When I was young I was often sick and spent many hours lying in bed either moaning in a darkened room with the measles (no vaccines then) or proped up on one elbow reading books and scratching my chicken pox. Sometimes I had books from the library and other times I had to rely on books that accumulated around the house. I got most of my books from Goodwill, used and often musty. Some of my books had evidently belonged to my parents, favorite stories from when they were young and impressed by Jack Hawkins, Bill Sikes, or Dorothy Gale.
I still have vivid memories of avidly reading those over-the-rainbow books by the local San Diego author L. Frank Baum and unexpectedly flipping to a gnarly and often damned scary illustration that might interrupt my sleep for weeks. Or how about that wonderful illustration by the much revered illustrator N. C. Wyeth in the book Treasure Island that showed the gruesome skeleton of a pirate who had been marooned on the island long ago. In fact, just the concept of being marooned all alone on a desert island added a new level of fright and concern to both my waking and sleeping hours for years to come.
Aljazeera America published this thoughtful article:
Exposing kids to a worldview that is full of only amusement and adventure hides the truth
by Ananya Bhattacharyya
Historically, children’s literature has often featured violence and death. In “Der Struwwelpeter,” a popular German children’s book of rhymed stories written in 1845, a child’s thumbs are cut off because he sucks them. “The Juniper Tree” from Grimms’ Fairy Tales may arguably be the most horrendous fairy tale ever: A woman invites her stepson to fetch an apple from a box and as he peers in, she slams the lid shut, beheading him. She then cooks him in a stew and serves it to her husband. In the Chinese fairy tale “The Wizard’s Lesson,” a man smashes a baby’s head against a rock, and a woman is cut up “inch by inch,” starting at the feet.
Why were traditional fairy tales so gruesome? One theory is that these tales were not meant primarily for children, but rather originated from oral traditions, with adults telling these stories to one another. Another explanation is that the societies these stories grew out of were very different from contemporary Western society, beset with food scarcity and high mortality, and the stories reflected the realities of the age.
Parenting style has also evolved over time. It was Benjamin Spock’s classic “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” that helped shift Western society’s parenting gears by advocating for a gentler approach. Today parents, teachers and librarians don’t voluntarily expose kids to excessively violent literature such as the tales above. And perhaps unsurprisingly, books that are considered dark by today’s standards have nothing on the gore of past literature.
Nevertheless, parents habitually express serious misgivings about certain present-day books. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom keeps track of official complaints filed with schools and libraries requesting that books be removed because of their subject matter. … Some of the books that parents wanted banned: the Harry Potter series; “The Giver,” a distressing dystopian novel written for children; and “Bridge to Terabithia,” a harrowing story that turns on the protagonist’s best friend being killed by lightning.
Those in favor of book bans ostensibly wish to protect school-age children. But I have encouraged my 10-year-old son to read all the above novels or listen to the audiobooks while we’re driving. Not only do I find them inventive and thought provoking, but I also think they help expand his mind — at an age when he is starting to process more sophisticated information and is no longer satisfied with simple narratives — and prepare him for a real world that is darker than most merry children’s tales would have him believe.
Read the entire article at Aljazeera America to get an even better idea of the premise of the article.
I was amused to read the suggestion that children’s literature has been watered down and made far less threatening through the years. I believe this assertion even though the history of books that have been banned or suppressed through the years is epic. There are reading groups dedicated to reading Banned Books and although some of the concern is just silly, I will suggest that you can enjoy a broad knowledge of literature simply by reading these Banned Books.
When I was in Third Grade I found a copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on my father’s bookshelf and was reading it when my teacher noticed the book and sent me home with a note strongly suggesting that I restrict my reading to the approved books list and not read books like Macbeth which would certainly interfere with my California State Approved Education Curriculum (later governed by the esteemed and god-like Max Rafferty, the self-professed anti-progressive educator). My parents acquiesced and I wasn’t too concerned at the time: to me, Macbeth was just a books with really neat witches and magic and stuff. Now I look back and wonder if my parents had stood-up to the system and I had read Macbeth and then King Lear and maybe even Ulysses (after the court case occurred, of course) I might have turned out to be much more the rebel at school and maybe even a champion of individualism (although I was considered sui generis by many of the other students at my High School).
But the past is past and I am now content to be an old, opinionated curmudgeon. I have to go back and read all those Wizard of Oz books and see if I still get nightmares. Ironically, Max Rafferty does still give me nightmares and he’s been dead since 1982 and hopefully will stay dead).