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14 Terrifying Facts About Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

The first installment of Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark trilogy hit bookshelves in 1981. The series would become a preteen cult classic and among the most banned or challenged books of the following decades. 

1. ITS AUTHOR DIDN'T START OUT WRITING SCARY STORIES.

Alvin Schwartz, the author and adapter behind the Scary Stories trilogy, actually began his career as a journalist, writing for The Binghamton Press from 1951 to 1955. He also had a penchant for wordplay, saying that creating rhymes is a good way for “people to express their feelings without getting in trouble.” After Schwartz left journalism, he started working for a research corporation, which he couldn’t stand, and began doing that part time, devoting the rest of his hours to writing books. One of his first published works: a Parents’ Guide for Children’s Play. His journalistic instincts and whimsical leanings are probably to thank for the Scary Stories’ characteristic surrealism and eerily matter-of-fact storytelling.

2. THE TALES WERE BASED ON FOLKLORE.

Research was a huge part of Schwartz's process for all his books. When writing his book Witcracks, Schwartz turned to the archives at the Library of Congress and those of the president of the American Folklore Society, using that research and his connections for Scary Stories. Among his sources were books like American Folk Tales and Songs and Sticks in the Knapsack and Other Ozark Tales. He also drew from publications like The Hoosier Folklore Bulletin and interviewed folklorists.

"Some of these tales are very old, and they are told around the world," Schwartz wrote in the foreword to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. "And most have the same origins. They are based on things that people saw or heard or experienced—or thought they did."

When asked about his writing process for an interview with Language Arts magazine, Schwartz said, “Basically, what I do with every book, is learn everything I can about the genre. This will involve a lot of reading and scholarly books and journals and sometimes discussions and scholarly folklorists … In the process of accumulating everything on a subject, I begin setting aside things that I particularly like. What's interesting is that eventually patterns emerge.”

The first Scary Stories book was released in 1981, and Schwartz would go on to write two more—More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones—before his death in 1992.

3. PARENTS HATED THE BOOKS ...

By the time the Scary Stories series reached the height of its popularity in the early '90s, the book was condemned by parents nationwide. "There's no moral to [the stories]," former elementary school teacher and mother Sandy Vanderburg told the Chicago Tribune. "The bad guys always win. And they make light of death. There's a story called 'Just Delicious' about a woman who goes to a mortuary, steals another woman's liver, and feeds it to her husband. That's sick."

One parent even made a connection between Schwartz’s book and a serial killer, citing the story “Wonderful Sausage,” about a butcher who puts people through his sausage grinder and sells the meat to his patrons. “Right away I thought of Jeffrey Dahmer," Jean Jaworski, then the mother of a fifth grader, told The Argus-Press in 1995. "It's just not appropriate for children." She asked the school board to remove the book from the library, but a special committee voted unanimously to keep the books, and the school turned down an appeal.

4. ... BUT THAT DIDN'T BOTHER SCHWARTZ.

In an interview with the journal The Lion and the Unicorn, Schwartz said that he didn’t deal directly with complaints about his books. “My editors deal with them,” he said. “Every letter is answered and the point is made that this is traditional material and that, in addition, it has developed a lot of interest in reading.”

When discussing how a Christian group had tried to get his book, In a Dark, Dark Room, banned from a Denver library, Schwartz said he wasn't surprised. Instead, he said, he was “pleased to have that kind of attention. It was ironic and pleasing that, at the same time, their ideas were rejected by the children.”

5. THE ARTIST BEHIND THE CREEPY ILLUSTRATIONS USUALLY DREW LIGHTER SUBJECT MATTER.

The books’ nightmarish illustrations are perhaps as well remembered as the stories themselves—and even less pleasing to parents. One father, J. Daniel Merlino, who called for the books’ removal from his local school’s library, told The Hartford Courant that “I can appreciate the creativity. But the images in those books are surreal. A throat being torn out. A liver being eaten. These images are the stuff of nightmares.”

Michael Wohlgenant, whose 7-year-old daughter had nightmares for months after reading “Wonderful Sausage”—its illustration involved a dismembered hand holding a forkful of human flesh—also pushed for the books’ removal. “You entrust your child to the care of school officials when you send them to school,” he said. “You don’t expect them to be traumatized and harmed.”

Stephen Gammell, the mastermind behind the creepy drawings, won a Caldecott Medal for picture book illustration for his work in Karen Ackerman’s Song and Dance Man in 1989. Though these illustrations were slightly more lighthearted, they showcased the splotchy, watercolor-heavy style that’s exemplified in the artist's grim, surreal Scary Stories illustrations. (You can watch a fun time-lapse of Gammell’s process here, in the trailer for his book Mudkin.) "Stephen Gammell has made a very important contribution to these books because he has such a wild imagination," Schwartz later said.

6. THE ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATIONS HAVE BEEN REPLACED IN NEW VERSIONS OF THE BOOKS.

Stephen Gammell, Imgur

When HarperCollins released a new version of the Scary Stories books to commemorate the series' 30th anniversary, fans were dismayed to see that Gammell's illustrations had been removed. The reprint features new illustrations by Brett Helquist, whose excellent work you may recognize from the Series Of Unfortunate Events books.

The newer, less creepy illustrations provoked outcry from those who grew up with the books, even prompting a BuzzFeed article called “They’re Ruining Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark.” According to Meredith Woerner in an article for io9, “[…I]f your child couldn't handle Gammell's paintings, they're certainly not going to be able to stomach a short story about a scarecrow who skins a farmer alive and dries out his skin sack trophy on the roof. Gammell's art is an integral part of this collection. The least they could do is release a special art book as a companion. This is just supernatural blasphemy.”

7. IT'S BEEN ON THE ALA'S MOST CHALLENGED LIST FOR TWO DECADES.

Stephen GammellImgur

The series topped the American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 most frequently challenged books for 1990-1999. Ten years later, the Scary Stories books remained in the top 10, coming in at No. 7 on the list for 2000-2009. The books were most frequently challenged for reasons of “insensitivity, occult/Satanism, violence, (and being) unsuited to age group.”

About that last thing: The books fall between the 600 and 760 Lexile mark (a system used to organize reading levels), meaning that the books' vocabulary level is most suited for fifth graders. Some of the Scary Stories vocabulary words highlighted by the Lexile system were “clink,” “blunt,” “shrouds,” “drafty” “afire,” and “shatter”—further proving that the series’ simple vocabulary doesn’t rule out spooky content.

8. WHAT HAPPENS IN "THE RED DOT" PROBABLY WON'T HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE.

The story “The Red Dot” may have instilled a deep fear of spiders laying eggs in your face, but don’t worry—according to the National Geographic, it's not likely to happen. May Berenbaum, entomologist at The University of Illinois, explained that a spider’s egg-laying structure isn’t equipped for injecting. “I suppose a spider could drop or plaster eggs on the skin’s surface,” Berenbaum said, “but it’s not clear why a spider would want to do such a thing.”

9. ONE TALE GOES BACK TO THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

Stephen GammellImgur

“The Big Toe,” the notorious story in which a starving boy finds a human toe in the ground and makes the terrible mistake of eating it, is based on an old folktale that dates back to early 19th century Germany. (Maybe not surprising; this is the country that brought us Der Struwwelpeter, after all.) Mentions of the tale were first found in the Grimm Brothers’ notes, and a version of the story—with an arm replacing the titular toe—was later a prominent feature of Mark Twain’s public speaking appearances. When he was done speaking, Twain would jump into the crowd and scream at an unsuspecting audience member.

10. THERE ARE MANY VERSIONS OF THE STORY HIGH BEAMS.

Because the tales featured in the Scary Stories books came from folklore, there were many different versions of the stories floating around—and “High Beams,” which Schwartz told The Lion and The Unicorn was “one of the most popular stories” in the series, was no exception. The story features a girl driving home alone from a nighttime basketball game. “There is a car following her and periodically the other driver will turn up his beams,” Schwartz said. “She can't understand what is going on, and she becomes progressively more frightened. As it turns out, there was somebody sitting in the back seat. He had slipped in when she left and each time he rose up to assault her the guy in the car in back of her turned on his high beams.”

The story, he said, is one that’s “told all over … It appears in a dozen different versions. … All of these stories, and there are scads of them, are really saying: ‘Watch out. The world's a dangerous place. You are going out on your own soon. Be careful.’”

11. “WONDERFUL SAUSAGE” WAS PARTIALLY BASED ON A SONG FROM SCHWARTZ’S CHILDHOOD.

Schwartz told The Lion and the Unicorn that he’d heard a fragmented version of the tale, “which is about a butcher who is sort of a prototypical Sweeney Todd,” in New Orleans. But it was also inspired by a song he learned as a kid at Scout camp called “Dunderbock and the Sausage Machine.” That butcher in the song, Schwartz explained, made sausage from dogs and cats, “and one day the machine slips or falls and he goes into the machine himself. This is the end of [the song]: ‘His wife had the nightmare. / She walked right in her sleep. / She grabbed the crank, gave it a yank, / And Dunderbock was meat.’” You can listen to a version of the song here.

12. THERE WAS AT LEAST ONE STORY HE WOULDN’T FEATURE.

Schwartz told The Lion and The Unicorn that he only implied violence in his stories, and opted for gore instead. There was at least one story that he said he found very upsetting:

“Infanticide … is a theme in American folklore and European folklore. There is an Ozark folktale ... in which a man in his youth goes away and travels and becomes quite successful. His parents are quite poor. He comes back one night after many many years have elapsed and he looks completely different. He thinks he will therefore surprise them. He has come back with a lot of money and he wants to give it to them. They have an inn and he takes a room there for the night. They don't recognize him and he thinks that in the morning he will announce that he is their son. Well, they murder him during the night for his money. It's a marvelous story but I would not put it in one of my books. … This kind of thing I avoid.”

13. THERE'S GOING TO BE A FEATURE FILM ...

The Scary Stories trilogy is currently being adapted into a feature film by CBS Films and John August, writer of Big Fish and Frankenweenie. The movie, which had originally featured Saw writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, is currently in development.

14. ... AND A DOCUMENTARY.

Scary Stories (Official Trailer) from Cody Meirick on Vimeo.

If documentaries are more your speed, there may be one of those too. An upcoming documentary from Chicago filmmaker Cody Meirick will “explore the history and background of one of the most controversial works of modern children’s literature: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” On the project website, Meirick explains that the film will not only explore the impact of the stories on the kids who grew up with them, but also the broader topics of children’s folklore, the heritage of gothic ghost stories, and what draws us to them.

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Qatar National Library's Panorama-Style Bookshelves Offer Guests Stunning Views
Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The newly opened Qatar National Library in the capital city of Doha contains more than 1 million books, some of which date back to the 15th century. Co.Design reports that the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) designed the building so that the texts under its roof are the star attraction.

When guests walk into the library, they're given an eyeful of its collections. The shelves are arranged stadium-style, making it easy to appreciate the sheer number of volumes in the institution's inventory from any spot in the room. Not only is the design photogenic, it's also practical: The shelves, which were built from the same white marble as the floors, are integrated into the building's infrastructure, providing artificial lighting, ventilation, and a book-return system to visitors. The multi-leveled arrangement also gives guests more space to read, browse, and socialize.

"With Qatar National Library, we wanted to express the vitality of the book by creating a design that brings study, research, collaboration, and interaction within the collection itself," OMA writes on its website. "The library is conceived as a single room which houses both people and books."

While most books are on full display, OMA chose a different route for the institution's Heritage Library, which contains many rare, centuries-old texts on Arab-Islamic history. This collection is housed in a sunken space 20 feet below ground level, with beige stone features that stand out from the white marble used elsewhere. Guests need to use a separate entrance to access it, but they can look down at the collection from the ground floor above.

If Qatar is too far of a trip, there are plenty of libraries in the U.S. that are worth a visit. Check out these panoramas of the most stunning examples.

Qatar library.

Qatar library.

Qatar library.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images: Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Reading Aloud to Your Kids Can Promote Good Behavior and Sharpen Their Attention
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Some benefits of reading aloud to children are easy to see. It allows parents to introduce kids to books that they're not quite ready to read on their own, thus improving their literacy skills. But a new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that the simple act of reading to your kids can also influence their behavior in surprising ways.

As The New York Times reports, researchers looked at young children from 675 low-income families. Of that group, 225 families were enrolled in a parent-education program called the Video Interaction Project, or VIP, with the remaining families serving as the control.

Participants in VIP visited a pediatric clinic where they were videotaped playing and reading with their children, ranging in age from infants to toddlers, for about five minutes. Following the sessions, videos were played back for parents so they could see how their kids responded to the positive interactions.

They found that 3-year-olds taking part in the study had a much lower chance of being aggressive or hyperactive than children in the control group of the same age. The researchers wondered if these same effects would still be visible after the program ended, so they revisited the children 18 months later when the kids were approaching grade-school age. Sure enough, the study subjects showed fewer behavioral problems and better focus than their peers who didn't receive the same intervention.

Reading to kids isn't just a way to get them excited about books at a young age—it's also a positive form of social interaction, which is crucial at the early stages of social and emotional development. The study authors write, "Such programs [as VIP] can result in clinically important differences on long-term educational outcomes, given the central role of behavior for child learning."

Being read to is something that can benefit all kids, but for low-income parents working long hours and unable to afford childcare, finding the time for it is often a struggle. According to the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, only 34 percent of children under 5 in families below the poverty line were read to every day, compared with 60 percent of children from wealthier families. One way to narrow this divide is by teaching new parents about the benefits of reading to their children, possibly when they visit the pediatrician during the crucial first months of their child's life.

[h/t The New York Times]

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