Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid
Could scary books be necessary for kids’ development? by Liza Featherstone
April 6, 2009
When it comes to censorship, even the old Soviet regime can’t compete with parents of small children. The first time I told my three-year-old son, Ivan, the story of Three Little Pigs, I purged the grisly details. I allowed the first two pigs to escape their flimsy houses, joining their savvier brother in his safe, cozy brick fortress. Even the wolf got off easy: failing to blow down the brick house, he simply staggered off, huffing and puffing defeatedly.
My days as a Bowdlerizer are at an end, however: we’ve just acquired a more Darwinian Little Golden Book version of the tale published in 1988, in which the “hungry and wicked wolf” eats up the first two incompetents. At the story’s end, the wolf is boiled to death and only the resourceful brick-laying pig is left alive. Ivan much prefers Golden Book’s retelling of this folktale to mine. When the wolf eats up the first little pig, Ivan remarks, “Oooh. He’s dinner.”
Ivan loves stories about death, predators, and imprisonment. In William Steig’s Solomon the Rusty Nail (published in 1985), a rabbit is held captive by a knife-wielding cat. (Solomon is saved from death only by his unique ability to turn into a rusty nail at will.) In The Story of Babar, written by Jean de Brunhoff and first published in 1933, a baby elephant lives an idyllic existence in the jungle, until his mother is shot and killed by a hunter.
That book’s sequel, Babar the King, published the same year as the original, reads like the book of Job, with characters plagued by snakebites, house fires and bad dreams. In Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, first published in 1970, a little boy narrowly escapes a mob of chanting chefs who want to bake him into a cake. Ivan requests each of these stories again and again. “Read it!” he commands.
For decades – as long as there has been a “children’s literature” section in bookstores – adults have been conflicted about how disturbing children’s stories should be. In E.B. White’s 1945 classic, Stuart Little, a human mother gives birth to a mouse. When Stuart Little was first published, the nation’s librarians and other arbiters of taste freaked out completely, finding it grotesque. Generations of children have since accepted the book and found its mouse-person hero, while perhaps unsettling, also lovable. Yet adults continue to reject the story’s premise: in the most recent movie version (1999), Stuart is adopted.
The Stuart Little kerfuffle captures an enduring tension around children’s books. On the one hand, says Dr. Tony Charuvastra, a research psychiatrist at NYU School of Medicine’s Child Study Center and father of a two-year-old, we have “the desire to protect children, a sense that children shouldn’t read these awful stories.” On the other hand, he adds, “kids enjoy being scared.” And while children do enjoy innocuous material that parents find boring – c.f. Dora the Explorer – both kids and adults like a good story, and good stories are nearly always emotionally complex.