When you think about it there is nothing fairy-like about Fairy Tales. On the contrary, most are horror stories featuring narcissistic stepmothers, evil witches, egotistical sisters, absent fathers and dwarves with strange names, who curse, imprison, murder, abandon or attempt cannibalism just moments after ‘Once Upon a Time’ is uttered.
And that’s after editing. When the Brothers Grimm’s first volume of Fairy Tales was released it was criticised as being unsuitable for children. Edits were ordered - mothers became stepmothers, cannibalism was cut out and Rapunzel’s swollen belly flattened). Much later came the Disney treatment. Yet while I’m not a fan of the pink nylon merchandise and Little Golden Book versions of the classics, I do confess that in my reading aloud of ‘The Little Mermaid’ I let her live rather than commit suicide. At times I also edited real life. When my children were very young my parents’ dog died and I actually heard myself saying the words ‘she’s gone to a farm’.
This goes against the trend. Since the 1960s society has moved towards social realism and honesty in its books for kids.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a modern day classic because of its charm and its insight into frustration and fury. Sendak believed grown ups need to feel safe and they project that need onto their kids. He may have been right but my children and I found it unsettling and the movie downright terrifying (although I now wonder if their Onesie obsession came from Max rather than Japan).
Beloved and brilliant author Toni Morrison wrote a children’s story called The Big Box with her son Slade. It told the story of children banished to live in a pretty prison box. They wrote it in the belief that children can handle dark, subversive themes and shouldn’t be told the world is as sugar coated as their highly processed food.
The sweet innocence of childhood may be a cultural construction of the middle class but I can’t help upholding it to some extent. I don’t censor but I am guided by my children’s sensitivities. My daughter came to Harry Potter obsession years after her friends because she was so fearful of Voldemort. I understand – the series gave me nightmares in my thirties.
I actually think dark books are best left to the dark ages of teenagehood.
I’ve just returned from a holiday with my nieces where I lost myself in their favourite trilogy The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The books tell the story of a teenage hero living in post-apocalyptic North America made savage by climate change and war. Panem is a nation of districts that serve a totalitarian dictatorship. In the ‘Capitol’ residents are extravagant, soft and so superficial they purge at parties so they can keep gorging; in the districts there’s starvation and a brutal servitude. Order is maintained by the annual 'Hunger Games' where two children from the districts are sacrificed to fight to the death in an arena featuring all manner of genetically engineered horrors and other desperate tributes. At least 50 million teenagers have read the series (it out ordered ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Fifty Shades’ on Amazon). The trailer for the second movie ‘Catching Fire’ was released at Comic Con yesterday:
As I read the series I was immediately hooked and initially horrified. It portrayed such a bleak, cruel, merciless future where even the rebels are fascist. Last year The New York Times ran a discussion about why teens are reading such dark themed, post apocalyptic books. Some writers surmised it was about broken futures, a world falling apart with climate change, extinction, war and terrorism. Others thought the connected generation knows its shiny life of consumption is a lie.
In considering the issue I thought back to my own youth and I realised this is not a new phenomenon at all. My favourite teen books were coming of age stories set in doom. ‘Z for Zachariah’ was about a girl who survived a nuclear war and ‘The Chyrsalids’ (also post nuclear) which featured telepathic teenagers having to flee a society that killed all mutants. I also devoured ‘Day of the Triffids’, ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley, and ‘Alive’ a true story about a Uruguayan Rugby team who crashed in the Andes and had to keep alive by eating their fellow passengers. My phase got so weird my English teacher told my parents my creative writing was of some concern.
I can’t remember exactly why I loved such dystrophic and dark books. I was not a particularly moody or gloomy teenager but I think I enjoyed the escape from reality and the exploration of a brutal world from the safety of my pink bedroom. I loved the adventure and the fact that while I knew I lived in an easy protected, constricted society it did not feel stable. In these brutal worlds future teens knew what they are fighting for, and in their battles they had adult powers to take on the status quo.
So what to do as a parent? When do we start introducing concepts of cruelty, poverty, death and disaster in literature? Or indeed in reality? When do we begin to break a child’s heart and tell them the world can be woeful. Perhaps the teenage brain seeks such stories because it’s rejecting childhood and needs to embrace the dark side of life. Or perhaps western teenagers read such books as a form of rejection to the lies inherent in a fairy tale childhood that’s too sweet.
I’m interested to know where and how you lie as you lie down to read with your kids. Are your fairy tales Disney or Grimm? Was your teenage hood post apocalyptic or pretty? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There’s no perfect happy ever after either way.