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October 25, 2011

R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps

by admin

Contributor: Priyanka Thupili

Like many children, my first reading experiences were dominated by illustrations plastered across pages and the captions that accompanied them. As a four-year-old, I relished flipping through pages and wreaking havoc upon them with the scribbles of crayons and whatever instruments I had access to at the time.

Not too long afterwards, I progressed to books with fewer pictures, if any. Once I turned six, I was rather proud of the fact that I was now civilized enough to stop scribbling in books. Apparently, so were my parents; this was around the time my mother introduced me to the local public library. We had established the habit of a weekly excursion to this oddly quiet place, and as I learned to read faster, I grabbed more and more books. When I was a six-year-old, the first few of these books that legitimately had me hooked were from R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series. The original series was introduced in 1992 and had expanded to include over sixty-two titles by the end of 1997.[1] I can’t say I got around to reading all of them, but for the most part, the books had a rather formulaic plot filled with “cliffhangers” to end chapters that were resolved within the next. This was usually done with stereotypical, overly predictable scares and a bit of humor. R.L. Stine departed from the traditional notion of happy ending; most of them were somewhat offbeat. For example, “The Haunted School” details the story of two kids who manage to find themselves in a colorless world filled with missing children, find their way back, and possibly end right back from where they escaped. However, there was always something spine tingling about the books; the covers piqued my curiosity, and there was kid-friendly suspense aplenty, so I was always eager to turn the page until none were left.

As I began to immerse myself in the books I was reading, my mother worried about what exactly had me hooked onto this childish horror series. No normal child, no normal girl, would find a fantasy horror series compelling, right? I was completely unaware of her concern until she forbade me from reading the books, telling me that my younger brother had nightmares after looking at the cover of one of them. Besides the annoying stream of “why” that most parents eventually get accustomed to, my mother didn’t have to put up with much of my anguish after she led me to the older kids’ section. It’s kind of hard to depress a seven-year-old when you essentially promote her to an older age group.

In a children’s culture dominated by television shows, simplistic cartoons, and flamboyant characters to monitor and censor, critics don’t often focus on books. However, even children’s books have had their time to shine in the spotlight of focused critics and parents. Looking back, I know that my mother wasn’t the only parent concerned about the Goosebumps series. Her worries were echoed by other parents at the time and in years previous. As Margaret Byron, a parent who sought to have a few of the books removed from her child’s school library, said in 1997, “I started asking around… [and] found a lot of parents who were alarmed that these books were scaring their kids.”[2] Between 1994 and January 1997, Stine’s series received fourteen challenges mostly due to the “horror nature” of the books.[3] The rest of the decade propelled the series to ‘Number 15’ on the American Library Association’s list of “100 most frequently challenged books: 1900-1999.”[4] While Stine and the “Goosebumps” series avoided appearing near the top of the list, it was still on the ALA’s “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009.[5]

The Goosebumps hype has been fading since the advent of the twenty-first century, and the rise of Potter-mania, but its legacy remains a potent phenomenon. The reasons for this are probably as plentiful as the criticisms leveled at the series, but a few basic grounds of analysis seem to be unavoidable. For instance, Heidi Mesmer, a former third grade teacher, analyzed several approaches to “Goosebumps” and found that “to a reader encountering her first chapter book, Stine’s irresistible, suspenseful plots serve as a scaffold from picture books to chapter books… Stine’s plots also scaffold the reading experience through predictability.”[6] While Mesmer acknowledges the series’ potential as a literacy aid, Agnes Niewenhuizen, author of ‘More Good Books for Teenagers,’ compares such reading to junk food: “A bit of junk food doesn’t do you any harm—but if it is all you eat, you lose your taste buds… What made us become discerning readers is that we went on to other things.”[7] There is something to be said for this ease of transition into childhood literacy. The problem is extending beyond it; Goosebumps provided a foundation for the horror genre, which has a steady progression in the levels of horror. Therein lies the problem that has so many people concerned. “Goosebumps” is a franchise in its own right, to be sure, but it also serves as a gateway. R.L. Stine had a “Fear Street” series for older readers, and after that were the more violent and explicit novels of Christopher Pike and Stephen King.

This progression within the genre was something I know my mother feared; her idea of horror, the violent, sexually charged version that the world at large seems accustomed to, was an ideal she superimposed upon that particular branch of my childhood reading. Perhaps the abrupt jump into the world of Harry Potter may have been a good thing after all. For a child reader, a fixation on magic and a typical “good will triumph over evil” plot made for a much more optimistic outlook, and therefore were definitely more suitable than a fixation on horror and the not so happy-endings of Goosebumps.

[1] Christine Anne Piesyk, “Banned Books: R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series,” Business & Heritage Clarksville, September 6, 2010,

[2] William Souder, “Raising the Specter of Censorship; Opposing Children’s Thrillers in School Becomes Nightmare for Parent,” The Washington Post, January 22, 1997, sec. A.

[3] Tamara Henry, “‘Goosebumps’ Series Scares Up More School Controversy,” USA Today, January 29, 1997, sec. Life.

[4] “ALA | 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990-1999,” ALA, C 2011,

[5] “ALA | Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009,” ALA, C 2011,

[6] Heidi Anne Mesmer, “Goosebumps: The Appeal of Predictability and Violence,” The New Advocate 11, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 107 – 118.

[7] Mark Scott, “Hooked on Horror,” Sydney Morning Herald (Australia, October 2, 1995), sec. News and Features; Agenda.

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