My best friend in high school had been sexually abused by her father from the time she was twelve until she left home at eighteen. My fourteen-year-old niece was raped when someone she trusted sold her virginity for drugs. When my daughter was five, a young boy her age was kidnapped by strangers from a playground less than a mile from where we lived.
He’s never been found. A thirteen-year-old girl attending my children’s school was seduced into drug addiction and prostitution by a “friend”. When my son was fourteen, his friend and classmate committed suicide. At my seventeen-year-old daughter’s graduation party, a young man was so severely beaten by his drunken peers that he was hospitalized and permanently disabled.
My brother and I grew up in a solid, respectable middle-class neighbourhood. My niece was raised in a middle class neighbourhood, and my children grew up in one of the most privileged sections in our city. None of us came from the underclass, the inner city, where abuse, booze and drugs supposedly contribute to everyday violence, abuse and mayhem. These dark realities are something every child has to deal with today. If they aren’t the victims, then it’s a guarantee that they know victims, whether they’re in exclusive private schools, middle class public facilities, the family dining room that doubles as a classroom, or the inner city battle grounds. The metal detectors and security personnel which are standard in many schools aren’t always an overreaction. In a lot of cases, they’re necessary.
A little further from home, grown men steal children, hand them rifles and teach them to shoot and kill other children. According to Amnesty International, “hundreds of thousands of children are recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a variety of other armed groups. Often they are abducted at school, on the streets or at home.”
Clinging to Illusions
The belief that childhood is a time of innocence and purity, that children are somehow protected from or unaware of the darker sides of human nature is a myth that we cling to desperately, and a lot of parents (and writers) demand their children’s literature reflect that illusion. It’s one of the reasons Maurice Sendak had trouble in his early career, and why Madeleine L’Engle took ten years to publish her second young adult novel. The general consensus was, and still is to some extent, that children shouldn’t be exposed to the darker side of human nature, whether it’s dancing with the wild things, the knowledge that death brings both sorrow and blessings, extra dimensional creatures who don’t understand or believe in love, a boarding school of witches, or children forced to kill each other in a dictatorial and repressive dystopia.
Christian publishers and parents in particular seem to feel that all children’s literature, whether it comes with a Christian label or not, must on the surface and in plain visible sight espouse Christian and/or Orthodox values, and the main characters must act in accordance with the highest ideals of our faith, regardless of what other redemptive elements may exist in the book on deeper levels. They think that somehow, children’s literature, whether it’s for children just learning to read or for older children who are learning to deal with the realities of life in a secular, cold and often evil world, must not show these realities – that fiction should only be about light, good and uplifting things, both on the surface and on deeper levels.
While it’s true that some kids’ books miss any redemptive mark on any level, it’s untrue to claim that because a book tackles a dark and dangerous subject and does so with characters who insist on acting like real, fallen human beings, those books have no redeeming features and should be kept away from children. Whether its young children learning to deal with their own dark emotions of anger and frustration (which “Where the Wild Things Are” does brilliantly) or older children and teens grappling with the conflicting values of their faith and the secular culture they live in, or trying to find a Christian, Orthodox response to the pain and degradation in the world around them, the “darker, edgier” literature can aid children and teens in coming to terms with and finding healthy, faith-filled answers to the problems they encounter.
Looking Beyond the Surface
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are has been recognized as a book that gives young children a way of understanding their feelings of anger. A Wrinkle in Time showed, among other things, the redemptive power of love. Meet the Austins was a work that allowed children to vicariously experience the death of a parent and through the characters affected by it, see how love and respect help a child cope with that loss. Both were by Madeleine L’Engle – an overtly Christian writer, yet both of these works were rejected time and time again because they were too “dark” for children, and Wrinkle remains on the ALA’s list of 100 most Frequently Challenged books. The Harry Potter series is, underneath the “witchy” surface, a profoundly Christian work that, in its final volume, re-enacts the death and resurrection of Christ. The Hunger Games shows the effects of selfless sacrifice in the face of a society that devalues human worth and dignity, and Chinese Handcuffs by YA author Chris Crutcher shows a boy coming to terms with his brother’s suicide.
We need light, uplifting fiction for children. We need humorous, light-hearted and fun books for our kids. But we also need the dark, heavy and uncomfortable books that will challenge our young people to think about their faith and how that faith works out in a cold, cruel and sometimes evil world. If we can teach them about Christ’s response to the cruelty and inhumanity He experienced, then why can’t we show them, through fiction, how His response is still the best answer in today’s equally cruel and inhumane world?