam around the streets and be free and disappear for hours at a time and not come home to find the police had been called."
She describes a kind of unspoken pact with her readers. If they trust her enough to traverse the complex, layered terrain she creates, she'll provide a satisfying resolution with plenty of room for interpretation. Her promise is simple: "I will never do anything that is going to make you feel ripped off."
Wild agrees that a satisfying – as opposed to neat – resolution is crucial. But she concedes some of her young readers prefer clear-cut answers. Fans of Fox, her luminous, haunting tale of friendship, jealousy and loneliness, frequently quiz her on whether Fox gets punished or Magpie makes it home.
"Some children write me very gruesome endings for Fox, and what happened to him or what should have happened to him," she says. "Children often like things clear-cut but I don't necessarily want that, and I'm writing the story for myself. I'm hopeful that more thoughtful readers will see that they can come to their own conclusions."
For parents unsure how to discuss fear with their kids, it's important to resist the urge to make everything all right by assuring them witches with red scabby hands don't really exist.
Our job as adults is to help them understand and manage their fears. That means discussing what they're afraid of, and why, and noticing what fear feels like in their bodies. In time we can delve deeper into whether a fear is rational (which helps keep us safe) or irrational (which shows us our thoughts are powerful but not always true).
Crucially, Falk says, we need to let them know that we all experience fear, and that it's one of many feelings that come and go. For some kids, drawing or writing about it lends helpful objectivity.
"When you're reading a book and it's scary, you could choose to turn that book over and put it down," Falk says.
"It's the same with a thought. You don't have to, when that thought comes into your head, stop everything and pay attention to it and try and get rid of it. You can actually carry on with whatever you were doing and just let that image or thought stay there. It's about giving them the coping skills to be able to do that, so they no longer have to get rid of the thought or image. They don't have to like it, but they also know it's not going to do them any harm."
Nick Falk is a guest of the Children's Book Festival at the State Library on Sunday.slv.vic.gov.au.