Recently, I read Dave Eggers’ essay on the future of reading in Esquire. It’s an excellent essay, using statistics to show us that the future of reading is extremely positive.
This is an argument I’ve been making for nearly two decades now. After reading Eggers’ essay, I decided to post one of my R.L. Stine editorials from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
The essay is 13 years old. R.L. Stine is no longer the hottest writer for kids. He’s been supplanted by J.K. Rowling and nearly a dozen others. The statistics in this essay apply to 1995.
But the theory in here–getting kids excited about reading–encourages them to read in the future. That remains true.
Editorial (August, 1995)
Last week, I was scouting the aisles at the local Barnes and Noble when I heard a young boy’s voice speaking loudly.
“…and I wanna get the first one and the second one and the third one because I liked all of them that I got so far. Have you read any? They’re really good. And I’m going to collect all of them, every one of them, and I won’t lend them out because I did that once and the kid didn’t give them back….”
I crept around the Bargain Books until I reached the cash registers. There, a harried looking woman wrote a check while her young son clutched three R.L. Stine books to his chest. A stack of five R.L. Stine’s sat on the counter, and the boy kept touching them as he spoke. No one was really listening to him except me. He was clearly very excited, but his mother and the sales clerk were busy with the purchase.
“I bet R.L. Stine can afford to send his children to college,” the mother said as she handed the check to the sales clerk.
The sales clerk nodded. The boy asked again if he could have the remaining five books, and his mother explained the concept of lay away to him in a tone that showed she had explained this before. Then they left, the boy still nattering happily about all the R.L. Stine books he was going to collect.
I started toward the counter when a black, blue and white streak nearly knocked me over. Another little boy, about the same age as the first, stood on his tiptoes and slapped an R.L. Stine book on the counter. He handed the clerk a crumpled five dollar bill. As she gave him the change, she tried to engage him in conversation. But he said nothing; he was already reading as he ran out the door.
As I walked toward the counter, I remembered the last time I had seen a young boy and R.L. Stine books. A month before, I had been in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon (a city block of books!) and the boy ahead of me in line was balancing about fifty very thin books between his chin and his hands. His mother had her credit card out and was grinning as she said to the clerk, “I told him he could buy as many as he could carry.”
With that memory in mind, I decided to start an investigation into R.L. Stine. I don’t have children. I am often oblivious to the latest hot thing. I asked the sales clerk if I had just witnessed a fluke or a fad. She looked at me as if I had just climbed out of an isolation chamber.
“We ordered 76 copies of the latest in the Goosebumps Series,” she said, “and sold out in a week. We just got our reorder of 50 and those will be gone by tomorrow.”
Her statistics are not a fluke. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the Goosebumps series (which is aimed at the 9-12 year old age group) accounted for 13 of the 15 paperback front list spots on the children’s bestseller lists in 1994. (It also accounted for 13 of the 15 paperback backlist spots.) Since the series debuted in 1993, it has sold 13,880,000 copies (or over 500,000 copies per novel).
Children are reading. Goosebumps appeals to both boys and girls in the target age group, and for older children, Stine has another series called Fear Street. It’s not quite the same phenomenon — only 4 million copies sold to date — but the numbers are impressive enough to make R.L. Stine the hottest writer in America today. He’s hotter than John Grisham, Stephen King, and Danielle Steele.
But the important point is that R.L. Stine writes genre fiction. His genre happens to be the same as ours. His novels range from horror to dark fantasy to suspense.
The informative sales clerk also told me that “it’s too bad kids are reading Stine. They don’t learn anything from the books.”
I was intrigued enough by the children’s enthusiasm and by the clerk’s comments to buy a pile of R.L. Stine books myself. Last Saturday — a blustery rainy day — I had a cold (the annoying version that saps energy and makes me long for chicken soup). I figured I couldn’t get any closer to feeling like a kid (except, of course, when I do something exceedingly fun like cannon balls off a high dive), so I stretched out on the couch, pulled up a blanket, and read R.L. Stine.
I had several shocks. First, I enjoyed myself. The books read quickly and scared me in a number of places. Second, I found myself wanting to read more. And third, Stine did things I didn’t expect — he kidnapped parents (the kids rescued them, of course); he killed a dog (but it became a zombie so it was still mobile); he menaced kids at a deserted house (and let one teenager die!). The blood and violence were off-stage, however. The ghosts, zombies, phantoms and witches I encountered were tough and scary — and all defeated by the ingenuity of the protagonists. (Stine writes most of the novels in comfy first person to provide a subconscious reassurance that the narrator will live.)
I would give R.L. Stine novels to my children. True, the books are horror, but they contain fears I remember from my childhood. Welcome to Dead House, the first book in Goosebumps, deals with the terrors of moving to a new place. Missing, a Fear Street novel, focusses on parents who mysteriously disappear. The events in Phantom of the Auditorium, a recent Goosebumps novel, would never have happened if the grown-ups had listened to the kids. Stine is in touch and in tune with that child part of himself, and he explores it with gusto.
The endings are all upbeat: the kids get to move back to their old home; the parents get rescued by their children; and the poor phantom gets laid to rest. The books make kids examine the boogeymen hidden in the closet and then turn on the light as reassurance.
I spoke with a few parents and some children’s book writers about Stine. The parents complained about the cost of the books ($3.50 per month takes a bite out of the allowance), and the book writers complained that Stine’s novels make no sense. (In Welcome to Dead House, the zombies go around in the daytime in the front half of the book and at the end are killed because they cannot go out into the sunlight.) The parents are dealing with the money situation: lay away, making the children pay from their allowances, or having the child buy as many books as he can carry. The fact that parts of the novels make no sense should bother me on an editorial basis, but it doesn’t. The stories are rollicking good fun, scary in a non-threatening way, and different enough so that I didn’t feel as if I were reading the same book over and over again.
My concern comes from two places. First, the assumption of the sales clerk angered me. When she mentioned that children “don’t learn anything” from these books, I snapped at her (in a voice loud enough to turn the heads of nearby customers), “I think children learn a lot from Stine. They learn to enjoy reading.” She tried to argue with me that children should learn more than that until I reminded her that much of the population in this country is functionally illiterate. What children are reading matters less than the fact that they are reading and enjoying what they read. They will continue to read in adulthood, if they can continue to find books they like.
That’s where I come in. I have to find a way to lure these readers to F&SF. Not gear the contents toward children, but to have stories here that these Stine fans will like when they are ready to move on. My colleagues at the publishing houses and the other fiction magazines need to do the same.
Does that mean we should buy horror exclusively? Of course not. It means we have to remember that a rollicking good story is twice as important as learning something from the text. Fiction is about adventure, excitement, and exploring ourselves. R.L. Stine has captured those elements. It’s time we — the editors and writers — follow his lead.
Today someone asked me the last time I got excited about a series of books. I would have had trouble answering the question a week ago. I had no trouble now. As I answered the question, I found myself gushing like the little boy in Barnes and Noble — about R.L. Stine.