Flashlights in Dark Rooms: Conquering Fear Through Reading

When I was younger, I brought books with me everywhere I went. In the fourth grade, when all of my friends were playing baseball, and I thought it would be a wise decision to join up, I soon discovered that I was one of the worst players on the team. I played a lot of deep left field. I, of course, didn’t know at the time that being put in left field was the coach’s nice way of saying, “Hey, kid, maybe baseball’s not your sport.” Some part of me must have known my heart wasn’t in it, because I started bringing books to games with me, and I’d read chapters from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park while waiting for my turn and inevitable strikeout at bat. My dad caught on to what I was doing, and rightly so, told me I needed to leave my books in the car during games.

I stayed with my dad and stepmom every other weekend, usually making sure to bring enough books along to last the three day stay, but one weekend I finished the book I was reading at the time (most likely Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee), and needed a literary fix.

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My dad’s an avid reader, and more specifically an avid reader of Stephen King. Any time King brings out a new book, my dad picks it up. He was even part of the Stephen King Book Club at one point, which meant he didn’t even have to go out and buy a book; they’d just send them as they were released.

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The first book I picked up in my dad’s library was Misery. Initially, the cover drew me in: a wheelchair bound Paul Sheldon, head in hand, lost in the looming shadow of Annie Wilkes, while an ominous amount of snow rest packed outside the window.

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I flipped to the middle of the book, and read in both horror (fitting as that’s the genre) and fascination as Annie Wilkes attacked an investigating trooper with a cross, and then a riding mower. I remember being scared, but wanting to read further, like when I was younger, working my way through Alan Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy;

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some of those stories scared the hell out of me, and Stephen Gammel’s accompanying illustrations didn’t help matters (if I knew a particularly frightening picture was coming up on the next page, I’d slide my hand over it real quick so as not to look at it). But I told myself that they were just stories, and these stories in particular had been written with the express purpose of scaring folks. I must have reread the series a dozen times, and each time I read them, my fear diminished, and I was able to appreciate them for what they were: examples of good storytelling. Too, I didn’t have to be afraid because I had become acquainted with the unknown. I’d been put into a dark room, but given a flashlight to illuminate all the things that were hiding. They were still scary, but I didn’t have to be afraid any more.

I have children of my own now, and they too get frightened, especially my eldest, Erp. She’s sensitive to what she hears and/or sees. Sometimes she’ll have a hard time getting to bed at night because of a book she’d flipped through earlier that day. We have conversations with her. Tell her that she needn’t be afraid. That they’re just stories, made up for fun by the author. She knows this, but fear is a large entity to wrestle with. Still, she and her younger sister will insist on reading or watching something they know has scary elements. Perhaps part of it is they like being scared, but it falls more into the realm of sacrifice, as if to say, “I know that this is probably going to scare me, but I really like this story, and I want to find out what happens next.”

Last year, I read through Jeff Smith’s Bone saga, a nine-volume graphic novel epic concerning the Bone cousins and their adventures. Recently, I decided that I wanted to read through the series again, but this time with Erp.

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This evening, I brought home a copy of volume one, Out From Boneville for her. She was having a bath at the time, and when I held the book aloft, she began clapping her hands, and grinning from ear to ear (her smile’s especially adorable now since she lost her first tooth). She asked if we could start reading it tonight at bedtime. Our youngest, Alp, declined, stating that there were “spooky eyes in the shadows” on the cover. A short while later, my wife and I were downstairs talking about our day and making dinner, when Erp ran into view at the top of the stairs and called me over. She told me how excited she was to read this book, because she thought it might help her not be afraid. Pointing to the cover, she explained she thought there would be scary moments in the book, but that the character (Fone Bone) had a backpack and was on an adventure and that he probably got scared but he kept going. Have to admit, got a bit teary-eyed when she told me this. She came to me on her own, with this speech she’d prepared about being brave, and this small, yet tremendous moment extols the power and importance of reading. That it can encourage a girl, who scares easily, to try and get over her fear by reading about and going through frightening moments with the main character, speaks volumes. And it will go down as one my favorite moments of all time.

Be well. Read to your children. Read to yourself. Shine a flashlight on the scary parts of the room.

Huzzah!

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