Tips on Writing Suspense Stories for Children, Part 2

Go get the biggest bag you can find. That is, if you want to be a fiction writer. Pack your tools with care. They must all fit. Granted some are large, some small; there is an amazing amount you will need. One of the most important items to pack is your treatment of death. And as we know, writing for the formidable minds of young children under the age of 12, death cannot be taken lightly.

Banned Books
Nowhere is an author's weigh-in on death and other touchy subjects more conspicuous than during Banned Books Week, this year September 27th-October 3rd. The event, sponsored by such reputable organizations as the American Booksellers Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, and endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, "highlights the value of free and open access to information."

Reasons cited by challengers: offensive language, unsuited for age group and violence. Example: In 2013 there were 307 challenges reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom for ten of the most challenged books in schools and libraries. #1: Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey, beating out Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James by three, which came in as #4. Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence. But, wait. I remember reading in an article about Pilkey that he realized in third grade that everyone loves to laugh about underpants. The accompanying photo had him wearing fake glasses with a big nose. Isn't that exactly the kind of stuff kids love? To have some fun, go to  You'll see Pilkey's fake facial ensemble and lots more.

What's a Children's Author to do?
Break ground. That's the advice given at every conference and in every class I've taken on writing for children. Editors try to explain why they like a book--love a book--but in the end, they can't pinpoint the reason. They just know a good book when they see one.

So, the burning question for suspense writers for young children is, what's suspense without a death or the threat of one? One example of a banned book that dealt with death that created a crater in kiddie lit is Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson. Terabithia is considered a children's literature classic, published in 1977; awarded the Newbery Medal in 1978. The book is a staple of English studies in many countries, including the U.S.

Terabithia is the story of two fifth-graders who create an imaginary kingdom in the woods named Terabithia; Jess as king, Leslie as queen. Paterson's inspiration came from a terrible accident in 1974 when a friend of her son's was killed from a lightning strike. "I was trying to make sense of a tragedy that made no sense," Paterson says in an interview by Peter T. Chattaway / February 12, 2007 with Christianity Today. Katherine Paterson, whose parents were missionaries and whose husband was a Presbyterian minister, says, ". . . kid lit doesn't have to be 'safe.' After all, the Bible sure isn't."

Paterson's book made #8 on the most frequently banned books list, 1990-1999 and #10 in 2003. As Emily Bazelon put it in an article for Slate, " . . .  somehow the lesson is not that Jess and Leslie should never have swung on the rope to their enchanted spot. Rather, the story suggests how "death is always at the back of risk and beauty," as the friend I saw the movie with put it. That message, of life's indelible tragic contours, helps explain the power of Paterson's story 30 years after it was written and its relevance for our addled child-rearing times. To read the article
go to:

Investigate Other Treatments of Death
Early on as a budding children's novelist, I decided to go death-lite and not tackle the subject head-on, at least not at first. One of my current WIP's deals with what I consider death-in-the-abstract: a ghost story. Two of my "model" books that I have studied are The Green Ghost and The Blue Ghost, by Marion Dane Bauer. The reading level, RL, which can be found in most children's books on the inside or outside of the front or back cover, for The Green Ghost is 2.0, second grade; ages 6-9, stated as 006-009. Once a writing instructor for the MFA programs at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Bauer's ghost stories at first glance seem simple. Analyze the books, however, and I think you'll be amazed at how the deaths of the ghosts are extremely subtle; moreover in The Green Ghost the main character turns out to be a surprise--not who you might think.

Two other books, which were suggested as additional reading in one of the children's writing courses I've taken, are Prisoners at the Kitchen Table, by Barbara Holland (Clarion Books: 1979), and The Dollhouse Murders, by Betty Ren Wright (originally published by Holiday: 1983), for age 9+, fourth grade and up. I consider these two books to be good examples of psychological thrillers for children.
  • Prisoners deals with kidnapping, no death: A man and woman tell Polly Conover such a convincing story about being her aunt and uncle that she and friend Josh Blake get in their car, believing they're going to Polly's house for a surprise. Instead, the children are taken to a secluded farmhouse miles away from home and are stuck there scared, lonely and bored, until their parents can come up with ransom money. Finally, Josh thinks up a way to escape. The book is lauded by reviewers. In reviews, one reviewer wrote, "I must have checked Prisoners at the Kitchen Table out of my local public library at least once a month, prior to 4th grade." Other reviewers wrote that Prisoners is an exciting book that that involves friendship, teamwork and courage, and is an important safety reminder not to believe a stranger's story and get into a stranger's car.
  • Doll House deals with the past murder of a young girl's grandparents: In the attic twelve-year-old Amy finds a dollhouse that is "an exact replica of the family home," and is haunted. The dolls, representing Amy's relatives, move every time she visits the dollhouse. Her aunt doesn't believe it, but Amy believes the dolls are trying to tell her something. By researching old newspaper clippings at the library, she discovers a family secret: that her grandparents were murdered. A reviewer wrote that Doll House was passed around among her friends in fourth grade. She read it again as an adult and wrote: "What blows me away . . . is that the story is haunting and frightening at any age, but is appropriate for a child. While it deals with murder and ghosts, it's handled with care and without gore. And still, this many years later, I had those spine tingles that I crave in a good book, and find so rarely."
  • My thoughts: I believe young children want to be scared out of their wits just like everybody else. Why not do this for them with great care, understanding and grace?
For more about suspense writing, please visit last month's post:  "Unravel the Mystery of  Suspense, Part 1".

Articles that contributed to this post:;;

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for adults and children and six short stories for children. Recently she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, this is such an informative post on writing suspense for children's stories. Dealing with death in a children's story is certainly tricky, but there are situations, including suspense that should be written about. I ghostwrote a story about a young child dealing with the death of a parent. Unfortunately, death is 'out there.' You can't pretend it doesn't exist. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks for your insightful comment, Karen. I think writing has helped me explore my feelings about a lot of things like death, so it's kind of like getting two prizes for the price of one. Wasn't it Socrates who said that an unexamined life is not worth living? So we who scrutinize our lives in order to share with others, our readers, are in a winning situation, I would think.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Always informative and challenging, Linda. Lots of new ideas for me to mull over, Have bookmarked and shared. Many thanks for this series.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Annie. I hope the post helps.

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks for a challenging and thought-provoking post, Linda.

Linda Wilson said...

Thanks, Shirl. You and all you do is greatly appreciated.

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