Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Why kids love mischievous characters and dark themes more than goody two-shoes and cuddly fluffy bunnies" - A ReaditDaddy Editorial

Beryl the Peril from Topper / Dandy Comics. Put her in a room with Madeline and see who wins!

Twitter is a great source of topics for these little editorial articles. A recent debate talked about the reasons children like naughty characters and dark stories, in essence, why are children always attracted to books and stories that would make a Victorian maiden aunt scamper for the smelling salts?

Most parents and teachers will know the answer to this. Kids are not always the blessed little angels we imagine them to be and Charlotte is no exception. In case I've somehow mistakenly led regular readers to believe that she is, in fact, Walter from Dennis the Menace (albeit a female version) or a wondrous virtuous and perfectly well behaved version of Matilda from the Roald Dahl story, nothing could be further from the truth.

She's very polite and well behaved - most of the time - but I noticed that she always reacts favourably to stories where kids are little terrors, smart, naughty and conniving and it struck me why time and time again kids love reading about characters like these.

She also loves stories that explore darker themes. Not horrible mind-bendingly disturbing stuff, but stories that take a walk on the wild side exploring themes that deal with childhood fears, monstrous entities and villainous schemes.

Of course, naughty characters and dark themes are nothing new. Take Dennis the Menace (who is fast approaching his 66th birthday!) Dennis's behaviour in issues of "The Beano" probably isn't really that bad by modern standards (I don't think I ever recall reading a Dennis the Menace story where he purposely vandalised his neighbours car purely because his neighbour shouted out of the window at him) but for certain kids, Dennis's cheeky antics almost make him into a folk hero. He always gets the better of his dad (point of observation here as Charlotte is a bit of a Beano fan, when did Dennis's dad mutate from a tall Hitler-moustached pin stripe suit wearing comb-over slipper wielder into a sort of taller version of Dennis himself?), he usually gets the better of his teachers, and despite all the influence and money at his disposal, Walter never manages to quite win one over on Dennis or his ever-present poochy pal Gnasher.

Kids, of course, would never want to read a story where Dennis somehow saw the error of his ways and became a polite and well behaved little chap overnight. Living a vicariously naughty life through a favourite story character is a huge part of the appeal, so it's easy to see why kids also love dark and scary books.

There's a different set of criteria that can be readily identified in successful dark children's books, and sometimes books can be dark and scary to children when their intention is quite the opposite. Take Jon Klassen and Lemony Snicket's "The Dark" (a book that, like so many other dark and scary books, hit our Book of the Week slot with consummate ease).

Jon Klassen and Lemony Snicket's "The Dark" - Let me count the ways we love this bit where Laszlo says "Hi dark, hi!"

When I first read this to Charlotte, on a dark night before bedtime, the message in the book (a positive message that the dark wasn't actually to be feared) was lost on her completely - perhaps in some part because I adopted a dark whispering voice for the dark (stupid daddy) or perhaps because the book's summary - "The dark is always there!" isn't really something children want to think about too closely when they're about to switch off the light themselves.

Oddly though, I expected Charlotte to hate the book, to never want to hear it again but the very next night she demanded it again, and the night after that (and so on until I really thought we ought to read something else, as I gently pointed out that we're supposed to review lots of books not just one!)

Along similar lines, Levi Pinfold's utterly sublime "The Black Dog" also sniffed its way into a Book of the Week award like a big Jeffy...

"The Black Dog" by Levi Pinfold. Has there ever been a more darkly beautiful children's book?

The story's central message this time is that no matter how tiny you are, you can still be brave in the face of something very big, dark and scary. Again Charlotte had a love-hate thing going for this book while we were reading it for the first time, but as the story reaches its conclusion it becomes uplifting and positive, and was in constant demand for weeks (and still is).

When we sat down to talk about this editorial idea, I asked Charlotte what her scariest book was. That's quite a question for a 7 year old who (to date) has contributed to and either read or had read to her over 2000 books but without a pause she picked quite a surprising one...

"The Bear Under the Stairs" by Helen Cooper. Scary Beary!

Helen Cooper's sublime "The Bear Under the Stairs" has been reviewed here a couple of times. First time we read it and reviewed it, it gave Charlotte nightmares so my first review reflected this and we relucantly gave up our library copy very soon after we'd loaned it.

An odd thing happened though. On our next library visit, Charlotte wanted it again - and wanted it read. Knowing what to expect second time around, it switched from being a book that worked psychologically on a child's fears (both visible and imagined) to a book where Charlotte knew that the bear actually wasn't there to harm William - and though William's mum (and later evidence in the story) hinted that it might have been an imaginary bear, the bear was actually real.

We got into quite a deep discussion about whether bear actually was there and the final scene of bear parachuting into another child's house is a delicious bit of double-switching by Helen, almost cycling the story back to page one again.

It got me thinking about things that adults find scary. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have never really read a piece of fiction that's scared me (even as a child I also loved the dark stuff and we had some corkingly good ghost and supernatural stories when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s) but books that scared me as a kid were always non fiction. True accounts of horrors in the real world, that kept me awake at night (I remember staying at a relative's house when I was about 10 or 11, and idly poking through their book case for something to read - ending up with a rather horrific and graphic non-fiction account of the Christie murders at 10 Rillington Place. Eesh!)

It must be the toughest thing in the world to get that balance right for kids. Too naughty or mischievous and kids will assume your character is a baddie, and won't want any truck with him or her. If your story is too dark, too obviously disturbing, kids will just stop reading. Not dark or scary enough and kids will see through a thinly veiled attempt to spook them. We'd love to hear your best examples of books where the main characters seemingly get away with being absolute rotters - and also your fave scary and dark stories for kids. Do comment below!

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