Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Darkness in Children's Literature: How Much is Too Much?

I just read a great post by Book Aunt that tracks the increasing numbers of dark, scary, creepy, or violent books written for children and young adults. Coincidentally, I was at the Surrey International Writer's Conference this weekend, and a panel on children's books spent a fair bit of time discussing this trend. Book Aunt raised a couple of questions that were also asked of the panel: does one have to write dark stuff now in order to get published? And, is it the kid readers who are driving this trend, or is it adult writers/publishers/readers/reviewers? Underlying all the discussions, I think, is the question of whether this is a worrying trend or not.

Now, as a reader, I have no problems with creepy. I don't do horror (a la Stephen King or Silence of the Lambs), but I loved Gaimon's The Graveyard Book and Coraline. The book I'm reading right now (The Hunchback Assignments) opens with the line, "Six hunting hounds had perished in previous experiments," and the first chapter is titled, "Abomination," and I went, "oooooh, goody!"

I do not think children should only be given nice, sweet books that are good for them. I think that childhood is a scary place and the world is a scary place, and I believe that stories about monsters are important ways for children to deal with real fears (was it Bruno Bettleheim or C. S. Lewis who said that?). And besides, books aren't very much fun if they don't have nasty villains.

However. I'm sure we all agree that a line should be drawn between what's appropriately scary or violent and what's too scary for children of a certain age. No one would think a ten-year-old should watch Pulp Fiction, nor do I think anyone would give The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to a 14-year-old. But beyond the really extreme cases, it becomes more difficult. My grade four teacher thought the Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie was innocuous enough to show our class for Halloween. I had nightmares for weeks after. My 10-year-old son finds the Daleks on Doctor Who terrifying. ("Come on," I say, "its weapons are a toilet plunger and an egg beater!" But they strike a chord of fear with him.) And yet he saw Lord of the Rings when he was 8, and it didn't bother him. If I found Mockingjay too violent for my 40-something self, does that mean it shouldn't have been published as YA? (I'm trying to find the blog that had a whole discussion about this a month or so ago, but I can't remember where it was!)

There isn't really any way to say, We shouldn't let kids read This, because how can we define This (and who are We, anyway?). But if We are publishers, booksellers, librarians, I'm thinking it's pretty important to package and categorize books in a way that lets the reader know what they're in for. (If people hadn't warned me about how violent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, I wouldn't have known to skip the rape scene, and there would be images in my head I really wouldn't want.) (And I'm starting to think we need a new category--Older YA or something--to cover teen books that have more sex and violence than some teens might want to read.)

And if We are writers and editors, we come up against the question of how to create scary nasty villains and situations without making them too scary for our audience. The discussion at the Writer's Conference ended with the thought that, whatever the level of violence or fear, children's (and even YA) books should always have some element of hope. My son deals with Dalek nightmares by pretending he has a magic wand that sends them back to outer space. The most horrible of evils can be defeated. Faith, friendship, determination and courage are always stronger than corruption and tyranny. Could this be why I read children's books?


  1. Another thing that makes it tricky to judge is that not only are there things that scare kids more than they scare grownups, but some things scare grownups more than they scare kids! I actually wrote a post about this once. I think one of the biggest factors is control-- say, a parent is a lot more freaked out about Children In Danger in a book or movie, because they can't help seeing their own children in the situation and it freaks them out; whereas a kid is seeing THEMSELVES in the situation, and moreover, they're seeing the kid SAVE THE DAY, so it's empowering. I think hope and happy endings and ESPECIALLY the child protagonist being the one to defeat the bad guys is vital to children's literature IN GENERAL, but especially in scary books. I think if you have that, you really can't go too dark in the leading-up-to-it. GRAPHIC may be a different story though, but graphic is not the same as scary (heck, usually graphic is LESS scary, because the Unknown is always scarier than the Known). I think it's not necessary to be graphic in depictions of violence if you're trying to scare the reader, because the imagination will supply whatever details the reader is ready for, and, like I just said in that parenthetical statement, it's usually actually scarier that way. Build scary with emotion rather than with gore. Do you follow The Enchanted Inkpot blog? They just did a post on what makes monsters scary the other day.

  2. Good point about graphic vs scary. And yes, some things are scarier when you're a parent. Lovely Bones, anyone? Auuugggghhh!