Tonight's topic (ok, technically it is morning) is: Children's Books that are so disturbing that I'm remembering them vividly more than 20 years after they were read to me.
The impulse to write this ramble comes from revisiting a children's movie that came from a book: The NeverEnding Story. In the beginning of the movie, the old bookseller talks about how Bastian's books are "safe." If the boy gets too scared, he can simply close the book and be back in reality. That got me to pondering about why books present things that are scary and dangerous.
Insert flashback music here.
More than 20 years ago, I was given the opportunity to join a Gifted and Talented elementary school program. I was in the 4th grade at the time. One of the reasons that I chose to join the program was the teacher who would be teaching my class. Mrs. Totten was her name. She was engaging, dynamic, and challenging in many stellar ways. She believed in expanding the borders of our infinities, so to speak. She was one of many of my teachers who constantly challenged us to consider how fortunate we were, and how different things could be if our fortunes changed. She also read to us every week. These books that she spent time reading to us were outside of the normal 4th grade books (Where the Red Fern Grows, Wrinkle in Time, Westing Game, My Side of the Mountain, etc.). In these reading sessions, one of the things she insisted on doing was discussing/introducing topics that the modern world might consider too scary or depressing for young children.
The three books that I'm thinking about here are:
The Journey Outside - in which a boy who lives on an underground river in a society for whom "Outside" is a myth falls off of his family raft and discovers the world of trees and sunlight, as well as both the kindness and cruelty of strangers.
Half-a-moon Inn - in which a mute boy is held in captive drudgery by a manipulating and evil innkeeper.
The Girl Who Owned a City - in which all of the adults in the world are killed by disease, and the children are left to rebuild society in their own models.
Lovely thoughts and topics, all of them, right? Yeah, I was really, really disturbed by these, in a rather memorable way. Consider. Here I am, more than 20 years later, able to tell you the names of the books as well as the main points. Still. If you gave me a GT reading list for 4th grade, I could probably name most of the books off of that list which we got to read as well as those which were read to us.
Why? Because they were challenging. They were disturbing, They were beyond the boundaries of comfortable thought and easy reading. Consider that award-winning vocabulary lesson A Wrinkle in Time for a moment. The book is a good challenge for a nine year old to get through on technical terms. Additionally, there is the added layer of mystery, fantasy and loss of safety.
The recent trends toward loss of safety can be seen in the Series of Unfortunate Events, Spiderwick Chronicles, etc. These new series are only extensions of something that Mrs. Totten obviously knew. At some level, privileged and literate elementary school children look for a chance to test the boundaries of safety and comfort. The best method for that is through fiction. And consider - what do all of the following questions have in common in their answers:
What happens when your dog falls through the ice and you don't have time to go for help? What happens when your scientific father discovers a way to travel across time and space and no one else believes he did it? What happens when you fall off of a raft on a river and no one turns around to pick you up? What happens when all of the adults disappear?
You have to fix the problem yourself.
A bunch of privileged, happy kids sitting around in a cloud of squirmy bodies were being taught the beginnings of self-reliance through fiction. We were being taught to project ourselves out of our safety and security into situations which were exciting and fantastical enough that we didn't take them too seriously, and yet, we were internalizing the challenges of the characters all the same. The thrill of rescuing Little Ann by using the lamp handle is one example of a simple solution and a lesson all in one. In that episode we learned about the dangers of thin ice, the uses of bent metal, the limits of a boy's strength and leverage, and problem solving under pressure. The fact that most of us hadn't ever laid hands on an old-fashioned lantern or owned a hunting dog removed the danger from our immediate world and framed the challenge in safe, distant fiction. We could sympathize, but we couldn't quite absorb the sufferings. What we were absorbing were the fundamentals of the solutions.
Our little worlds were being challenged in ways we wouldn't grasp concretely for a long time, if ever. We were troubled in ways that did not fit our frames of reference. We were... disturbed out of our mental sediments.
Ok, back to bed.
Thanks for reading. Go read to a child sometime. You might learn something more, new, again.