Including tales of adventure, magic and true childhood wonder, there’s something brilliant about an engaging children’s book. But do you ever remember having to put a book down for being too scared of a certain baddy? Or having to sleep with the light on for fear of story-induced nightmares?

Everyone has that one character that sticks out in their heads as having sparked a couple of nightmares as a child. Whether it’s the Grand High Witch from Roald Dahl’s The Witches, or the Child Catcher from Ian Flemming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a novel’s baddy is often the one that evokes the biggest reaction among readers, especially younger ones.

But how much fright is too much? We’ve been thinking about the baddest story book characters recently, and after surveying a bunch of parents, we discovered that a third of them wouldn’t read their children a book with a scary villain in. However despite this, a large proportion of parents (84%) said that baddies are important in children’s books.

Baddest Book Characters

In some cases, reading about a bad character can be one of the most descriptive, imaginative parts of a children’s book, but to get a clearer picture, we decided to chat to child psychologist Emma Kenny to find out her views on whether fear is important in a child’s development. You can find the full interview below:

Do you think fear is an important emotion for children to experience? 

“Absolutely! In fact fear is imperative in realising courage. Essentially when we learn to cope with our fears, it enables us to take healthy risks, and positive risk taking is associated with a whole host of positive traits. These include resilience, a sense of agency, great communication and a willingness to try new things.”

What role do you think fear plays in children’s literature and what can children learn from it? 

“There are lots of positives that can be drawn from the role of fear in children’s literature, these include engaging a moral conscience, so learning to take sides with the forces of good for example. Fear is something that we encounter in lots of situations, so understanding what it is and enabling a child to have a fear ‘compass’ is an equipping experience for a child.”

Do you think children can learn important life lessons from ‘bad’ or scary characters in children’s books? 

“Scary characters are great in helping children ‘hook’ into stories, being tucked up safely in bed, whilst vicariously experiencing a sense of manageable fear through the pages of a book, helps children self-regulate their anxiety.

Bad characters can also help children safely explore the dark side of humanity and in doing so helps teach them about their own strengths and weaknesses.

There are some clear life lessons that the negative characters help to translate. Fairy tales often offer main characters consequences when they fail to take advice, this can help children realise consequential thinking.”

Were there any literary characters that particularly scared you as a child and what lessons did you learn from them? 

“I used to get freaked out by the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff”, which sounds ridiculous. I love animals and am a vegetarian, so the idea that this big troll was just waiting to pounce on a goat really upset me. It didn’t matter how many times I read it, I always thought that one day the troll would get lucky and gobble one of the goats up. On reflection I can see that this related to not wanting anything bad to happen to my family and also the fact that I had a fair few wooden bridges that me and my friends used to play on seemed to bring the story to life for me.”

Is it a bad thing for parents to actively shelter their children from children’s books that may frighten them?

“Children will be exposed to fear in their lives and whilst it’s understandable that parents wish to shield their children from negative emotions, the truth is that it’s healthy to enable kids to have a wide emotional vocabulary.

Life isn’t always fair, people are not always kind and we lose people we love. This is all part of life and trying to protect children from these issues means they will have a rude awakening should the find themselves dealing with an unsavoury experience.”

Are there any signs to watch for when your child has become too fearful of a particular experience?

“Children are pretty capable of letting you know when they feel unhappy or scared and if they are asking you to stop reading then it’s best to do so. However in such a circumstance it is also healthy to promote a discussion about how they feel so that you can reassure them.

If your child starts having nightmares, or suddenly wants to sleep with the light on then it may be worth changing the book to one with a happier tone, returning to the scary story when they are feeling less spooked.”