Anyone who thinks that Goosebumps, R.L. Stine's fantastically popular kids book series from the 1990s, is a thing of the past would have been disabused of that notion at this year's National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.
Fans lined up halfway across the National Mall for a chance to meet the Goosebumps creator. There were little kids, big kids, moms and dads — even a scattering of 20-somethings nostalgic for the books of their childhood. Everyone seemed to have a favorite scary story.
"One of the biggest ones for me was The Blob That Ate Everyone," said Julianna Eaton. "The ending was really comical. You read it and you just started cracking up ... he's crazy!"
An Unorthodox Writing Style
Stine may not be crazy but he is funny. He began his career as a humorist known as Jovial Bob Stine, and he still sees a close connection between humor and horror.
Ask him about everyone's favorite scary holiday — Halloween — and he tells a story about the time his parents went to buy him a costume for trick-or-treating:
"I really wanted to be something scary. I wanted to be a mummy or a ghost or a vampire. And they came home and I opened up the box and it was a duck costume. With a fuzzy yellow tail."
The duck costume may not have been appreciated at the time, but Stine later incorporated it into his Halloween Goosebumps book, The Haunted Mask.
Stine's writing process is a little different from most authors; he says he begins with the title and figures out the rest from there. If he can't think of a title for a story he has in mind, he says, "I just throw away the idea."
It may sound unorthodox, but Stine gets a lot from his titles.
"I was walking the dog in the park and this title popped in my head: Say Cheese and Die!" he says. "There it was — a title — and it had to be something about an evil camera, right?"
Laughing Through Fear
Children's book expert Anita Silvey says that the key to Stine's appeal is his genius for combining humor and horror, because kids love to be scared — just not too scared.
"These books allow [kids] ... to walk through the fear," says Silvey. "And if it gets to be too much, to put it down and go get a peanut butter sandwich and be perfectly OK."
When the Goosebumps books were in their heyday, some adults disapproved. They thought they were too scary, or complained the books were formulaic and not well written. Here and there a school or library tried to ban the series.
"They were really afraid of what effect [the Goosebumps books] might have on children. And the only effect they seem to have had is they got them reading and they kept them reading," says Silvey. "To be able to get children to finish one of your books and then pick up another, that's what every author wants."
'Just Very Lucky'
Stine takes great pride in his reputation for getting kids excited about reading. He says he is constantly meeting grateful parents:
"Parents come up now and say, 'My kid never read a book in his life, and last night I caught him reading with a flashlight under the blankets,'" says Stine. "I am very proud of that."
The author thinks kids are reading more than ever now and his publisher, Scholastic, certainly hopes he's right. Scholastic also published the Harry Potter series, and with no new Potter book in sight, revenues are down sharply and the company is cutting back.
Scholastic hopes that magic will strike again with Stine's new Goosebumps HorrorLand series. As for Stine, he's just happy to be doing what he loves — and what his fans want.
"It's very exciting for me to be back doing it. ... Somehow the Goosebumps audience never really went away. ... It was a world-wide craze, and that can never last. But the books have sold all this time even when there were no new ones coming out," says Stine. "I'm just very lucky."
As for the kids who are reading his books, Stine says, despite all the emphasis on technology, he doesn't think they've changed much. They still like a good scare. And they still like to laugh.