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South Valley Riverton Journal

Author Josh Allen helps students navigate feelings of anxiety using horror stories

Mar 08, 2023 03:30PM ● By Morgan Olsen

Oquirrh Hills Middle School principal Donna Hunter poses with author Josh Allen. (Donna Hunter/Oquirrh Hills Middle School)

Author Josh Allen visited Oquirrh Hills Middle School Jan. 30 to promote literacy and mental health awareness. The school’s librarian, Paula Butterfield, attended a literacy conference last year where she heard Allen speak and invited him to come speak to the students at her school. 

“We liked his message because he talks about how reading age-appropriate horror stories is good for children and teens as it helps them practice coping with their anxiety,” Butterfield said. “Lots of kids and teens struggle with anxiety, so we felt like it was an important topic to have him speak on.”

Allen is an Oquirrh Hills Middle School alumni and attended the school during sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. 

“I attended Oquirrh Hills Middle School for four years,” Allen said. “It used to just be sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, but while I was in seventh grade they changed it to include just seventh through ninth grade, so I got to be there for four years. It was great going back as an adult.”

Allen is an author who writes short horror stories. He frequently speaks at schools, spreading messages of literacy and the importance of learning how to cope with anxiety. 

“Kids today live in a big scary world,” Allen said. “They have witnessed a lot, and it’s easy to be afraid. One reason I invite kids to read horror stories is because horror stories give us an avenue to practice navigating fear, anxiety and stress. When we read these stories, we do so in a safe space, but our brains work on navigating those emotions. More and more research is demonstrating that reading appropriate horror helps kids navigate those emotions they need to develop to live a successful life.”

During his presentation, Allen also focused on helping kids learn how to unapologetically embrace who they are. He does this through telling his own story of embracing who he is and what he does, regardless of what others may think.

“One thing I’m trying to help kids understand is that they should have the confidence to be themselves,” Allen said. “I’m 48 years old and I write horror stories for children. That’s kind of a weird, out-there thing. I think it’s good for kids to meet someone who does their own unique thing and embraces who they are without apology.”

Growing up, Allen loved the idea of being a writer. He studied writing in college and is now a professor of creative writing and literature at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

“I always wanted to be a writer,” he said. “I fell in love with stories and books at a pretty young age. I loved the library at Southland Elementary School in Riverton. I would spend lunch hours, recess and after school browsing the shelves looking for the next book to fall in love with. I always wanted to tell my own stories, so I ended up studying writing in college, and I published my first book about four years ago.”

Allen finds great joy in the power of connection that comes with being a children’s author who writes horror stories.

“My favorite part of being an author is getting to connect with young people,” Allen said. “The ability to use stories as a way to bond and connect with other human beings is one of the most satisfying things about my life. To be able to take these things we love and hate and use them as a way to connect and bond with other people and to learn that we are not alone is the most satisfying thing about being an author.”

Butterfield said the students enjoyed Allen’s presentation and are anxious to read his books.

“We bought 10 autographed copies of Josh’s books to give away to our students,” Butterfield. “It’s a lot of boys that are coming to sign up for the free book, which is encouraging. He read a story from his books during his presentation and, during this time, the kids were quiet and captivated. Kids still like to be read to and that was fun to see.”

Literacy is an important principle Butterfield believes in promoting as she runs the Oquirrh Hills Middle School library.

“We want to promote literacy in any way that we can,” she said. “We want kids to be interested in books. We have contests where students can come in and earn prizes for reading different genres. We do things like scavenger hunts and games to get kids into the library where they can see it’s a comfortable place. We like to make it a safe space, not an overwhelming space.”

Butterfield wants her students to embrace literacy now in order to set them up for success in their future educational endeavors.

“If they don’t learn to love reading in middle school they’re really going to struggle in high school,” Butterfield said. “In middle school we’re still kind of spoon feeding them a little bit, but as kids progress to high school, that’s the expectation. Reading encompasses so many different subjects in school that if they don’t get that foundation they will struggle in the future.”

Allen’s philosophy on reading is that students will learn to love it and, if they don’t, they just haven’t found the right book to read yet.

“Kids can sometimes forget when they’re in school that reading and writing are supposed to be fun,” Allen said. “One thing I like to do is validate to kids the kind of reading they enjoy. There’s a book out there for everyone. It might not be the books you’re assigned in English class, but that’s okay. Those books are out there, and you can find them.”

Allen believes that self-acceptance is one of the most important things young people can learn from his experiences and his writing. 

“I like to help kids understand you can be who you are,” he said. “I’ve had to learn that I don’t have to change who I am because somebody doesn’t like me. The same is true with them. Whoever they are, I want them to know they can be themselves unapologetically. They don’t have to change who they are to try and make themselves more likable. They need to embrace themselves.”