Wednesday, 31 July 2013

#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "The Dark and Disturbing World of children's books - The Good, The Bad and the Downright Deranged!"

Bear and Rabbit in "I Want My Hat Back". Both enter, only one leaves...
Our #ReadItMD13 Theme Week this week is all about the darker side of children's books. In some ways the aim of the week is to generate a bit of healthy debate on how dark a children's book can be before it is deemed 'too dark'. Obviously there are subjects that are completely out of the question and taboo but when we encounter a book that is that rare beast - a book that "Daddy" has to read through first to make sure it's really not as horrible as it seems - putting yourself into the shoes of a child isn't always easy when you're a grizzled grown-up. 

For example, there are two ways to look at the fabulous award winning children's classic "I Want My Hat Back" by Jon Klassen. Please be warned that it's nigh on impossible not to spoil the book within the next few sentences so if you haven't read it yet, and don't want to spoil the surprise, then stop here...

Basically Bear has 'lost' his hat. Only it hasn't been lost, it's been stolen by a rabbit. How does bear respond when the dim realisation hits his tiny brain that he's seen someone, very recently, wearing his beloved red hat?

In our review we didn't give too much away but Charlotte's best bit (and she 'got it' straight away) is the bit where Bear confronts rabbit. Something happens (Klassen is very sly here and lets YOU work out what happens) and in the next frame you see bear standing next to the leaves picture above. Wearing his red hat. With no rabbit in evidence. 

Parents who don't 'get' the book describe it as a horrifying tale of a bear hunting down, killing and eating a thief. Children who get the book describe with glee what happens to the rabbit (believe me, a child's description of a bear crunching on the bones of a rabbit are far more horrifying than anything Klassen could've written or drawn) and it's undeniably a dark work but one with a purpose, that the darkest place in a book is the place your imagination builds or pictures influenced by the book itself. 

So that's the good. What about the bad? Well, here's the thing. We have seen 'bad' dark children's books but what makes them bad? A lack of a point perhaps? Or just dark for the sake of it?

The Witch of the East. Fairy-scoffing and darkly decadent. 

"The Witch of the East" is a book that intentionally sets out to be darker than dark, menacing, quite horrifying in fact for the target audience it's aimed at. It puts a huge foot right through many of the unwritten rules we've come to expect from children's books. Baddies that are foul, nasty, sneaky and rather unapologetic in what they do - with no turnaround at the end of the story to assure children that the monstrous witch isn't really a bad egg after all. 

She eats fairies, for goodness sake! Eats them and no they're not happily resurrected at the end of the book to dance a merry jig around a fairy glen, they're dead. Eaten and dead. 

We've seen similar things in books about monsters. The monster does not exist for any reason other than to be a thoroughly nasty character that has no redeeming features. No moral message underpinning the story (does there always need to be?) just a foul stinking monster that ends the story much as it began the story. Being thoroughly mean. 

When we say 'bad' perhaps what we mean is that children's books that are dark, always serve their purpose best when they've got something to say, and if that's lost in the text, or isn't conveyed by the final page, has it failed?

We struggled to fit the final category in our article, the downright deranged but we have a close match. Of all things, it's a book that features a character that children have loved for generations, that children associate with being a little bit daft at times but always loveable. 

Mog in the Dark. Stay away from those wild mushrooms, Ms Kerr!

So what on earth happened with "Mog in the Dark" by Judith Kerr? Read one night before bedtime, the book felt like Mog's dark universe alternate reality gone seriously haywire. Mog has a trippy dream, surreal and menacing. All a child's fears are tapped into in the book and though it's alluded to that Mog's just dreaming, and wakes up with everything back to normal, we felt in our review that Kerr hadn't resolved things to the point where a child could differentiate between Mog's waking and dreaming state. Perhaps it varies with age and it's a book I'm desperate to return to for another look but reading the review back, I can remember this book giving Charlotte nightmares simply because the imagery in Mog's nightmare world is pretty harrowing, as are the descriptions of what happens in the dream. For a moment it felt like Judith Kerr, lovely fluffy and cuddly 90 year old, had let the veil slip a little and had revealed herself as the sort of lovely old lady that loves stuffing children lost in the woods into the oven for tea. EEK!

We're not quite done with dark children's books just yet. For our third article we'll be taking a look at traditional fairy tales that take a walk on the dark, dark side. Stay tuned, and as ever, any feedback on our theme weeks is always welcome.