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[whitespace] Boy with book Monster Issues: Kid lit isn't all fairies and unicorns these days. Or was it ever?


Dark Days

Ghouls and goblins, mayhem and murder--it's just kids' stuff

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Harry would have screamed, but he couldn't make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Professor Quirrell's head, there was a face, the most terrible face that Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

"Harry Potter. . . ." it whispered.

--From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling


When J. K. Rowling first released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--the enchantingly scary first volume of the now mythic Harry Potter series--no one suspected that the book would spark an unprecedented level of scrutiny into the world of children's literature.

But it has.

Had the Potter books remained known only to their intended audience of children, the whole contentious issue of darkness and juvenile fiction might never have emerged on so large a scale; popular juvenile literature would have stayed behind dark closet doors, locked in with its mythical monsters. But adults did discover Harry Potter, in a big way, making the books the first megalevel juvenile-to-adult crossover hit. And for many, this heady Harry Potter experience was a bit like biting the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The kiddie-lit tourists who moved from the Harry Potter books to other popular young-adult titles--Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books--quickly discovered that children's literature is no longer the exclusive domain of amiable bears and purple crayons, if ever it was. On the contrary, kid lit has finally been exposed as the dark, unsettling, unsavory, undeniably captivating world that it is and has been for some time.

"This kind of literature has always been there for children," says Sebastopol author Megan McDonald (Judy Moody, The Bone Keeper), a popular children's writer and public speaker. "But Harry Potter definitely brought it into the forefront."

A Legacy of Terror

Obviously, J. K. Rowling--with her emotion-packed tales of Dementors and Death Eaters, werewolves and nearly headless ghosts, three-headed dogs and clandestine drinkers of unicorn blood--cannot be said to have invented the dark children's book: Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie, and the Brothers Grimm are contenders for that particular honor. Philip Pullman's masterful young-adult novel The Golden Compass, a nightmarish depiction of kidnapped children, marauding bears, and surgical experiments, actually predated Harry Potter by two years. And Judy Blume, the reigning queen of nonfantasy young-adult fiction, has watched for years as her award-winning books--honest depictions of teenagers wrestling with their adolescence--have been banned by school districts for their challenging content.

But while critical attacks on children's books are nothing new, one can argue that until the Harry Potter books materialized in 1997 (was it only five years ago?), it was far less commonplace for writers and critics to remark on the supposed rise in literary darkness. Clearly, it is time to ask the question once again: Are kids' books becoming too dark for kids?

"It's an age-old question," says McDonald. "Honestly, I think adults are more scared of the dark parts in children's books than the children are. Think about Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Kids love that book, and parents are always wondering if it's too scary." She lists other examples, ranging from the darkness-lite domestic problems of the Beverly Cleary books to the controversial pessimism of The Chocolate War, the much beloved young-adult classic by the late Robert Cormier.

Perhaps adults have forgotten that it's this very same brand of literature--the dark stuff--that often tends to stick with us all the way through to adulthood. These edgy, honest novels help young people make sense of their lives by corroborating their sense that the world is often harsh and unfair. It only follows that these same books will be the ones we end up introducing to our own children once they begin asking the hard questions about the randomness of the world.

As Megan McDonald says, "It's important to give kids the truth--and sometimes the truth is dark."

Dark World, Dark Comfort

    The lives of Violet and Klaus Baudelaire are very different from most people's lives, with the main difference being the amount of unhappiness, horror, and despair. The three children have no time to get into all sorts of mischief, because misery follows them wherever they go. They have not had a grand old time since their parents died in a terrible fire. And the only trophy they would win would be some sort of First Prize for Wretchedness. It is atrociously unfair that the Baudelaires have so many troubles, but that is how the story goes.

    --From The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket

Darkness is a vague term. When used to describe recent children's literature, it can mean anything from scary to bloody to sexual to overly realistic. In his program Focus on the Family, conservative Christian commentator Dr. James Dobson has used the word "darkness" repeatedly, aiming it at some surprising targets, including books that show, as he described it in a recent column, "teenagers at odds with their parents." That's dark?

Daniel Handler, author of the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket books, A Series of Unfortunate Events, defines dark literature as books containing "a heightened level of chaos." Though some critics have objected to the fact that, in the Snicket series, his unlucky heroes' parents are burned to death on the opening page, Handler (www.lemonysnicket.com) feels that's not what most people find objectionable.

"I think what most critics have trouble with is that the world I've created is really chaotic," he says. "It's the fact that, though the children have integrity and truth and loyalty and love, those characteristics aren't rewarded. The Baudelaires get out of predicaments pretty much by the skin of their teeth, not because they're good people, which they are. To me, this is something that everyone recognizes about the real world, but it is somehow very dangerous to say aloud."

Handler, for the record, believes that most children's books aren't nearly dark enough, given the randomness and chaos of the real world. He points to the war in Afghanistan as an example of what he calls a "delusional national mythology," in which kids are more or less told that the bombs are landing on bad people and the food is landing on good people. "But kids know in their hearts that the world is not that neat and tidy," he says. "I find stories interesting that acknowledge the sense of disorder that I think adults and children see in the world around them. It doesn't mean children's books have to be pessimistic. But I think kids should be told to be good because goodness is its own reward, that kids should be nice to their friends because that's a good thing, not because it will protect you from evil."

Some might go so far as to say that in a world where a good man like Daniel Pearl, the recently murdered Wall Street Journal reporter, is forced to face so evil an end, it actually does a disservice to children to promise them that things will turn out all right if only they are good.

"Frankly, I think that's a specious argument. It's ridiculous," suggests Daniel Hoeye, Oregon-based author of the popular Time Stops for No Mouse. "When you are 7 years old, you should feel safe. When you're 9 years old, you should feel safe, and 10 and 11 and 12. Maybe by the time you're 16, it's time to start facing the realities of the world, but I don't think there's any point in teaching a 7-year-old that life sucks and then you die. How are they supposed to muster the skills to cope with that?"

To be fair, Hoeye's own books are not devoid of a certain degree of threat and danger. Time Stops for No Mouse, the first in a planned series, is, after all, a murder mystery, albeit one taking place in a world of talking rodents. His mouse hero, a fussy watchmaker named Hermux Tantamoq, uncovers his share of corpses and conspiracies--and let's face it, these elements are a big part of the book's appeal to children. But Hoeye (www.hermux.com), recently quoted in USA Today decrying the availability of "ultradark" entertainment for kids, doubts that the term "darkness" accurately describes Hermux's page-turning adventures.

"When I say darkness, I tend to mean nihilism," Hoeye explains. "I mean situations where there is little or no hope of escape. When I say darkness, I mean that you are in a dystopian world, that there is no harmony, there is no potential for goodness or self-sacrifice or consideration of other people. A dog-eat-dog world.

"Though in my books," he adds with a laugh, "I suppose it would be called a rat-eat-rat world."

While Hoeye suggests that starkly rat-eat-rat depictions of life are best left for older readers, Francesca Lia Block, whose semimagical, drug-and-sex-tinged books have been embraced by both adults and young people, sees it differently. "I believe in the importance of expressing and acknowledging the darkness inside us," says Block, "and that includes the darkness in young people. I don't believe people--or books--should be so easily divided into categories."

Having been discovered and championed by an army of hip, young twentysomethings, Block's books, in fact, are a prime example of another little piece of this puzzle. It seems that the remarkable rise in kid-to-adult literary crossovers has been significantly fueled by the unbridled enthusiasm--and credit cards--of pop-culture-happy hepcats in their twenties and early thirties.

Few nine-year-olds could tell you that Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is a sometimes accordion player with the quirky and hot New York band Magnetic Fields. But plenty of older Lemony Snicket fans could, and they could also expound on the "Edward Gorey effect," explaining that while fantasy and whimsy are the catnip that draws the kids, it is the added spice of irony that attracts the cool, young trendsetters of a slightly older age. Besides, such folks don't require the sedate, "adulterized" alternative book covers that many older Harry Potter fans demand in England; unlike others, these readers don't apologize for their tastes.

Jean Bolduc is a North Carolina newspaper columnist and author (Zero to Zen in 60 Seconds), and the mother of two voraciously book-hungry boys. For years she's been waging a not so gentle war of words in her weekly column, speaking out against the critics and self-appointed culture police who have proposed banning such books as Harry Potter.

"These people," she has succinctly suggested, "are idiots." Taking a subtler tone, Bolduc further suggests that adult critics of modern children's lit are, at the very least, missing the point.

"I think we're all middle-aged and have bad memories of childhood," laughs Bolduc (www.zerotozen.com). "We forget that we were scared to death by the Wicked Witch of the West--and that we loved it. But kids are a lot smarter, a lot more savvy than we were. My kids think the Wicked Witch is pretty lame. So do we not give them something they can be scared by?"

Adds Megan McDonald, whose lighthearted books are something of an antidote, "In some ways, kids' books should be darker than they used to be, because we're asking kids to deal with so much more, because, like it or not, we're living in a darker world."

Straight on Til Morning

    IT was a brain. A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT. IT was the most horrible, the most repellent thing that Meg had ever seen, far more nauseating than anything she had ever imagined with her conscious mind, or that had ever tormented her in her most terrible nightmares.

    --From A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

But is children's literature truly darker than it used to be? At what time were children's books significantly less dark?

A quick glance at the best-selling children's books of the past shows a paperback parade of death, struggle, pain, and abuse. Look at Charlotte's Web, the best-selling children's paperback of all time, in which a resourceful spider attempts to save a goodhearted pig from the slaughterhouse, and then dies alone on the rafter of a state fair pigpen. Death is hanging all over that book. In Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time (set to appear this May as a two-part miniseries on ABC), three kids endure intense physical pain, even torture, on the planet Camazotz when they travel through space to rescue their scientist father from the grip of IT. Then there are the devilishly dark works of Roald Dahl, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Twits.

Who's going to stand up and say those books aren't every bit as dark as Harry Potter?

Looking further back, Peter Pan, published in 1904, struck Potter-like chords among adults and children. This is a book with a not so subtle subtext regarding the "cruel and heartless" nature of children. In Peter Pan, youthful readers are exposed to dismemberment, scalpings, poisonings, attempted suicides, and at least one piratical throat slitting, not to mention the references to fairies stumbling drunkenly through the forest "on their way home from an orgy." The underlying darkness of the book is exemplified, not in the vengeful Captain Hook--whom you almost feel sorry for in the book--but in Peter Pan himself. Hardly the boyish fun-lover made famous by Mary Martin on Broadway, this Peter is a borderline psychopath, prone to creepy, if occasionally thrilling, pronouncements. "I forget them after I kill them," says Peter of Captain Hook, when, at the end of the book, Wendy attempts to reminisce about the good old pirate-killing days in Never-Never Land. Faced with imminent drowning, he remarks, "Death will be an awfully big adventure." I have no wish to diminish the Zen-like bravura of facing death with a sense of wonder, but if you don't think this is an unsettling remark, just try imagining your own dying 10-year-old saying it.

And don't forget Grimm's Fairy Tales. In their earliest, non-Disneyfied forms, these tales described an endless pageant of blood and abandonment--yet they were created as stories for children. This supports the long-held but recently forgotten theory that in dark times children do seek the comfort of dark tales, that children do crave a bit of gloom in their lives--thus their love-hate relationship with the monsters in the closet.

"The broader issue here," says Beverly Horowitz, vice president and publisher of Knopf Delacorte Dell Young Readers Group (a division of Random House Children's Books), "is how we are defining the readership of these books and stories. Perhaps the truth is not that children's books are darker than they used to be, but that younger kids are now reading dark books." Horowitz, who's worked with Robert Cormier and Philip Pullman, has noticed a trend of younger readers tackling books that were not intended for their age group. "I think some eight-year-olds are simply not ready for the books they are reading," she says. "Which is not to say that other eight-year-olds wouldn't do just fine with the same book. Different children are ready for different material at different ages."

This explains why some books originally meant for adult readers--The Lord of the Rings, for example--end up in the hands of certain children, and why some book publishers, eager to take advantage of the current juvenile book renaissance, are pushing the limits, releasing juvenile titles written with older audiences in mind. Michael Hoeye, after all, wrote Time Stops for No Mouse for his wife. And Philip Pullman has often groused that his series His Dark Materials was conceived as a fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkien and not as a children's story, regardless of how it's being marketed.

Clearly, many of the young readers who've discovered these books are more than ready for them. But what about those children who are not? Horowitz doesn't suggest that parents and teachers snatch advanced books from their children's hands. She doesn't recommend any harsh measures. Her remedy for this problem is much gentler, if hardly revolutionary.

"If your kids are reading one of the darker books, encourage them to talk with you about it," she says. "They might not even know it's dark. A book you think is full of dark, psychological subtext--a Golden Compass or a Chocolate War--might be a book that your child is experiencing simply as a joyous adventure with a few thrills and chills thrown in."

And if it turns out that a book is too gloomy for your child, if he or she reveals discomfort with the content on the page, Horowitz's suggestion is even simpler. "If a child of any age is uncomfortable with any book," she says, "encourage them to close the book, to put it down, and to go find something else."

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From the March 14-20, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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