Do modern children's books shelter youngsters too much? There is a place for
puppies and bunnies, for Bob the Builder
and Thomas the Tank Engine
, and maybe even for the Care Bears
. After all, perseverance and kindness are important life lessons. But surely there's still a place for the gruesome fairytales with wicked witches and hungry wolves, as well as matter-of-fact children's books that pull no punches and don't water down life. Literarily speaking, have we gone too soft?
I remember reading as a small child about Laura Ingalls (Wilder - creator of the Little House
series, about growing up in a 19th-century American pioneer family - readers may remember the television series based on the same, which ran 1974-1983 and starred Michael Landon) and her sister Mary inflating a pig's bladder like a balloon on slaughter day, and having a grand time playing with it in Little House in the Big Woods
. I also recall the graphic, frank descriptions of the pig being killed and drained, having its bristly whiskers scraped off, and then having its body rendered in an enormous cauldron of boiling water, while its head was chopped up for headcheese.
Even as a child who loved animals, I recognized there was no cruelty in this. The pig was killed quickly - for food, for fat, for life. I understood the connection between that pig and my dinner, and while it seemed a bit unfair and sad, the passages in the book were explained frankly, and to my young mind, were simple fact.
Look at books like William Golding's Lord of the Flies
and Barry Hines' A Kestrel for a Knave.
In Lord of the Flies
, children are pitted against each other in the most horrific and violent of circumstances, and two are killed. And A Kestrel for a Knave
is basically one day in the life of a young, working-class boy whose life is so bleak, hopeless and relentless that it rises up and snuffs out the one spark of joy that accidentally flies into it, leaving him in abject misery once more. From the savage to the wretched, both books depict very adult, advanced concepts and situations, yet both were assigned as reading for high school classes for decades. Were children disturbed and haunted as a result?
Another story that didn't make me bat an eyelash was Little Red Riding Hood
. These days, there are countless versions. The best known the Brothers Grimm
version, in which a little girl is accosted in the woods by a wolf on the way to bring food to her sick grandmother. Upon learning Red's destination, the wolf races ahead, consumes Grandma in one swallow, disguises himself in her clothes, and waits for Red. When Red arrives, the wolf swallows her, as well. However, there is a happy ending (not for the wolf) when a passing woodsman chops open the wolf, releasing both Little Red and Grandma unharmed.
Little Red Riding Hood
is hundreds and hundreds of years old. Variants of the story have been traced back as early as the 15th century. To a modern child like myself, the idea of walking alone through a forest, let alone a dark, dangerous forest teeming with wolves, was positively thrilling. More importantly, it was completely foreign and fictional.
The stories also held real value. Little Red Riding Hood
cautions against trusting strangers with personal information. The Red Shoes
, a gruesome tale by Hans Christian Andersen, sees a little girl trick her adoptive mother into buying her expensive red shoes. She is punished for her vanity when the shoes turn out to be cursed, and won't allow her to stop dancing or remove the shoes. She eventually begs an executioner to chop her feet off, and he complies. Grim, but it teaches the lesson of valuing loved ones over possessions.
Author Alexander McCall Smith
shared an anecdote in our interview with him: "I remember the Struwwelpeter
stories. Struwwelpeter translates as Shock-haired Peter and the tales were designed to stop children misbehaving. One of them, the Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb
, was all about a boy who sucked his thumb and gets his thumbs cut off by a tailor. I once visited some friends, who had an eight-year-old who sucked his thumb to the extent that he needed orthodontic work and I told that story to him – the boy froze, petrified, and never sucked his thumb again."
Children, I believe, are brighter, more observant, and more intuitive than many adults give them credit for. Children who are loved, taught, and read to, who are encouraged to be inquisitive, understand the difference between right and wrong, between reality from make-believe. They perceive lessons and symbols. They comprehend that while two nasty old biddies being squashed flat in a story book (as in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach)
is a funny example of just desserts, death in reality is a very big deal, and permanent.
The difference between reality and stories isn't lost on children. While I might have been on the edge of my seat (bed) while reading Little Red Riding Hood,
the story neither gave me a phobia of wolves nor a mistaken belief in the regurgitation of animals unharmed. My brain, even at age five or six, knew real from pretend.
I understand the desire to protect innocence and keep a child from unpleasantness. But is leading a child to believe that all is lovely and fluffy and safe and friendly fair? Does it give them an adequate picture of the world, or is it setting them up for a rude awakening when they get out on their own? It seems to me the best policy is to be honest and frank.
And what about the relish of a good gruesome read? When I was little I positively delighted in the dark and macabre, loved the squishy, dark, scary places, provided I knew when I closed the book I was tucked in and safe. And I always knew when I was being condescended to, and appreciated when I wasn't. Part of the fun of childhood, as well as reading, is in using our imagination - and not just one side of it.
Here's to the children's books that pull no punches, that tell it like it is, that realize gruesome guts and growing up are part of being a kid.