Thursday, 19 January 2017

"Do kids lose their ability to deal with dark stuff as they get older?" - A ReadItTorial

Apologies for skipping a week but we're back on track with our ReadItTorial slot, once again dipping into a subject that we've visited and revisited many times on the blog. 

Dark books for children. Inspired by "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (possibly one of the most successful "dark" children's book series ever) getting a new small-screen treatment as a Netflix series (it's very good by the way, go watch it!) I've definitely noticed that as Charlotte gets older, she has lost some of her love for darker stories, nasty characters and perilous settings. 

When we started this blog and she was a tiny little thing, I'd often grab some of the darker children's books from the library along with the usual happy-go-lucky haul. I think this is something that some parents are predisposed to, particularly if they like darker subjects and stories themselves and can't resist a cracking villain. Obviously everything we covered early on had to be tried and tested first before being deemed as fit for consumption by tiny eyes, but soon I realised she actually liked the odd jump-scare, and the 'baddies' were often the most interesting characters in those books. 

Take "The Bear Under the Stairs" by Helen Cooper. I know, we've mentioned this one a HECK of a lot...

On the one hand it's a book about a little boy's over-active imagination and fear of the dark cupboard under the stairs, and the bear he believes live there.

On the other hand it's a book that expertly and very visually describes exactly what it feels like to be a child, at that age where pretty much anything still feels possible and plausible, and even the most innocent old fur rug tucked under the stairs can look like something altogether more menacing.

The first time we read this book together it gave Charlotte nightmares and that was pretty much reflected in our first review.

Weirdly though, she came back to it and demanded we borrowed it from the library (we've since added it to our collection, just because it's such a fantastic book). Almost like she LIKED being scared by it but once she'd got over the initial way the book worked on her, she began to really love Bear.

Back when she was very tiny, I hadn't the foggiest idea what being a dad was all about. I fell into the same traps I'm sure many new dads (and quite a few new mums) do of not quite thinking things through before launching into them. I developed a very gruff gravelly voice for Bear even though he doesn't actually have any 'spoken' lines in the book. I'd add these little comic asides to describe his actions, fitting them alongside William's own story in the tale. Stupidly I think these probably made the whole book feel more menacing than it actually was but it's interesting to see other folk's opinions on this one, not feeling that it's a dark book at all.

But it does work on a child subconsciously, and I think that's perhaps why later on children lose the ability to pass something off as merely being in someone's imagination, and pick up more on emotions and feelings of characters who are quite obviously in distress.

Going back to "A Series of Unfortunate Events" I wondered how the TV show would deal with a moment that underlines exactly what a complete b*****d Count Olaf actually is. Early on in the book when Klaus, Sunny and Violet have dutifully cooked dinner for The Count and his awful acting troupe / band of henchmen, Klaus says something particularly smart back at Count Olaf, and receives a ringing smack around the face for doing so.

The earlier movie adaptation of the books featured the slap, the TV show didn't shy away from it either - and this is a bit that really does hit home (if you'll pardon the tasteless pun) that Count Olaf is more than a pantomime baddie who snarls at the audience, to be booed at. This is an evil character who has almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever (though the TV show is beginning to lay the groundwork for the later books where we discover that The Count has more reasons to hate the Baudelaires other than the frustration of not getting his filthy hands on their massive fortune - no more spoilers, you need to read the books as they are brilliant!)

The slap is something that would rule out me letting Charlotte watch this show, and it's something we gently skipped over in the books (I'm pretty sure many parents "abridge" books to read around bits they know are unsuitable for their younglings, right?) but it is a pivotal part of building Olaf's character up to be exactly what it is, a dark villain that should not be trusted an inch.

As I get older, and thanks to a good dose of sensibility from my wife, I find I'm getting more touchy and sensitive about darker books myself - well, for Charlotte's consumption at least. Now and again we vet chapter books that we know would probably disturb her during before-bed reading but it's so very tough to do this when you've very little indication of a book's content if it's A) brand new and B) all you've got to go on is a very short summary.

Of course, 'dark books' are the darlings of the press who love to point out that as children become ever-more desensitised to horrible people and horrific events, authors and illustrators of dark stuff have to up their game until they're treading firmly on the toes of subjects and characters that would make many adults wince. Are we rapidly approaching a point where dark books are a quaint thing of the past because kids have seen it all before by the time they reach the tender age of taking their own first faltering reading steps on their own?