Posted by: Kerry Gans | July 20, 2010

Darkness in Children’s Literature

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” — G.K. Chesterton

 I saw this quote posted on a friend’s Facebook status, and fell in love with it. There are some people who believe that children’s books should not deal with darkness. Nothing should be scary, and no serious topics dealt with. Everything should be comforting, light and happy.

 How boring.

 Yes, some children cannot handle scary things in books, and maybe a literary diet with more sunshine and roses is best for them. But books are a way for kids to put words to their feelings of fear and to learn to vanquish that fear. After all, if a child is scared to death of a book, how will that child deal with the scary things in real life?

 Children are not blind, nor are they stupid. They see the same awful things in this world as we do, no matter how hard we try to protect them. Children, however, often lack the tools to process and deal with the evil in the world. Heck, sometimes even adults lack those tools! Many children’s books, fairy tales in particular, face the evil and show that it can be abolished. Good can triumph. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, just to name two successful series, prove that kids are open to reading about the dark side of life, and cheer for protagonists who can beat the darkness back. It helps empower children, to have them see children win out against evil done by adults.

 Not allowing children’s literature to explore the darkness in our world does a disservice to children. Yes, here there be dragons. But here also be dragon slayers.

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Responses

  1. Kerry, I too love this opening quote. Real high-stakes danger puts life’s stumbling blocks into perspective. Who wants to read books about bleeding hangnails and cold oatmeal? Kids who face real-life trials–or who face them vicariously in the books they read–have an advantage over kids with sheltered lives: they learn courage, resourcefulness, and resiliency while their adaptive powers are at their height. Great post!

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  2. I agree. Children need to know that they are not powerless to effect change. Indeed, this is a lesson we should all be reminded of, over and over again.

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  3. Hi, Kerry,

    I think it’s up to parents, especially of very young children, to decide what they should read in books or see at the theater. When children are real young, say 4 or 5, scary stories may give them nightmares. But, by the time they’re 10 or 11, they have usually seen scarier stories on the 6 O’clock news.

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  4. As you all pointed out, books are a great way for kids to work through fears in a safe environment. And they can go at their own pace. If something is too scary for them, they can put it away until they’re ready to face it.

    And, Rich, I 100% agree with you that it’s up to the parents to know what their child can handle and decide on content accordingly.

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  5. Great post! I enjoyed reading it.

    Like you, I think kid lit should be rather dark. Life can be dark. In fact, Life is FREQUENTLY dark. Better that kids know that upfront. Authors shouldn’t try to beat them over the head with that information (there ARE limits), but pulling your punches serves no one.

    I think parents who would find this idea offensive are likely to be the kids of parents who tend to shelter their children in all areas of their lives. But those people need to understand — there is a difference between PROTECTING your children, and SHELTERING your children. Too often, I think parents don’t quite “get” the difference.

    BTW, another great kids series you didn’t mention that is utterly fantastic AND dark is the “His Dark Materials” series by Philip Pullman.

    Anyway, great post! I will be reading more of your stuff in the future…

    Bob

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  6. Bob – Thanks for commenting! And, yes, the Pullman series is another great example. I only read The Golden Compass, but the rest are on my t-read list (which never seems to get shorter!).

    I agree that hiding dark stuff from kids serves no one, but I do think there is room in kid lit for the happy-go-lucky, non-dark stuff, too. It’s good to have the choice. Because sometimes even kids want to read to escape from the dark stuff in real life!

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  7. I don’t think it’s a right or a wrong, thing, Kerry. I just think that kids crave to learn about the shadow side, whether it’s in dreams or play or stories. The shadow side is part of life, and I think stories are the only form complex enough to convey it.

    My sister was a gentle, non-violent mom, and she vowed never to get her son any war toys. She told me in amazement that he could turn almost any object into a play weapon, and he grew up wanting to join the marines. (He never did.)

    So I guess you can try to weed darkness out of kids stories but it won’t work. And I guess more important for a writer, it probably won’t sell.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

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  8. Jerry – I think you reinforce Chesterton’s point beautifully. Kids are aware of the shadow side of life. What they are in need of is a way to process it and put it in perspective — and that is something books can help them to do.

    Kerry

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  9. […] but dark topics and themes have their place. I have always contended that dark lit is not only appropriate, but […]

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