A new study on award-winning children’s books claims that there’s a ‘trend’ towards judges choosing winners that have dark themes such as parents dying (A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness being one example). What? This isn’t a trend; it’s what children’s books have always done. They’ve always tackled ‘dark’ subjects. You can’t get any grimmer than a Grimm’s. The difference between now and before is that writers are better at it. Today’s writers are much more aware that the repercussions of what they write could affect the reader and therefore they handle the emotional side of the ‘dark’ theme in a more sensitive and safe manner. Or at least the good writers do – the ones who are winning the prizes.
In Victorian and Edwardian novels, if the main character’s parents were still alive by the end of chapter one it was a miracle. As if having both parents die isn’t bad enough, (through cholera, a sinking ship, being eaten by cannibals – take your pick) there’s no time for the main character to grieve. No way. Poverty, hardship and displacement to a distant and aloof relative’s home a continent away must ensue. The Secret Garden and A Little Princess being two classic examples.
Poetry and nursery rhymes were just as bad if this book I bought the other day is anything to go by. There I was thinking, oh, Kate Greenaway; she of the Kate Greenaway- Carnegie Children’s Book Award – this’ll be sweet. I was so wrong. The poems are nearly all doom and gloom.
Here’s an example:
My father and mother are dead,
Nor friend, nor relation I know;
And now the cold earth is their bed,
And daisies will over them grow.
I cast my eyes at the tomb,
The sight made me bitterly cry;
I said, ‘And is this the dark room,
Where my father and mother must lie?’
There’s another four verses like that but I’ll spare you. Imagine reading that to a three-year old at night time, though; the poor kid would be traumatised.
To be fair, Greenaway’s style reflects the Victorian era in which she was writing. Life expectancy was much lower than it is now; dying young was common. So was cloying sentimentality. Greenaway’s watercolour illustrations of rosy-cheeked mothers sitting in comfortable parlours surrounded by their sweet, curly-haired children, reflect an idealised world at odds with reality. Child labour was still common as late as 1880. It wasn’t all cushty for middle-class kids, either. Girls, especially, are dealt with in a stern, no-nonsense manner. Unlike Belloc’s more cheery version, the Matildas in these poems are taught their lessons in humourless, God-fearing verse such as this:
FOR A NAUGHTY LITTLE GIRL
My sweet little girl should be cheerful and mild
She must not be fretful and cry!
Oh! why this passion? remember, my child,
God sees you, who lives in the sky.
In other words God’s watching every move you make SO STOP SNIVELLING YOU STUPID BRAT OR HE’LL GET YOU. Blimey. Who needs vampires and werewolves when you’ve got God to scare the life out of you?
Here’s another one:
The idle and bad,
Like this little lad,
May love dirty ways, to be sure;
But good boys are seen
To be decent and clean,
Although they are ever so poor.
There you go, boys. You might be poor, starving and being beaten within an inch of your life but as long as you have clean hands you’ll be fine.
Give me today’s dark any day.