When I was young, I didn’t have many friends. My family moved around a lot, and I lived in four states before I was ten years old. I was always the new kid at school, and it didn’t help that I was awkward as hell. So I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading. My favorite place in any town was either the library or Barnes and Noble. To this day, I find the smell of old books to be incredibly comforting. Around eight years old, one of my absolute favorite books was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a horror fanatic from a very early age, and I gobbled up these short little books like candy. I had a huge collection of them which I prized greatly.
Fast-forward a few years, and I am heading off to university. I left all of my things, including my well-stocked bookcase, at my parent’s house. However, a few months later they decided to move again. They boxed up all my things and put them in the basement of their new house.
The basement flooded that year. Most of my childhood toys, clothes, and other mementos were ruined. Including all my books. It was devastating.
I open with this story not to depress you but to explain why now, as an adult, I am working to collect the entire Goosebumps series. It’s become a bit of a passion project, because as a lonely, socially awkward child, my books were my refuge.
Last week I took a trip to the local thrift shop and stumbled across a gold mine. Nearly twenty-five of the original Goosebumps books were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me. I bought them all and walked home with them shoved into a backpack. My husband, whose feelings towards my book hoarding can best be described as amused confusion, asked if I actually planned on reading any of them.
So I did. I sat down and read twenty-five Goosebumps books over the course of five days. None of them will count towards my goal of reading one hundred books this year, but I’m ahead of schedule and wanted a break.
While I was reading, a made a few notes as to why I think these books were so popular for children in the ’90s. And why they can still be a good entry into chapter books for kids today.
- They’re scary but not too scary. I have always been obsessed with the horror genre. Books, movies, comics, anything. Goosebumps was probably my first foray into books that could be considered “scary”. And to a second or third grader, they are pretty creepy. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, basically any classic monster has its place in Stine’s universe. He has an innate sense of how to chill his young readers without scarring them for life. His characters aren’t always brave, either. Sometimes they turn tail and run, just like we would. But at the end of the day, no one in the Goosebumps novels is ever in mortal danger. In Stine’s Fear Street series, which was written for an older audience, the characters often die. But the Goosebumps books are wonderfully innocent in that regard.
- For a child, the characters are someone to look up to. One thing that I never noticed as a kid was that every single main character in the Goosebumps books is twelve years old. Every single one. This was not an attempt to appeal to twelve year olds. By the time I was twelve I had long since moved on to Stephen King. No, R. L. Stine understood that children around seven to nine years old look up to and admire the “big” kids. Twelve is the perfect age for adventures. They’re not quite teenagers, but have more freedom than younger kids. They have the problem-solving skills that would generally allow them to behave properly in a scary environment. But they aren’t so old that they are preoccupied by the trials and tribulations of puberty.
- Their problems were our problems. Not the ghosts and werewolves. But a major running theme of the Goosebumps books deals with bullies. And annoying siblings. Unfair teachers and parents who don’t believe their children. Getting grounded. Being embarrassed in front of your classmates. All of the things that seemed to fill up the whole world when you were a kid. Everyone remembers the desperate unfairness of being a kid and having little power to change your circumstances. I was surprised by how strongly I responded to these children being bullied by their peers or older siblings. I think it would resonate just as much with today’s kids. Especially since the bullies or mean siblings always seem to get their comeuppance.
- The books are very predictable. This is important when you’re trying to encourage young children to read. Especially if you are also trying to scare them, but not too much. There are a few things that happen in every single book. At some point, one of the characters will say, “What could go wrong?” There will be a very scary sequence that turns out to be a nightmare. There will always be a heavy use of foreshadowing. And nearly every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. As an adult, the cliff-hanger chapter comes across as terribly lazy. But for a child, it’s key. It keeps them reading. Keeps them engaged and turning the pages.
In the end, I had a blast reveling in childhood nostalgia with the Goosebumps books this week. I’m going to continue trolling my local Salvation Army with the hopes of eventually completing my collection. I’m looking forward to reading them one day to my own children. Hopefully we can all be scared together.
Happy reading everyone!