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Kid Fears. Are we depriving children by sanitizing children's books? By Liza Featherstone for Babble.com.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Could scary books be necessary for kids’ development? by Liza Featherstone

April 6, 2009

6

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.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Could scary books be necessary for kids’ development? by Liza Featherstone

April 6, 2009

In recent years, however, children’s literature has careened radically toward protecting children. The transformation of the Curious George books provides an especially egregious example. In the original series (the first of which was published in 1941) by Margret and H.A. Rey, George is forcibly captured from the wild. He has mixed feelings about this: he’s “sad, but also a little curious” about his new life. His curiosity gets him in serious trouble: when George plays with the phone and accidentally calls the fire department, he is thrown in prison. He confronts true humiliation and despair, which the Reys render bluntly: “George felt so ashamed he wanted to die.”

Nothing like this ever happens to the current Curious George, whose exploits have, over the past decade, been chronicled by far less talented authors. Now, George’s exploits never get him into trouble. His curiosity always leads, however accidentally, to a happy outcome. When George tampers with a dump truck at the park, he unwittingly makes a new island for the ducks. An avalanche caused by the scrambling little simian reveals a long-hidden dinosaur fossil. This generation’s Curious George never even suffers a time out, much less a jail sentence.

“Now, kid’s books are much more sanitized and shiny,” says Sarah Curtis, a Brooklyn teacher who used to work at Books of Wonder, Manhattan’s legendary children’s bookstore. It is impossible to imagine anything bad happening to the relentlessly cheerful Elmo, who is unrattled even by potty training and babysitters.

Viewed in historical context, the change makes sense. In his 2003 book Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, Peter Stearns points to a paradox: over the course of the twentieth century, despite plummeting rates of child mortality and disease, Americans became increasingly invested in a fantasy of the vulnerable child, in ever-greater need of parents’ vigilant protection. One of Stearns’ particularly absurd examples will be familiar to many readers from high school sex ed:

In the twenty-first century, our sense of children’s fragility has intensified. From the 1970s on, well-meaning school programs often asked teenagers to carry a raw egg around with them for several days, in order to learn what an awesome responsibility a baby would be. The symbolism was particularly interesting because no one questioned it: but why such an easily breakable object? Was this really a useful representation of young children? The association made sense because Americans were so ready to accept the primacy of fragility.

In the twenty-first century, our sense of children’s fragility has, if anything, intensified, with hysteria around everything from peanuts to sexual predators. If we see our children’s bodies as fragile, their psyches seem even more so. “Parents have been told for fifty years that they are fucking up their kids,” says Dr. Charuvastra. “Fifty years ago, people didn’t worry about this.” Now, we are obsessed with protecting our kids from emotional harm.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Could scary books be necessary for kids’ development? by Liza Featherstone

April 6, 2009

6

But protecting kids from psychic discomfort may not be good for them. “Is it important for children to experience novel or unusual emotions?” asks Charuvastra. Maybe so: By requesting the same alarming story over and over, a child is mastering his fears about death, punishment and scary animals, all of which are part of real life. Scary books are a kind of play therapy. “The importance of bad things in stories is that they help create pretend space where bad things can happen,” says Dr. Charuvastra. “It’s better for your child to experience these feelings for the first time with you, in pretend space, than in non-pretend space.” Indeed, this ability, observes Charuvastra, “to flip back and forth between pretend and reality, to take a step back and say, this is pretend, in my head,” is a skill that many adults never learn, unless we enter cognitive therapy as patients. So a child reading In the Night Kitchen may be developing critical inner resources.

Of course, we don’t want children to read just because it’s psychologically healthy. We want them to enjoy great literature because it’s one of life’s most exhilarating pleasures. As with grown-up fiction, the less comforting the material, the more artful it usually is. A recent exhibition on Babar at New York City’s Morgan Library, which displayed Jean de Brunhoff’s original sketches, made clear that of all his illustrations, the scene depicting the mother’s violent death was the one on which he’d worked hardest, through many drafts. Originally, that moment opened The Story of Babar, as if to get the unpleasantness out of the way, but then he decided instead to begin with scenes of mother-infant bliss and childhood innocence – baby Babar falling asleep with his mother, then playing with his friends in the sand – a choice that made the death scene much sadder, and in a literary sense, far more profound.

Scary books are a kind of play therapy. Children, like adults, like literature that helps them make sense of their own lives. “Kids have earth-shattering experiences, then they have dinner and go to bed!” says Sarah Curtis, who is now a first-grade teacher at Brooklyn’s famously cerebral St. Ann’s School. She is conducting a William Steig retrospective with her class, reading each of his books aloud. His stories resonate, she thinks, because they reflect young children’s inner experience of their daily lives. “In most of Steig’s books,” she explains, “the hero – a child or an animal – is facing death and other existential questions, huge and thrilling. The books always culminate in a quiet moment: the hero tells his parents all about his adventure, then they all have dinner and go to bed.”

Of course, young children don’t just want to read these complicated, strange stories, Curtis points out. They also love simple books that allow them to master interesting information about say, animals, or trucks. And of course, they love outrageously silly books like Mo Willems‘s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus or I Stink! But parents – and the publishing industry – shouldn’t deprive kids of children’s literature’s darker side.

Usually Ivan wants to read Babar the King in its entirety. But sometimes, he wants to read only one particular scene, always a terrifying one. “Read the part about the snake bite,” he commanded the other day. “Why do you like that part so much?” I asked. “Because,” he said, seeming surprised by the question, “it’s not real.”

Article Posted 6 years Ago
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