Maria Tatar’s recent op-ed piece in the New York Times argues that children’s literature has grown darker and progressively more adult, perhaps in response to the zeitgeist of angst and fear that grips society today. Karel Rose penned a brief response – perhaps heavily edited for space? – but it does not go far enough, in my opinion.
Tar makes it plain that she is not condemning modern kid lit, merely bemoaning the disappearance of an earlier tradition of fantasy, one in which dark-dyed fears are combated with whimsy and imagination. I must take issue with this. First of all, the examples she cites, Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while glorious and wildly imaginative, have certainly contributed to their fair share of childish nightmares. (Jabberwocky, anyone? Perhaps it was simply the illustrations in my version…)
Second, as any good children’s librarian knows, most children have a stage on which the scarier the book, the better they like it. R.L. Stine has been beloved for several years now, and of the many requests I get from fourth and fifth graders, the most common is for “a really scary book.” I myself remember reading Alfred Hitchock story collections and Stephen King’s works quite young. The shivers were delightful, even as I slept with the light on. Or was that simply so I could keep reading?
For those who will scoff at my arguments and claim such examples align better with Ms. Tatar’s theory instead of mine, I offer Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The originals, please, not the Disneyfied versions so popular today. The children whom Carroll and Barrie knew would have read and enjoyed them. The great fantasists of the Victorian era likely saw their work as building upon a tradition, rather than replacing it.
And certainly, Dahl, following in their footsteps, wrote whimsy with an edge that cuts. But the best argument of all may be that kid lit isn’t growing darker, nor is it growing more adult. The best children’s literature has always had that shadow that allows children to process their fears while shaping their fantasies.