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Don’t be scared!

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By Emily Gravettaward-winning author and illustrator

As her book Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears scoops the prestigious Greenaway award, Emily Gravett talks about her own fears and phobias

As a child I think I had most of the usual childhood fears. I was scared of the dark; of being left on my own; and of my sister – she used to bite me! I was also scared of a witch I was convinced was living in our airing cupboard. I still have a strange memory of a green hand appearing around the cupboard door. It scared me stupid!

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I think that in a way I was lucky. I was scared of plenty of things, real and imaginary, but I wasn’t so scared of any one thing that it overshadowed my life. Nevertheless, I carried fears into my adult life, albeit manifested into different forms. I didn’t give childhood fears much more thought until I had my own daughter and realised that my fear was rubbing off on her and the time had come to face it.

Fear factor

My daughter, Oleander, was fascinated by fear. At two-and-a-half years old, her favourite pastime was gazing at the pages in the child-rearing book supplied by the health visitor, about keeping your child safe from danger. She used to study the pictures of sharp knives, bottles of bleach, hot pans, pills and so on, with something bordering on obsession. She skirted the cupboard where cleaning chemicals were kept, and never went near the wall sockets. These were all quite useful fears, but fairly worrying in their intensity.

Facing fears

I used a variety of methods to help Oleander overcome, or at the very least deal with, her fears. I think it is empowering for a child to know that they can wield some degree of resistance over their fear, which is perhaps even more important than conquering it completely, as some fears are there for good reasons. Each child is very different and will deal with their feelings in their own way, so it may take time to find solutions that work for each fear. Oleander was terrified of the lion in the Teletubbies, so my mother sent her a toy lion, which I dutifully explained would protect her from the Teletubbies lion. She named him Friendly, and I felt very smug about ‘solving’ her fear… until the next time she saw the Teletubbies lion on the television. She did benefit from the company however – Friendly was scared too, and somehow that relieved the tension. By far the most effective thing I found, not just for overcoming fears, but any kind of childhood problem, was reading picture books to Oleander. I think that externalising the problem on to a book character took some of the heat out of the situation. She was able to discuss, for example, Eddy’s fear of losing a toy in Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough (Walker Books), more easily than when talking about herself. I extended this into making up stories, complete with illustrations, which bridged the gap between the characters and her own worries.

It didn’t solve all of her fears, and to be honest I wouldn’t have wanted it to. Children are attracted to fear, it gives them a thrill in the same way that watching horror movies does for adults.

I think that feeling fear and learning how to cope with it is part of growing up, but it is important to know that you have a measure of control and you should not let it rule your life!

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