Fearing Children’s Literature

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

“Still, it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie, for they also bridged generational divides. No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.” No More Adventures in Wonderland, NY Times Op-Ed by Maria Tartar, October 11, 2011

First off, let me say I love it when discussion of children’s literature makes it into the mainstream press.  It is gratifying and reassuring that the things I spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking and worrying about registers with others.

However, this is the latest in a series of articles (most notably this Wall Street Journal article about how dark YA lit has become: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203771904574173403357573642.html), to decry contemporary children’s/YA lit for not being as beautiful, classic, imaginative or uplifting as the classics of the Golden Age.  And honestly, I am not sure which classic texts we are talking about.  I spent the summer reading through some of the “Touchstone” texts as named by the Children’s Literature Association in 1980s.  If, as Ms. Tartar asserts, all the good children’s books these days are about death, they are taking a cue from their classic elders.  The Borrowers traces the life of a tiny people on the verge of extinction, poisoned, trapped and killed by the humans from whom they “borrow” all the necessities of life. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH centers around the death of Mr. Frisby, the impending death of Mrs. Frisby’s son due to pnunemonia and the life-altering experiments done on rodents by the government.  In Johnny Tremain, the title character is crippled by a silver-smithing accident and released from his apprentence position until he nearly starves.  And in Tom’s Midnight Garden, a young boy and an old women meet in a magic garden as she relives her youth and the time she spent with her imaginary childhood friend and all those people who have long since died from her youth.

The thing that all of these classic texts have in common is the unequaled imaginative world created by the author.  In each case, the reader is transported or transformed, forced to see the world from a different angle, like from the point of view of the very, very small or from a different time period.  In each case, it is the joyful casting of a fictional world that makes these texts enjoyable, despite the dark subjects hiding within the plot.  Death is inevitable: a good story is not.

Likewise, J.K. Rowling did not just write a series that is “largely about death” but also concocted a magical fictional world with castles, flying brooms, butterbeer, thestrals and a unique and complicated mythology.  Yes, Harry’s parents, god-father and various friends were murdered by an evil-doer and Ms. Tartar is right to point out that this may be the perils and fears of the adult world seeping into the child’s imaginary world.  But the fear expressed in that famous opening line, “All children grow up, except one,” is an adult fear as well.  Children do not fear growing up the way their parents hope to stop time, to hold onto their children’s innocence for as long as possible.  Nor do children fear not being able to grow up the way their parents do: obsessing about vaccine-induced autism, child abductions, or the million and one other things the evening news tells them to be afraid of.  Peter Pan is full of scary things: children being lost by their nannies and turning into “Lost Boys,” pirates, Indians, and of not being able to find your way home again.  The childhood fears expressed in Alice and Peter’s stories are just as scary if not scarier than those the adults can cook up, precisely because child imaginations are so much vaster and deeper.

I found Harry Potter and The Graveyard Book to be uplifting tales that may on some level, help children to deal with the grief of death and growing up.  To accuse them of being unrelenting and without humor is to have not read them.  I find The Hunger Games to be a terrifying critique (complete with bitter sarcasm which can pass for humor for some of us) of the current group of adults, who finance wars and reality television, who push shock envelopes rather than their own imaginations in order to make money in prime time television.  I think other books, like The Book Thief, Holes, Feed and the Chaos Walking trilogy to be texts that address the hopes and fears of young adults in far more imaginative, creative and critical ways than the majority of adult bestseller texts today.  No wonder the adults are straying into the children’s section.  All the good stories are there.  On that, Ms. Tartar and I agree.

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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  1. Pingback: Your Winter Break Reading List | Kid Lit at UF

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