It used to be the case that fairy stories were dark and alarming things in which small children who did bloody stupid things could expect to be eaten by wolves, bears, witches and so forth. Yes, said the fairy stories, the world is a dangerous place full of things whose motives are different to yours, things that are hungry, grouchy things with pointy teeth. Go carefully, children. And it was a fair point, because death in childhood used to be really normal.
In the last hundred years or so, child mortality in the west has plummeted, and I suspect in response to this, fairy stories have become gentler. It’s ok kids, happily ever after awaits, with a handsome treasure and the frog of your choice. Interested in writing for small children, I’ve looked at what many of them are fed – brightly coloured, stylised creations with no bearing on reality. Stories in which nothing much happens, and nobody dies. Cute fluffy animals doing cute fluffy things.
Back when I was the parent of a young child, I cheated. We didn’t do unbearable fluff for bedtime. I took a leaf out of my father’s book. When I was about three, my Dad read me The Hobbit, and on we went from there. So I read my small son the entire Dark Materials trilogy, and anything else I thought would be interesting. He fell asleep during reads on a regular basis, cannot have had more than a passing grasp of the plot, but he loved Lyra and armoured bears, and all that came after. Now at 11, I have an emotionally well-adjusted child with a realistic understanding of how the world is, and a penchant for books. Right now, he’s reading Jekyll and Hyde.
The world is a scary place for small children, and always will be. There’s so much that makes no sense, and that cannot be explained to you. I remember being four and wanting to know what death meant and what happened afterwards, and no one could help me there. Many parents just won’t discuss sex, death, why strangers are a danger, what actually happens if you put your hand on the iron, and all those other things that regularly feature in your life as ‘stop’ ‘don’t’ and a grownup screaming at you. “You don’t need to worry about that,” is such a common solution to the alarm of small children. But the thing is, some of them do keep worrying.
I firmly believe that scary stories are good for small children. I’m not talking about traumatising them, but a bit of manageable alarm, a bit of feasible unnerving. It creates a safe space in which you can get fear out into the open. Name it, own it, understand it a bit. And don’t tidy it up with just stories that resolve into nothing to be afraid of after all. The world is a scary place, death and suffering are real. Small children are not stupid, and lying to them really doesn’t help. A child who is exposed to a few darker faerie stories is much better equipped than one who only gets princesses in frothy dresses.
We forget, as adults, that children don’t have as much empathy. They often enjoy violence and gruesome details, in part because it’s all a little bit unreal to them. Think about Tom and Jerry cartoons. I remember howling with mirth at those as a kid, while revisits as an adult have left me wondering what on earth amused me… just as my own child howls in laughter. Talking to teachers, I’ve very much had this impression confirmed – many kids like gory stuff. Horrible history sells.
It’s all about scares that you can live with. Learning to cope with being scared makes the world a more manageable place. It’s the same impulse that sends teenagers off in search of horror films where teenagers are eaten by monsters. I don’t have any of that for you today. What I do have is http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/baronmind/lil-eddie-edgar-allan-poe-for-kids A board book version of The Fall of the House of Usher, in which mildly alarming things happen and small children get a viable introduction to Poe. It may also be a sanity saver for parents who can’t take any more cute fluffy animals, or singing furniture and whose eyes are weary from an excess of bright colours. If you need a giggle, watch the video.