by Fiona Burrows
Everybody at some point, including me, thinks they can write a children's book—just like Bernard and Manny in Black Books writing a story about an elephant who loses a balloon. But I think kids want and need more than that. This week's very, very special guest, Fiona Burrows, makes a compelling case for depth and complexity in children's literature.
I have a vivid childhood memory of sitting on the back steps at my grandparents’ house, listening to a siren whirring in the distance, and being gripped by a sudden terror.
I remember the warmth of the bricks and the lemon-tree scent. I remember counting the crooked slats of the back gate over and over, through tear-blurred eyes. And I remember the unspeakable horror creeping through every bone in my body, as I convinced myself that the siren was meant for my parents, that some terrible accident had occurred, and that they were never coming back.
Granted, I was probably a slightly neurotic child. I must have been around nine or so—those awkward twilight years between childhood and early adolescence. Life at that age constantly switches between comforting childish reassurance and the harsh realities of the adulthood you are teetering on the edge of. I had an overactive imagination coupled with a deeply sensitive, anxious personality, and the terrors my mind threw at me were both laughable and very, very real.
When my parents turned up twenty minutes or so later, delayed by a traffic jam, I was quite teary with relief. But I’ve never forgotten the terrible impact of that moment, and how it somehow sprang from the deep, unconscious wells of infancy, where fear lies coiled in the dark corners of the psyche, waiting, waiting.
The Monsters are Calling: Darkness in children’s literature
Recently, I’ve rediscovered a long-held passion for children’s writing and illustration. What seemed like a pipe-dream is becoming more real as I explore the ins and outs of the children’s publishing world, devouring the works of my favourite writers and illustrators. The deeper I venture, the more convinced I am of the incredible importance of children’s literature.
One of the things I’ve noticed is the tendency towards conservatism, corporatisation, commodification, or what I’ve heard described as the 'pinky aesthetics' of the current children’s market. A large proportion of shelf-space seems to be devoted to movie spin-offs, homogenous, celebrity-authored, product-oriented books. Or worse still, the ubiquitous sea of pink, glitterfied, princessy books set aside for little girls, as if little girls could not possibly want to read about monsters or adventures or knights or getting dirty. (I had a genuine sword and shield from a medieval English castle when I was 5, and loved squelching around in the mud and dirt as much as any of my brothers. I liked princesses, but I also liked seeing them get eaten by dragons. I’ll bet most little girls do).
Of course, the idea of children’s books being censored or politicised is not new. Many of our favourite children’s classics have been banned for reasons which often sound vaguely silly and sometimes outright ridiculous, as in the case of The Diary of Anne Frank:
"Most of the concerns were about sexually explicit material… One record dating to 1983 from an Alabama textbook committee said the book was 'a real downer' and called for its rejection from school.” (The Washington Post, 2010)
Putting aside the 'downer' that is Frank’s devastatingly powerful Holocaust narrative, the banning of children’s books is still going strong. The idea still persists that children need to be protected from the harsh realities of the world. Maybe this leads to the Disneyfication that we see today;
Fewer publishers are willing to take a risk on books deemed to be ‘inappropriate’—those dealing too closely with death, sex, drugs, trauma, mental health or adult concepts.
Darkness in children’s books can still be found though, especially if you’re a voracious reader like I was as a child. I remember how moved I felt reading Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical novel about Nazi Germany, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I absolutely loved Joan Aiken, who wrote about children being chased by wolves and sold into slavery (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase), or escaping the clutches of a vicious Queen who attained immortality by killing and drinking the blood of young girls (The Stolen Lake). I had a strong attachment to the Little House series, with its screaming panthers and blizzards and deadly scarlet fever. I was obsessed with the Moomintroll books and their complex, ambiguous darkness: the lonely, terrifying Groke with her trail of ice still seems to me one of the most evocative expressions of female depression I’ve come across. And I loved the beauty and brutality of fairytales; I still do.
In fact, as an adult, I continue to be drawn to children’s books that deal in darkness and complexity. Two of my recent picturebook purchases have been Stein Eric Lunde and Øyvind Torseter’s quietly devastating My Father’s Arms are a Boat, which deals with the love and loss of a mother, and Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder’s sparse, beautiful Flight, which transforms the Nativity into a refugee family fleeing tanks and the guns. Poignant, heartbreaking and, sadly, very relevant right now.
I own Margaret Wild and Freya Blackwood’s stunning picturebook The Treasure Box, also about fleeing from a war-torn home, and, incidentally, book-burning.
Patrick Ness’ and Jim Kay’s A Monster Calls (based on Siobhan Dowd’s writing) is about a child whose mother is dying from terminal cancer. And many of our favourite Young Adult (YA) books delve unapologetically into the agonies of adolescence: who can forget the subversive attraction of a Judy Blume novel, or the deep resonance Looking for Alibrandi or John Marsden’s Tomorrow series had for young Australians discovering their own identity, sexuality and place in the world. At least in YA fiction, the darkness seems to be slightly more acceptable.
And actually, children are a lot more intelligent than we tend to give them credit for. They can absorb complex themes and detect metaphors, irony, satire. Darkness can also be treated with humour, of course. The one and only Edward Gorey created a whole alphabet of accidentally-killed-children (The Gashlycrumb Tinies) and illustrated them in his wry, curious style: darkly funny, disturbing and tongue-firmly-in-cheek.
I feel sorry for little Neville, dying of ennui. There are probably many more children like him, suffocating under the blandness of a literature which thinks that its purpose is to dictate, moralise, sell to, or mislead the young. Or, almost as unforgivingly, pretend to them that the world is nothing but lollipops and rainbows and insipid, unthreatening critters doing gaggingly boring things.
Am I being way too cynical here? Of course there is a place for sunshine and fairyfloss and unicorns in kidlit, just as there is a place for joy and euphoria and optimism in adulthood. But to pretend that there is nothing but those things is akin to saying that the rest of our experience; pain, anger, disappointment; war, poverty, disease; neglect, trauma; should be hidden, swept under the rug.
And hiding away the things that hurt—the dark things that make us such complex beings—teaches children that such feelings are inappropriate.
Taming the Wild Things
The truth is, our childhoods do contain darkness. Children experience loss, pain, trauma and terror just as adults do. We instinctively want to protect them from this. We yearn for what we nostalgically remember as the ‘innocence’ of our own childhoods, where the days were sun-filled and carefree, and worries and anxieties were as far away from us as the planets circling in the vast nothingness above. But, as idyllic as our childhoods might seem from the adult end of the telescope, the darkness was still very much there. And that, more than anything, is why children’s literature should acknowledge the dark things, bring them into the light; where they, along with our other childhood demons, can be successfully confronted.
Maurice Sendak, who experienced his fair share of both childhood demons and book-banning, said,
“From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions; fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”
Sendak didn’t believe in misleading or lying to children. He celebrated their dark impulses, their wildness. He acknowledged the great anger, injustice, rage and indignation of our childhoods, and he gave it back to us as literature which reflected our wildest, scariest, most hidden desires. That is why, despite being relentlessly attacked and occasionally banned, Where the Wild Things Arecontinues to be a best-seller.
Neil Gaiman has also argued for the place of darkness in children’s literature:
“I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.
And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.
And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.”
You can keep going. How important that phrase is. As Gaiman says, letting children experience darkness in a form that doesn’t overwhelm them—so they can play with it, explore it, understand it on their own terms—is essential, because there are dark things in life. As adults, we come face-to-face with them. And what then?
“Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It's just a different wolf.” –Alfred Hitchcock
The wolves of childhood still prowl our daily lives as adults. Whether it’s the howling of depression or grief or our own paling insignificance, we must confront it. We must, as Gaiman says, keep going. The things that scared us as children, those spectres of terror, take on an awful solidity in adult life.
“I remember my own childhood vividly... I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”—Maurice Sendak.
We all know terrible things. My moment of groundless terror still haunts me: it’s become my fear of loss, of grief, of losing what I love most. But other wolves have begun to prowl too. Wolves that are scarier, bigger, more malicious than ever. The more research I do about children, about child psychology, the more time I spend with my beautiful, creative, imaginative nieces and god-kids and friends’ kids, the more I feel the wolves stalking.
A Different Wolf
Which brings me to the thing I really want to discuss: something that lies, coiled, poisonous, in the dark corners of my psyche.
I’m talking about the horrific revelations that keep coming to light about the way our government is treating the most vulnerable and innocent in its care: children in immigration detention. Nearly everything I read about this brings me to tears. In fact I’m writing this now with the tears rolling down my cheeks. I feel powerless, ineffective, useless against this type of vicious, systematic, politicised evil. I cannot comprehend the huge cognitive dissonance required to support, or even to ignore, this policy. But I know that it arises out of fear: fear of the other, fear of losing control. It is fear that causes hate, mistrust, hardness, ignorance, intolerance, arrogance or apathy: a fear that hasn’t been acknowledged or explored or brought out into the light.
I feel exhausted by the realisation of what we are up against. Almost daily I see the words ‘humanitarian’ or ‘compassionate’ being used as insults. Somehow, kindness has become ‘weakness’. The right to free speech has become the right to bigotry, xenophobia and intolerance. Anonymity has become the opportunity to abandon human decency. Decisions are made for political and economic gain, as if money and power are the only meaningful factors in our society.
The darkness appears to be closing in. The wolves are howling on every side.
But, as it is for children, our darkness can be a gift too. Because it makes us stand up and act. If we know from the stories we’ve read that darkness exists, then we also know that dark things can be beaten.
We have power, we can fight back, we can win—but we have to know that. We have to keep going.
We cannot ignore these atrocities any longer. We cannot sit back in our complacency, and dismiss them because they don’t touch us or the ones we love. The despair these children face is indefensible; the wolves are so close that they can see bared teeth…
“Our son is frightened to go outside. He thinks he will be dragged into the forest by an evil spirit and the animals will get him.” (Father of 3 year old child, Construction Camp Detention Centre, Christmas Island, 16 July 2014)
Knowing that these children are being deprived of their childhoods in our name, the name of our leaders and in the name of our country, should be the most real and pressing terror of our adulthood. So we have to be brave. Face up to the darkness. Fight it. Keep going.
Live your life, live your life, live your life
In Maurice Sendak’s very last interview, he once again confronted his own childhood darkness and grief, his fear of death:
“I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more.”
Like me and my moment on the steps, the realisation that darkness exists—that death and grief are inescapable—is always going to be difficult, whether we are nine years old or ninety. Sometimes it threatens to overwhelm us. But that’s what literature gives to us: it tells us to keep going. Why should we deny children the chance to discover that for themselves?
Besides, without darkness there would be no light. So, with that in mind, I want to finish on a note that encompasses all the darkness, joy, pain and love of a life lived in full. Do yourself a favour and watch this video:
It might make you cry, but it will also make you smile. Much like life itself.
If you are concerned about this issue, you can send a book or a letter to a child in Australian immigration detention through the Befriend a Child in Detention project. You might also like to read Rabbit Hole #22 — "Terror Australis: Children in Detention".