Monday, 29 July 2013

#ReadItMD13 Theme Week - "The Dark Ones - The sometimes dark and scary world of children's picture books"

"A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness. Children's books can be dark but extremely effective conduits to deal with unspoken fears and real-life events. 
You may have noticed a tendency on ReadItDaddy to favour books that often feature monsters, and can sometimes be fairly scary for little ones. Our theme week this week looks into the dark side of children's books with a selection that deal with subjects that can be extremely tricky to do 'right' in children's literature, but hopefully showing you examples where authors and illustrators have absolutely nailed it.

In the header, you can see an image from Patrick Ness's superb "A Monster Calls". The book deals with a child's perception of his mother's illness (in this case, cancer) and the inevitability that one day she will die. Death in children's books is a theme that is often skirted around but Patrick describes it without 'flowering it up' or beating about the bush. For a child, mortality is not always easy to explain away in spiritual terms (particularly if parents do not have any religious beliefs themselves) and it's also not easy to describe how people can live on in the memory when to a child, the tangible presence means more than the intangible.

"La Visite De Petit Mort" by Kitty Crowther. More to death than meets the eye. 

"La Visite De Petit Mort" is a French language book we reviewed last November that also deals with death - this time not of a loved one but of the child themselves. Dark but somehow managing to retain an air of child-like 'cuteness' the story is actually more Death's than the child's. Death trying to understand why a particular child seems happy to be taken away from all they know. It's a book that, on deeper analysis, broaches the subject of death in a way that a child may not have anticipated - that for some people (even children) death can sometimes be a release, not unwelcome.

Dark books aren't always as complex as this. Books that describe a child's more immediate fears can be dark in tone, and in fact books that deal with a fear of the dark itself could fill an entire shelf in your collection.

"The Dark" by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. Hi Dark, Hi. 

Recently we've really enjoyed Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen's "The Dark" (In fact it was Charlotte's "Book of the Week" back in March). The story of a little boy, Laszlo, who bravely one night ventures into the realm of the dark that shares his house, it's quite a tough book to read to a child who genuinely does have a fear of the dark (and most children seem to), because of the pace of the book perhaps. It takes quite a while getting to the message that there's nothing to fear from the dark, and the end pay-off where Laszlo realises this, is left (rather deliciously in our opinion) until the very last pages in the book. Of course, if you're a parent who likes to read stories aloud to your children and make a bit of an 'act' of things, it's too tempting to use your raspiest most sinister voice for 'The Dark' (in fact I used a voice that was part Lord Voldemort, part gurgling monster). Not a great idea at bedtime, admittedly.

But it's a great book, in fact Klassen and Snicket was a partnership made in dark-book heaven. Both have a rich sense of why books like this appeal to children, whereas you'd expect children to shy away from something that seems inherently scary from the get-go.

"The Bear Under The Stairs" by Helen Cooper. A boy's eye view of an unseen menace. 
"The Bear Under the Stairs" by Helen Cooper is a book that took us a very long time to love. In fact if you glance back through our blog you'll notice we've reviewed it twice. First it was almost too dark, scary and disturbing for Charlotte to cope with and gave her some pretty horrible nightmares. But it was demanded again and again. Why would a child consistently ask for a book that scared them so much that it gave them nightmares (more poignant question, why would a parent read that book to their child again and again?)

You'll notice the book - on second review - became one of our Books of the Week, purely because as Charlotte got older, she 'got it' and understood that the book was about dealing with your fears - making you confront them and that was my aim when persevering with reading it to her. Is Bear actually scary? Or is William more scary than Bear...

I know who I find more scary in this book. 

I should point out that half of the book's appeal lies in what's suggested and what's hidden. You'll notice that the book does not directly describe the bear being scary at all, in fact the poor beast just wants somewhere to live. It's in William's head that you hear the bear 'saying' that he's hungry and would rather like to eat a young boy. Helen Cooper expertly plays with the reader's perception of the real message of the book, and right at the end she even mischievously bats the ball right back into the reader's court with the final frame of what happens with Bear. I won't ruin it for you, it's probably one of the best endings of a 'dark' children's book that you'll ever see.

So where is the line? Where does a book cross over from the light to the dark path? Some books are described as 'dark' purely on rather visceral thrills, or by 'visually' breaking the rules of what perhaps parents feel is an acceptable level of 'scary'.

"The Fearsome Beastie" by Giles Paley-Phillips. No beating about the bush, this beastie is a complete rotter!
Giles Paley-Phillips' book "The Fearsome Beastie" does not mess around, does not play on a child's subconscious but arguably features one of the darkest and nastiest monsters in children's books. The titular beastie tricks children into thinking he's a lonely soul, and just wants a few friends to play with - before unceremoniously scoffing the children up in one gulp! The story's almost like Little Red Riding Hood in reverse, with the wolf winning the day from the get go and then the story backtracking to the point where a truly kick-ass Grandma gives the Beastie what for, in what has been described as one of the most shocking images in children's books.

Giles has a talent for monstery works, and in interviews you'll hear him talk about the lure of 'scary' books for children. In fact Charlotte doesn't find this book scary at all any more, simply because it's made clear that the beastie is a bad lot, there's no psychological manipulation going on here (other than the Beastie's plaintive claims that it just wants a hug, not dinner, at the start of the book).

We'll be looking at a few more 'dark' children's books as we delve deeper into this week's theme - but as ever, we welcome your input - in fact we are counting on it as the well has run a little dry with the dark stuff lately. Do you have a favourite darkly delicious children's book? Or can you describe a scene in a children's book that made you blanche in terror, yet had your children laughing their heads off? Drop a comment below or tweet us @readitdaddy, we would truly love to hear about them.