Saturday, October 21, 2006

"Everyone knows that a soul is the same size as a beach ball." - Coraline Jones, Coraline

Lately, for whatever reason, I have been reading creepy children’s books.

And they have been wonderful.

I mean, between Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, is it possible – dare we hope – that the age of smarmy children’s literature is fading, and the gloriously terrible age of the Brothers Grimm and Struwwelpeter is returning?

Seriously – just how many I’ll Love You Forevers and Rainbow Fishes and The Giving Trees can one person stomach? (Although they are all frightfully creepy as well, in their own ways...don’t even get me started on the incestuous overtones in just about the only Robert Munsch story I do not like, or my little brother on the Communist underpinnings of that silly, colorful fish.)

Yes, I suppose there are the middle-of-the-road kids' books, the ones with brave heroines who learn something (Because of Winn-Dixie); or intrepid brother-and-sister teams who have great adventures and learn something (Magic Treehouse series); or even cheery animals who teach us all a little moral lesson (Berenstain Bears, whom I loathe to the very core of my being, those sanctimonious, pontificating ursines). There are certainly non-smarmy and realistic children’s books out there – Cynthia Voight, Laurie Halse Anderson, heck even E.L. Konigsburg.

But what I really mean is kids' books with that sense of magic, that sense that anything – really absolutely anything, good or bad - is possible, that you have with the REAL Grimm’s fairy tales, or Gaiman’s fantastical novel, or Terry Pratchett’s edgy silliness, or Julian Thompson’s real-but-not-quite teen novels.

I present for your consideration a rogue's gallery of gritty, intense, pull-no-punches but wonderful children's books (take a memo, feel-good Frindle!):

Roald Dahl's The Story of Henry Sugar can still make me nauseated, and James and the Giant Peach intensely claustrophobic.

Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time gave me nightmares for weeks!

John Bellairs’s books (whose Gorey illustrations alone make them a creepy delight) are tight and suspenseful and by no means all-tied-up-neatly.

You can't ignore the true classics, like the Narnia books, or even better in my opinion, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Could you possibly nonchalantly read about Lyra's lonely journey to the land of the dead, or not feel in the pit of your stomach the terror of the little boy who is separated from his daemon?

In my oh-so-humble opinion, though, Maurice Sendak is THE classic example of exactly what children - even very little children - can appreciate, and what adults like to think kids can’t handle. Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are has been described as “dark and disturbing,” and “far too frightening for young children.”

(Is this when I should confess that I want Max to grow up fast so I can marry him – well, right after I marry Calvin – or Hobbes, whichever one will have me. Hmm, talk about disturbing, eh?)

John Cech wrote…”These fantasies essentially broke through the relatively unperturbed surfaces of postwar American children's literature, sending his [Sendak’s] children…on journeys into regions of the psyche that children's books had not dared visit before."…As author Ann Hulbert writes, "His pictures, and also his texts, bring to life what Bruno Bettelheim called the 'id pressure' — the nightmarish fears, grandiose desires, anger — that buffet children. [From “NOW with Bill Moyers,” The Controversy Over Children’s Literature.]

When did editors and publishers decide that kids cannot handle anything scary?

Do they really think that if only kids are protected from ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, they will not imagine the ghost in the hallway, the monster in the closet, the beast under the bed? (Or the bully on the playground, the nasty middle-schoolers on the bus, the casual cruelty of the average junior-high-schooler?)

When Primo was about two, I thought it’d be a good idea to take him with me on a peace march. You know, show him his mom is politically aware and active, and tries to stand up for what she believes in. What I didn’t count on was the girl who marched the route wearing a gas mask. Primo was terrified, even though I explained carefully that there was a real person under the mask, that it was just a mask like a Halloween mask. He talked about that gas mask for weeks after, at all sorts of weird times.
And I will never ever forget the chill that went up my spine when one day, sitting in his room, he looked out in the hall and said matter-of-factly, “Oh, there’s the lady with the gas mask.” I didn’t want to turn around, I didn’t want to look, even though my ADULT brain knew there was no one or nothing there in the hallway.

Kids take what they see and what they experience and turn it and twist it and examine it from all angles in their weird and strangely practical little kid brains. And let me tell you, now that I know at least one five-year-old very well? Those brains are no more normal and sunshine-y than any adults; in fact, I would argue that kids see what’s there, and what could be there. They see the possibilities as well as the reality. They are willing to accept that the possibilities can be gruesome or frightening as soon as be cheery or optimistic. We adults are the ones who want kids to be happy and innocent.

Lord of the Flies, anyone?

I suppose I’ll go back to reading adult novels now – Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story is up next, although Coraline did prompt me to request Gaiman’s Preludes and Nocturnes (the first Sandman volume) from the library - so you can be spared my psycho-babbling. (Incidentally, Coraline and this Bookslut interview also prompted me to fall madly in lust with Neil Gaiman. Who is *extremely* cute. See? And he also rocks that maddening-hair-in-his-eyes look.)

But I think I am going to put my old childhood Raggedy Ann doll away in the blanket trunk before I go to bed tonight. Those black button eyes of hers are freaking me out a bit.


lazy cow said...

I KNEW you'd find Neil hot. But hands off, he's MINE.
(Are we just going to keep parallel reading books from now on? In that case, I'll have to read Theft too!)
Totally agree about the scary/wonderful kids' books. Have you read any Joan Aiken? Her childrens' books (Black hearts in Battersea, A touch of chill, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) are wonderfully dark, and used to scare the hell out of me as a child.

Badger said...

A Wrinkle In Time gave you nightmares? For real? How old were you when you read it?

I think In The Night Kitchen is ten times scarier than Where the Wild Things Are.

My perseverating boy and bipolar girl can't handle scary. Like AT ALL. Sigh.

Katy said...

I didn't realize that Sendak had more books than Where the Wild Things Are. I'll have to look for them when I am next buying books for kids.

peg said...

Woo hoo! Look at non-beta me! (My blog is still beta, I just remembered this old non-beta ID.)

Go BB with this great post. There are some great correlations in so-called "kids' theatre," as I'm sure you're aware. I deal with that at work on almost a daily basis. Honestly, the crap that passes for "suitable for kids?" You'd have to redefine both "suitable" and "kids," in my opinion. I curse the artist who first decided stuff for kids had to a) be dumbed down and/or b) contain a stupid moral no matter how dumb it made the feeble story to begin with. But that's just my opinion.

Sarah Louise said...

And somehow all I can think of is me watching the first 15 minutes of Finding Nemo (you'd think the title would clue me in) and walking out because first they killed the mom and then they lost the kid. (I still haven't watched it through.)

I liked Coraline but thought parts of it were implausible. A few more edits to get the story to line up would have helped me.

I couldn't read WIT for seven years after my seventh grade teacher made us write sentences using the vocabulary.

My mother, the K-2 teacher, argues against censorship this way: kids need something to name their fears. They need 'The Z was Zapped.' (Chris Van Allsburg)

As a children's librarian, I'm biased, but I think kids have the better end of the stick when it comes to literature. Adults can be so...stuck in the mud. As are their books, often.

I loved this post. And would you believe it, it has just started to rain???? (apropos to nothing.)

BabelBabe said...

I know, where did the rain come from? The sun was beaming down not two minutes ago.

I stupidly did not pre-screen Nemo - I have seen the whole movie now but I had to turn it off right quick after Nemo's mom was eaten, because Primo was freaked. You'd think Bambi would have clued me in, but nooooo....

Badge - I was about ten, I guess. It was that brain thing, It? Totally creeped me out.

LC - I just want to be friends with Neil. Chat, email, go out with you and him for drinks, you know...And look at him alot : ) Although, as usual, it's the smarts that really get me going...

sara said...

I'm sure you all read Neil's blog. I think he's like that character on "Seinfeld" where in some lights he looks terribly handsome and in others, a bit disappointing.

I am so with you on Bellairs, Gorey, L'Engle, Pullman...

I'm afraid my children will be unhealthily steeped in the gothic aesthetic.

tut-tut said...

Does anyone remember the E.C. Spykman books--Terrible, Horrible Edie; A Lemon and a Star, The Wild Angels, Edie on the Warpath? They are/were about the Cares family, and Im sure were autobiographical to a great extent.

BabelBabe said...

I still have my cop of Edie on the Warpath! Wow. I had forgotten about those.

tut-tut said...

Well, I don't know why they've been discarded from every libary I've been in. Hard to find. Would be nice if they were republished! Wonder what's involved . . .

Kathy said...

Isn't he amazingly cute? AND he can write. I love creepy children's stories. I always hated the Disneyfied versions of fairytales that we were shown. Those weren't the same stories I read.

Jess said...

I grew up on a steady diet of the real Grimm. Cinderella isn't Cinderella without those bloody toes & heels.

I would add The Giver to your slightly creepy list. And with such an ambiguous ending? It's delicious.

IT freaked me out, too. But that didn't stop me from devouring the rest of L'Engle's books.

Have you read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane? Or The Tale of Despereaux? Much better than Winn-Dixie, in my opinion - maybe because they embrace more of the dark, scary side of things as well as the light. I've read reviews of Edward saying it's too disturbing for kids. Whatever.

Kathy said...

My daughter loved The Tale of Despereaux. I'm trying to get her to read Coraline right now but she doesn't want to -- probably because I want her too. And Cinderellas is not Cinderella without those toes and heels -- you're totally right. I kept looking for that to happen in the movie because that's how I knew the story.

Major Bedhead said...

I loved Where The Wild Things Are and A Wrinkle In Time - still do. I didn't find them scary at all, which is odd because I was afraid of EVERYTHING when I was little.

I also loved the Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. I was so disappointed when I bought a book of them for O and all the endings had been made happy clappy. Pissed me right off and I got rid of the book.

Gina said...

How about Dino Buzzati's "The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily"? Murder and intrigue--all kinds of cool stuff. And the illustrations are great! It's one of my Frindle-hating boy's favorites.

Sarah Louise said...

Did not like the Tale of Desperaux at all. It seemed simpering. But in terms of creepy stuff for kids--how about the Acorn library of Chicken Soup with Rice, One was Johnny and Pierre? I knew them as songs on Carole King's soundtrack of Really Rosie, but a child that gets eaten by a lion because he doesn't care? Sendak is a genius, as far as I'm concerned. And marrying Max, hmmm--it never occured to me. But what a great idea!