How it helps
How does The Story of The Dark incorporate many years of research on childhood nighttime fears, as well as learning to read, into its story? Hopefully without anyone noticing!
Listed below are some of the hidden features in The Story of The Dark that may help reduce fears:
- Utilizing the Imagination –Research has shown that younger children are better able to deal with fear if they imagine the feared object in a playful or non-threatening way. Nighttime fears are related to the brain’s development of an imagination, so children with these fears are also very adept at using their imagination. Imagining The Dark as a shy, thoughtful, grandfatherly type entity in this book is easy for kids to do, and it helps change their perspective of the dark from scary to non-scary.
- Raising Awareness –Although nighttime fears are very common in children, most parents are not aware of this potential problem. It’s not the parents’ fault. Very little has been done to educate parents about nighttime fears. Without awareness, there is little hope of improvement. But with awareness comes the option of making things better. Research has shown this to be true in the specific case of childhood fears—as if anyone really needed proof of common sense!
- Play Therapy –OK, so most of us are not trained specialists in play therapy, but just observing and interacting with kids while they are playing is a big part of play therapy. Reading this book with your children encourages discussion about their fears and the dark. Ask them questions like “What would you do if you were Ben/Mia?” “What does it feel like when you are in the dark?” “What do you think they are feeling right now?” etc. Simply interacting with them allows them to process the information and then learn from it—and from you. These are vital parts of play therapy and of normal child development.
- Imagery Rehearsal –This is very successfully used in nightmare treatment and other therapies and is similar to using a child’s imagination to change his/her perspective. In this book, the image of the dark is not the only thing that is reimagined. Sure things look bad when the children are stuck in the hole and some creature is in there with them! But the entire rest of the story is reimagined from one that is scary to one that is fun. As such, this story is a model for imagery rehearsal. This is what imagery rehearsal is all about. If you don’t like the way the story ends, then change it to something you do like and rehearse the new ending. This method can actually change the way people think about scary things.
- Learning About Fear –The simple act of learning more about a fear very often reduces the fear and has been a part of severe fear and phobia treatment for many years. In this book, the children become afraid twice, and each time, after learning more and asking questions, the fear is reduced. This is a model not just for fear of the dark but for nearly all fears we may encounter in life.
- Repetition –A picture book is typically read multiple times (just ask any parent!). Obviously, repetition is a large part of human learning. It is also a prominent part of reducing fears.
- Desensitization –Progressive desensitization or graded exposure are similar components of the most common and longstanding treatment for fears: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In essence, the item that triggers fear is gradually introduced to the person who is afraid, and in this stepwise fashion even very severe fears can be overcome. In this book, younger children (ages 3-6 or so) pay more attention to the fantasy, imaginative and fun adventure parts of the story first. Then, as they mature, they progressively become more aware of the scarier parts. Another desensitization feature is that the story is usually read to them with the parent or caregiver present at first (i.e.,safe),and gradually they begin to read it alone (i.e.,less safe). Lastly, the parent can progressively turn down the lights with successive readings. Eventually the child is comfortably reading, by themselves, about something they once feared. Perhaps even with a flashlight in the dark!
- Control –Experts have discussed the importance of control in child development for many years, and it does relate to fears and fear treatment. In this book, control is quickly shifted to Mia and Ben in their first encounter with The Dark to make the event less scary. The Dark is shy and is easily hurt by being teased about its name. The children are the ones who ask him to return and tell them more. They are now in control and are more comfortable moving forward and learning about The Dark.
- Sleep Hygiene –Sleep hygiene recommendations have been a mainstay of sleep medicine treatment for decades. Things like having a regular wind-down routine 20-30 minutes before bedtime (like reading this bedtime story), having a regular bedtime (child likes having this book read and looks forward to a consistent bedtime instead of resisting and prolonging bedtime), and having a dark bedroom to sleep in (this book helps kids be more comfortable with sleeping in the dark) are high on the list of good sleep habits for kids because they have been proven to improve sleep. Being physically close while reading can also help with separation anxiety, which may in turn lessen nighttime fears.
- Knowing They’re Not Alone –Children may feel embarrassed about their fear of the dark, think they are the only ones with it, and therefore deny its presence. This can prolong or worsen fears. Observing the characters in this story being afraid of the dark, and then learning from you (the parent or caregiver) how common it is for other children to be afraid of the dark, can help your child accept and process his/her own fear, rather than repressing it.
- Modeling –the children in this story successfully make the transition from being afraid to not being afraid. Modeling and observing others’ methods of success in the face of a challenge is a common way humans get the knowledge and courage to overcome fear.
- Developmental Maturation –The brain of a child age 4-11 is making a transition from fantasy and imagination-based thinking to more concrete, logical, and reality-based thinking. This process is particularly prone to spawning fears. At first it’s related to ‘any bad thing can happen’ (fantasy), and later on it’s related to ‘bad things do happen’ (logic). There is also overlap in between the two, when both are happening! This book helps children process their fear of the dark during this transition. Mental processing of something or thinking/talking/drawing or acting it out is an important part of fear and trauma treatment. During the transition, kids may go back and forth, as if their brains are trying to work it all out. You might hear them make statements that are also questions, such as, “The Dark isn’t real. . . right?”
Again, one of the most popular children’s book series of all time (selling 300 million copies worldwide) is the mild to moderately scary ‘Goosebumps’ books by R. L. Stine. It’s as if kids are drawn to things that help them work through this developmental challenge.
Perhaps Disney and Pixar Studios also tapped into this notion with their hugely successful Monsters Inc. and Monsters University movies for kids. And of course there’s Scooby-Doo, which started its comedy-adventure horror animation series in 1969 and is still on TV today.
Approaching childhood fears in an appropriately playful way is backed by research—and apparently by popular demand.
The last bit of hidden science in this picture book is its use of color. By avoiding certain colors, this book was specifically designed to help reduce the chance of shifting a child’s sleep patterns (circadian rhythms). We especially avoided bright blue colors with wavelengths in the 480nm range which tend to shift sleep patterns more strongly - see the square shaped example at bottom of this page, and compare that to the rectangle shaped example showing the dusky violet and slate blues used instead in the book). Also, bright-white text pages can send an alerting signal to the master body clock (suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain) and cause wakefulness, so these fade out as the story progresses.
All of these elements of scientific research and clinical practice are behind this story, but there’s no need to tell your kids! The goal has always been to make this a fun story, first and foremost.
Learning to Read
Now, onto how The Story of The Dark can promote learning to read. There are quite a few theories about how children learn to read, rather than just one, which strongly suggests science doesn’t fully understand this complex area either! However, there are some substantial common threads running through these theories, which strongly suggests science has discovered much of the truth.
Learning to read is like learning a treasure map, and if you can decode the symbols (words) by understanding their pieces (alphabet, etc), their sounds (phonemes) and their meanings (morphemes), you will find bountiful treasure (truly life long and incalculable benefits that result from learning to read)!
Here are the elements many experts agree are vital in learning to read during childhood that have also been purposefully woven into this story:
- Reading Aloud and A Lot –This is very likely the most important element in learning to read that we have discovered so far. Reading aloud to children, and doing it a lot, is an excellent way to develop phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. All forms of human learning benefit from repetition, and this is especially true of complex cognitive tasks like learning to read. By reading aloud and a lot, you are also clearly showing children through your actions that reading is important. The Story of The Dark was written with this firmly in mind so as to be enjoyable to read aloud and a lot.
- Reading Something Interesting and Interactive –If either the child or the parent/caregiver are not interested and engaged in the subject matter, they will be much less likely to read (see the benefits of #1 above)! It’s also common knowledge that the human brain learns much faster and retains more of that information if the subject matter is more interesting or important. This book was written specifically to engage a child’s interest (action, characters, imagination, pacing, illustrations, etc) while also incorporating places to pause and interact with a child (often during a page turn). Questions and discussion help reading comprehension, vocabulary, memory, and of course strengthen the connection between written and spoken language, all of which are vital to learning to read.
- Reading at Various Levels –Children are exquisite learning machines. The one consistent thing we keep learning about children is that they are smarter than we thought! We do know that learning is not accomplished in a straight line. Instead, it advances sometimes in unexplainable leaps, and then other times regresses to earlier stages and repeats the process over again. The Story of The Dark was written well knowing these concepts. Various levels were purposly woven into this book so that the child’s brain can choose how and what it wants to learn from the story on any given day. Sentence length and structure, word complexity, and even word breaks and punctuation were varied but also repeated through the story. This approach also allows for a wider age range of children readers. Fear of the dark frequently occurs between age 4-7 but can easily stretch well beyond that. Children in this age range are often spanning several reading developmental stages. This book, by intention, was written at various levels with the hope of being engaging to the most brains possible!
So you can see, there happen to be elements of scientific research and clinical practice hidden in this story, but good heavens don’t tell your kids! Our goal has always been to make this a fun story–first and foremost.
© 2020 by Roger S. Smith
Digital Version: Simply insert "The Story of The Dark, Roger Smith" into the search box in the Apple iBooks Store (by opening the iBooks icon on your Apple device) or at Amazon.com (for the Kindle Fire version).
Print Version: on Amazon.com and/or Blurb.com.