Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?
February 27, 2010 2 Comments
Fairytales and Censoring Reality
Everyone is familiar (I hope) with the classical fairytales. They’ve been deconstructed, reconstructed, parodied, devoured, destroyed, homogenised and fed to us since their inception, but we always remember the basic, original concepts the best. Girl visits grandma, girl gets pre-empted by extremely shady wolf, grandma gets eaten, wolf gets stabbed in the gut and everyone leaves happy (except for the wolf). They are straightforward, they are often very dark, and they represent the simple aphorisms of our childhood, drilling into us what we should and should not do (in the last case, well, strangers are bad, kiddies, and don’t fucking wander around alone, kiddies) and telling an entertaining story along the way.
These stories are timeless. And there’s your difficulty in writing children’s literature (and to a lesser extent, any literature): everything’s already been told, and told well, so all you can do is mine old material and hope for the best.
So the best of modern children’s literature are books that take what make the classic fairytales great, and build upon them with modern wit and good storytelling, and perhaps even make them a little more relevant to today’s children, to make it worth putting next to your tome of classic fairytales such that you can read it to them. Stuff that in a very straightforward way reflects reality whilst still being entertaining. This is also true of children’s movies and what have you. Thus there are still worthwhile ones being written, such as the works of Neil Gaiman, and this article in particular was inspired by one I recently read, The Scarecrow and his Servant by Phillip Pullman. And I can enjoy these new ones even in my old age (ha!): they still speak to the child in me, and they still reflect reality in ways both dark and startlingly funny (and of course, there’s just some damn good writing and storytelling in there, too).
The real world is scary, dark, terrible, full of suffering (hence the darkness of good children’s literature). In fact, it would be rather boring if it were not so. Which brings me to my broader point: why is society so bent on censoring reality? So bent on taking these aphorisms away from our children because of their dark nature. Imagine if Little Red Riding Hood was a brand new book, and if the wolf was instead explicitly a child predator, a paedophile (a variation of the story actually does have a sexual slant, if I recall). The story would be no less potent, but nonetheless: parents would be outraged, the book would be banned from libraries, and they would go back to “protecting” their children from these evil concepts.
In doing so, we are simply screwing our children up in a much worse way (and I am not just talking about kid’s books anymore). We paint a stunted picture of reality and create stunted little children who grow up into stunted little adolescents and men with naïve, stunted little minds. Their perceptions are so warped (or nonexistent) that they are ill-equipped with facing real life. As soon as they’re left on their own, left to fend for themselves, they enter into the herds of the equally ill-equipped for protection: the cliques, the emos and stoners and hipsters and whatever else. Or even worse, they’re already in a clique, one they’ll never escape from, such as organised religion (who ideally want everybody in the world to be like this, sad to say). To be an individual, you have to be above the herd, and to do that, you need strength. And that strength comes from understanding and knowledge. Without that strength, they are seduced by the worst, the weakest of things, because they don’t know any better.
So, we need to scare our children. Teach them of suffering. Terrorise them. Read to them! As long as the heroes win out in the end, our kids can handle it, trust me. Academia will make them intelligent, but fairytales will make them wise, in a position to actually use that knowledge to put themselves above the herd. And when that time comes, they will have no more need of fairytales. They will be the heroes of their own tales: they will not run from their demons and their enemies, they will slay them.