When I was growing up in the 80s, stories that were marketed as ‘children’s' were occasionally brutal.
Characters got maimed or killed, tortured or traumatized, met with horrid ends in worlds that were anything but rosy. And this was a pattern that wasn't limited to, say, English literature (e.g. undisneyfied Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Watership Down, Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Oliver Twist, and on and on and on).
And then, there were the fairy tales. The hardcore ones, like the actual Snow White, or the 12 Swans, or the actual Little Mermaid, or the Little Matchgirl or the actual Cinderella (and how everyone tried to fit their foot in the glass slipper). Gore, amputations, murder (casual or not), sudden death, torture and cannibalism weren't even rarities, let alone banned from stories.
The Greek lit that was marketed for children was also in the same vein. I remember reading about kids that starved to death and died before finally managing to get a handful of fries. About kids having to watch their teachers get murdered by a Junta. About a woman that married outside of convention and was shunned from family, ending up living a miserable life. About people that fall into addiction and never fully recover, and about kids playing war amidst a fight between toy industries and accidentally seriously injuring an old man.
Ditto the Greek fairy tales. I won't go into too many examples, but to give you a gauge, there is one where a princess got her heart carved out as a baby and became a cruel psychopath for 3/4s of the fairy tale and a guy that dies and can't get out of his coffin and when he does, he can't get in the underworld and ends up being torn apart by oblivion.
I think it's safe to say that today these stories would not get an E rating. Probably not even a PG rating. Today kids' stories tend to follow a mandate of ‘sanitization’ or keeping things ‘clean’. Sexuality, racism, social inequality, abuse, and especially historical realities are being censored and kept from young audiences or presented in unrealistic ways that have little to do with the reality they are growing up in. Society and its origins, including the struggles and fights that had to be given in order for it to develop is also muted and distorted, giving kids a potentially skewed impression of how things were and how things are in the world.
This is not a new thing. Children's books have been censored since forever, and this is a nice overview if you are interested in reading it.
The era I grew up in seemed to have a lot more freedom in what got published, and children were probably considered sturdier than now in what themes and literary experiences they could handle. Was it a good choice back then, or is it better now?
I may have bias in saying that I think progressively and with parental guidance, exposing children to books written for young audiences but which do not pull their punches about reality is a lot better than a sugarcane world where things get resolved by the power of friendship or where all adults are inherently good or all relationships are inherently non-toxic, or de facto non-toxic if they are of a certain category.
I remember some stories so well because the distress or horror burnt them in my mind with fire. But I also remember learning to navigate the world and its cruelty a lot better for it.
Watership Down was terrible to watch, but it made me think about how humans can cause immense pain just by being inconsiderate of other beings. It also taught me that animals also fight each other.
Peter Pan taught me about death and Alice in Wonderland taught me about human vices. All those Greek stories made me primed to understanding political nuance, as well as propaganda and manipulation. All before I could even put terms to the concepts. I'm glad to have read them when I did.
I write this article without an intent to preach or talk about ‘ye olde goode days’ but about how literature should be curated (NOT censored) when it comes to children, and I'd love for it to be an open conversation.
Do you feel that children's books (and stories in all mediums) prepare kids for adolescence and adolescents for adulthood? If yes, how, if not, how could it be better?
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Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Sept. 18, 2021
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