Exploring the dark side of children’s literature

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I take storytelling very seriously; I have been called intense and passionate, which are simply kinder ways to say loud and obsessive.

I take particular interest in children’s stories.

One key element I’d like to center on is how so many of these beloved stories are filled with dark and disturbing themes and imagery.

Whether on the printed page or the silver screen, if you look back to what we grew up on, it is filled with the stuff of nightmares. I’m of the opinion that this is not only a positive thing, but a necessary one.

Telling stories isn’t merely a means to waste time.  Since the dawn of man, the purpose of story telling is to teach lessons and morals that pass from one generation to the next.

Disney movies have traditionally understood the importance of portraying the dark side in their animated feature films. But recently, Disney has begun to lose sight of the need to show the good as well as the bad.

Classic villains like Maleficent, Ursula, Frollo, Scar and Dr Facilier are so fondly remember, because as children they creeped us out.

The villians and their creepiness are the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster; simulated danger.

As an adult, close observations reveal a true underlying darkness and evil behind these villains’ motives that we, as adults can appreciate.

For the child viewer, the moral is there, just hidden via subterfuge for children to absorb.

They learn social truths without knowing it; they simply see the adventure in it.

I see a lot of parents today seeking “safe” entertainment to plop their kids in front of for a few hours, and its all trash.

Nowadays you get the kind of “stories” that lack substance and moral content.

It usually consists of something along the lines of “somebody thinks they haven’t been invited to a birthday party… but actually they have!”

There is a difference between kid’s movies and children’s movies.

A kid by definition is a baby goat and as such, a kid’s movie treat children like cattle. What I mean is, there’s a lot of sound, and fury that seems to shut them up for a little while.

So where’s the harm?

A children’s film treats the viewer (the child) like an actual human being and tries to make them walk away with some new insight or knowledge.

A children’s movie lets you see that when Mufasa falls to his death, there’s nothing that little Simba can do to change it.

A children’s movie also shows you that no matter how dark the hour seems, that even the smallest can muster up the courage and defeat the greatest evil.

A kid’s movie has little yellow minions, armed with fart guns holding a house party while they all speak idiot talk.

The stories we remember most, the ones that left the biggest impact on us were stories that were there to teach us.

Many of the lessons that need to be taught are not always pleasant and it’s the job of the storyteller to find a way to introduce all aspects of the world in an easily digestible way.

My favorite author as a child (and still to this day) is Roald Dahl – the mad genius behind such beloved classics as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “The Witches,” and “James and the Giant Peach.”

Dahl himself learned the harshness of life early on, having lost his sister and father mere weeks apart and being sent to a boarding school where he was subjected to abuse.

As such, the protagonists in the majority of Dahl’s works are children, forced to deal with loneliness, loss and abuse, either by their own relatives or other authority figures.

The important part isn’t the trauma but the lesson that these children find the strength within themselves to overcome adversity.

His stories saved me because I was raised in a violent and abusive household.

Where some children fear boogiemen and dragons, I grew to fear the man I called father.

I don’t think I could have survived my childhood traumas without the escape provided in Dahl’s books.  James, Luke, Charlie and Matilda were there beside me acting as a beacon that guided me to safety.

Dahl’s evil was a practice round for me so that I could, when presented with the real thing, able to survive it.

We know what’s good and what’s evil because at a young age our stories give us clear definitions of both sides.

Children aren’t these fragile little things that need to be sheltered, they are human beings. A parent’s task is to teach their children about the world – both the good and the bad.

To conclude, another fine children’s book author, Neil Gaiman, opened his wonderfully macabre fairy tale “Coraline” with a quote by G.K. Chesterton that has stuck with me since first reading it.

 

“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”