I remember a Ladybird book I used to have as a kid – standard nursery fare, featuring three little pigs and a big bad wolf. Only in this version of the tale, the pigs outsmarted the wolf by filling his stomach with stones while he was sleeping. This involved some unlikely porcine surgery and low cunning. The wolf staggered up to find himself grotesquely pear-shaped with a line of stitches down his distended stomach. I always used to skip the page where he’s staggering about, tongue lolling out, eyes bloodshot: it used the scare the pants off me. How could they (They being “The Adults“) allow this kind of horror in a book for children? I remember thinking to myself.
It’s a question that my son has repeated many a time. “Too violent,” he says, turning off the TV sound, or “too scary!” closing his eyes as a particularly gruesome alien monster appears on Doctor Who. Children, it would seem, have a fairly well developed sense of what they can cope with at different stages of their life.
The hottest debates in children’s literature these days seem to be focused on the slew of dark, depressing, dangerous or downright horrific books that seem to colonise the young adult section of bookstores. If it’s not children living through the holocaust (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) or being struck down by cancer (The Fault in Our Stars) or being impregnated by the Undead (Twilight), it’s racism (Noughts and Crosses), bullying, or post-apocalyptic survival (The Hunger Games). A recent list on the Guardian website lists their top ten recent teen books, featuring books about mental illness, (It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini), homophobia (The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth); bullying and child abuse (Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell), and two about teenage suicide (Jay Asher’s blockbuster Thirteen Reasons Why, and Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford). Should we be worried that kids these days are growing up on such “dark fare”? At what point are they ready to be told of illness, of danger, of sex, of death and destruction? What subjects are appropriate for children, and at what age? The conundrum is beautifully summed up in the title of Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier’s book Zombies vs. Unicorns. I know which side my vote is on, and it ain’t with the fluffy, pastel rainbow-farts. After all, the area of the map that exerts the greatest imaginative pull for any seafarer is the uncharted territory marked simply, “Here be Monsters”. A warning? Or an invitation?
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of one small boy’s journey through his own heart of darkness and back again, resonates as strongly with children today as it did when it was first published in 1963. The term comes from the Yiddish expression vilde chaya, “wild animals”, used to refer to boisterous children. Banished, supperless, to his bedroom for his tantrums and bad behaviour Max finds himself transported off to an island inhabited by monsters – bigger, badder, scarier than he – who he befriends and subdues. They accept him as their king, and he returns to his own bedroom where he finds his supper, hot and waiting for him. A parable about making peace with your inner monsters, about anger management, and the seesaw between wildness and danger to comfort and home, lies at the heart of this extraordinary book. The wonderful thing is that at the end, you know that the monsters have not been vanquished or killed – they are still very much there, waiting on the shore.
For Sendak, as for so many of the great creators of children’s tales, children are not simply “mini-adults” – shorter, less qualified, not-quite-cooked versions of ourselves. There is something wonderfully “other” about children. Neil Gaiman, the grand vizier of dark tales for today’s young readers, summed it up beautifully in his description of Marcus, a character in Anansi Boys: “he is four and a half and possesses that deep gravity and seriousness that only small children and mountain gorillas have ever been able to master.”
The best children’s books, and the most compelling tales, are those where the wildness and the danger coexist with the comfort and the security. It is, of course, a recurrent motif: there’s no point having a hero (or heroine) if you don’t have dragons for him or her to slay. At the end of one particularly excellent episode of Doctor Who, “Love and Monsters”, the narrator, Elton Pope, sums up his experience of meeting the Doctor in a heartfelt to-the-camera moment: “When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker… and so much madder… and so… much… better.” So should we shield our children from the monsters and the darkness? Or should we kit them out with the magical shield, the sword of power, and a pair of strap-on rocket thrusters and shove them into the fray? How much should we trust their emotional intelligence to make sense of the moral maze?
As ever, in children’s lives as well as in adults, it seems to be a dynamic between danger and comfort, between the darkness and the light, between the place where the wild things are and the place where the supper is. Perhaps that’s why there’s really no substitute for reading a book with a child, the kid tucked under one wing, your arm in a protective arc around his or her back, holding and turning the pages together and talking through the tough stuff. With a bedrock of security, there are no dragons that cannot be slain, no aliens that cannot be vanquished. Or as Gaiman puts it, so much better than me – or, for that matter anyone: “When we hold each other, in the darkness, it doesn’t make the darkness go away. The bad things are still out there. The nightmares still walking. When we hold each other we feel not safe, but better. “It’s all right” we whisper, “I’m here, I love you.” and we lie: “I’ll never leave you.” For just a moment or two the darkness doesn’t seem so bad.”
The DailyO, 17.11.14