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Things That Go 'Goosebumps' in the Night : Education: R.L. Stine's series of scary cliffhangers are driving youngsters wild. Despite some criticism, most teachers and parents are happy children are reading.

October 30, 1995|CATHERINE SAILLANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Ryan Grabow has read every one of the 37 scary stories that make up R.L. Stine's wildly popular Goosebumps series.

Not just read them, devoured them. That much was clear as the Port Hueneme fifth-grader easily answered trivia questions about the quirky plots and sinister characters that litter each of the youth-oriented books.

"What was the name of the haunted house in No. 36, 'The Haunted Mask II',' " asked Tim Pompey, recently leading a monthly Goosebumps fan club meeting at Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Ventura.

"The Carpenter Mansion," Ryan answered casually--his fifth correct answer--as other boys and girls threw their arms up--competing to shout out the right answers too.

The 10-year-old turned to one of the few adults in sight and stated the obvious: "I know almost everything about every book."

That kind of devotion is fueling a Goosebumpsmania that is sweeping classrooms across the nation and sparking the creation of Goosebump clubs, book fairs and swaps from Los Angeles to New York.

Talk to boys or girls between the ages of 8 and 12 and you'll probably find that Goosebumps is the hottest children's book series since the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew thrilled youngsters two generations ago.

Speak to a teacher and they confirm, often with a sigh, that Goosebumps books are about the only ones their most recalcitrant readers will finish. Parents say they're just glad their children are reading at all.

And booksellers are wild with the prospects of a Goosebumps No. 1,001. Stine, who is incredibly prolific, turns out a new book each month.

Other barometers of the books' phenomenal appeal abound: Fox Children's Network is launching a weekly, half-hour Goosebumps television series.

The network kicked off the show, based on Stine's books, with a one-hour prime-time special last week. Other marketing tie-ins include Goosebumps buttons, posters and backpacks.

And, in perhaps the most telling sign that Goosebumps has thoroughly penetrated the mainstream, a Goosebumps spoof is selling in bookstores: "Gooflumps," by "R.U. Slime."

But even as many adults give measured acceptance to the latest craze in children's books, some question whether students should be prodded toward more classic fare.

With their simple language, easy to understand plots and formula structure, Goosebumps may be luring some readers toward a future of junk-food literature, said Jody Shapiro, owner of Adventures for Kids bookstore in Ventura.

"We're really into thinking that kids should eat more than McDonald's hamburgers," said Shapiro, who stacks award-winning children's books next to piles of Goosebumps.

"We like to think after Goosebumps, or along with Goosebumps, is there something else we can challenge them with? If there life after Goosebumps?"

But champions of the series--and there are many--dismiss such hand-wringing as the overreaction of literary snobs. Margit Hoffman, whose 8-year-old son, Martin, often brings Goosebumps to read during free time at Glenwood School in Thousand Oaks, said the books are good, wholesome fun.

"At that age, they start reading a book, but you have to make them finish them," said Hoffman, a Thousand Oaks resident. "And these books really keep them motivated to read them through to the end."

Hoffman said she also likes it that none of the titles she has scanned include any "bad" words. Some of the plots seem to encourage positive values, such as taking care of a brother or listening to a parent, Hoffman said.

"It gives them some of that message too," she said.

The books have been building a national audience since July, 1992, when the first two editions were printed, said Bill Wright, a marketing spokesman for Scholastic Inc. publishers in New York.

Today there are more than 83 million copies in print, Wright said. And the books sell at a rate of 1.25 million a month, he said.

Stine, who lives in New York City with his wife and 15-year-old son, has carved a niche by offering adolescents an appealing mixture of humor, the macabre and the flat-out gross, said Judy Newman, Scholastic's vice president of marketing.

And the stories always respect the preteen mentality, she said. Consider this scene from "The Haunted Mask II," with protagonist Steve Boswell, a sixth-grader, and his best friend, Chuck Green:

"Chuck and I took bets on who could scare Carly Beth the most and who could make her scream. I guess it was kind of mean.

"But it was funny too. And sometimes when you know that people are real easy to scare, you have no choice. You have to scare them as often as you can."

The books' covers, with a blood-dripping Goosebumps title and pictures of skeletons, ghosts and melting heads, are an important part of the appeal, said Pam Chasse, principal of Glenwood School.

"The covers attract kids, even younger kids," Chasse said. The educator nonetheless hesitates when asked if she would let her own 4-year-old daughter read the books in the future.

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