Monday, May 11, 2015

The Darkness of Nursery Tales by Kell Andrews

The other day my family and I was listening to an audiobook during a car ride -- a middle-grade fantasy that retells a Grimm fairy tale. And of course, the princess's father died right in the beginning.

My husband complained -- he's tired of all the dead parents of children's literature. I defended the plot because that's how stories work. Happy lives make dull books. The main character has to act on her own. She must suffer before she triumphs. She must face conflict.

Still, like my husband, I have tried to shelter my children from some literary losses -- we haven't read Charlotte's Web or The Bridge to Terabithia. We never watched Bambi. We haven't read the gruesomest Grimm tales that fascinated me as a child -- the murdered stepson served as stew, the barrel studded inside with nails.

I remember my daughter flipping through my copy of Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book by Christina Rossetti. She was attracted by the little girl on the cover cavorting with a lamb, one of the gorgeous original illustrations by Arthur Hughes, the Pre-Raphaelite whose illustrations for George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin.

Many of the poems in Sing-Song cover familiar childhood experiences, including many sweet, touching, and funny subjects. But the poems often take a dark turn, familiar to Victorians for whom the living and dead existed side by side.

For example, a poem about a bird:

A sweet poem about sisters that takes a dark turn:

A bedtime poem from which there is no waking:

Children's literature has always dealt with death -- fairy tales are notoriously grisly in their original versions, and the origins of many nursery rhymes is similarly macabre. And Victorian childhood has always been a risky world, where infant and maternal mortality was an ever present risk. Literature for children reflected that then, just as it reflects the darker side of our world now. Children still face risk even when we try to protect them.

I don't like torturing my beloved characters, but for readers, these kinds of stories are better than life lessons.  Encountering loss between the covers of a book is far better than in real life.

Recently, I warned my daughter against Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but she read it anyway and was sorry by the end. But that's how losses happen, in books as well as life. You don't know they will happen until they do.

And when real loss happens, a book offers solace. Others have felt as you do. Others have survived. And so will you.


  1. I was morbidly fascinated by dark fairy tales when I was a kid, and as I recall, the worst ones were in old books that I found in my grandparents' houses. The newer ones written when I was a kid (okay, the 70s) were all sugar-coated. But I squirreled away and savored the older, gorier ones!

  2. That's the job of fairy tales, to scare us and bring us a dose of grimness. Loved this post.

  3. What a great insight about how death was much more prevalent in Victorian times, especially infant mortality.

    Great post!

  4. I agree - I think fairy tales and the darker nursery rhymes give us a vocabulary for death we otherwise keep at arm's length in our death-avoidant culture.

    That being said, I still pause quite a bit when doing read alouds with my kids from original fairy tales or myths. Tough line to walk.

  5. It's really funny -- a couple days ago I was just reading about how fairy tales are supposed to be a symbol of hope and wonder (even if everything in the story went horribly, horribly wrong) and making them dark and gritty was missing the point.

    To be fair, I think that author was talking about the modern retellings where everything is a metaphor for drugs. Still, it's interesting to see just how much darkness and light there is in these stories -- especially if a person has previously thought of them as mostly one or the other.

  6. I'm of two minds on this issue,

    I agree we need to allow books that allow kids and teens to take risks between the covers, but I also believe that everyone's threshhold for stories dark by nature is different, we need a range.

    I wouldn't have been ready for Dianne Setterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale" when it first came out in my late teens, but I heard the audiboook in my mid 20s and LOVED it, and it's not my usual reading,

    At the same time, I see nothing wrong with wanting to put a friendlier face on classic tales, like the previous post about humor, kids and teens want laugh as much as they demand honesty from the characters they read about, especially when the reader knows it's

    "The Three Little Pigs" story has be told and re-told with varying levels of grittiness and downright silliness for ages, and as long as we have access to the original story, I see no reason why they can't co-exist.

    Two of the most poigant examples I can think of are "There's A Wolf At The Door" where various Grimm's tales and Aesop's Fables are played out by a single wolf (versus it being a different wolf every story) and is totally played for laughs, but has an underlying meanace about it.
    (Check out my Fan Trailer For it)

    But it's one of those picture books that older kids would like because it's not inherently "babyish" and the graphic novel format makes for a unique presentation you don't often see in picture books, at least not in the time it first came out, now there a few more picture books in comic/graphic novel format, but they skew a lot younger (like Babymouse).

    Constrasting that is "BB Wolf and the Three LPs" (Also in Graphic novel format, but NOT a picture book) which uses the "Three Little Pigs" story as a framework to tell a gut-wrenching raw noir tale about racism at its cruelest, and while it's not for little kids, brave readers 16+ will get the chills on some level.

    I'd say it's FAR grittier than the original story, in large part because of the subject matter and moments of hardcore (but plot-approriate) violence and language. I don't just mean the swearing, but the sophstication of the overall storytelling.

    Just because some aren't ready for say "Thirteen Reasons Why" or Patricia McCormick's "Sold" doesn't mean they can't handle something heavier than something more lighthearted and seriously, a lot of the earlier Disney versions of fairy tales were DARK and forboding, think "The Black Cauldron" or "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Even "The Sword in the Stone" had some chilling parts, while also having funny bits, too.

    To Be Continued...

    1. My upcoming MG novel "Gabriel" deals with bullying, and I treat it with the "Keep it Real" respect it deserves, but it also has humor and moments of tenderness, and I don't apologize for it.

      In earlier drafts, there was a LOT more violence than what my now editor saw and will likely be in the final book (we're still going through edits) but it was too much, and while I'm admittedly more squeamish than the average person my age, even as a kid, I made the violent scenes more intense because bullying's become a lot more lethal than when I was a kid (pre-Columbine) and most of the bullying I endured was verbal, not physical.

      But that's often a disconnect in books I read where when girls and bullyng girls, it's often more verval than phsyical, or the verbal indirect bullying was a grater percentage, and boys bullying other boys and girls tended be more physically violent, but that wasn't my experience.

      Still, I felt given the kind of character Rum (my antagonist) is, his bullying Gabriel would be highly physical than what I experienced.

      But it would have a verbal component, and I wanted to establish early on Rum's not an idiotic thug, but that he actually had a brain, and used that as much as his physicality and domineering personality (inverting a common stereotype of bullies in general, but boys in particular)

      Eventually, I did have to tone it back because it was overdone in places, but because I'm more skiddish about blood and gore than most my age, I felt the need initally to push the violence further, not to be gratitious, but reflect that bullying today is more onimous yet intaimate than it was when I was a kid.

      I'm pretty sure (based on what I've read and learned from earlier points in time) bullying at school from the early 1900s was not usually at the "Columbine" level it can get to now.

      I also think we need to put "Dark" in perspective. It ultimately comes down to the story you want to tell, if it' going to be dark in nature, so be it, ubt it's important to consider that there are

      I know some writers insist you either "Go big or go home" but sometimes it's not that clear cut.

      You can still tell an honest and raw story, but it doesn't have play out like a Shakeperian tragedy (and I mean that solely from a thematic, not literal standpoint) you can have moments of humor and joy, and still be honest and raw when it matters.

      A good examlpe of this is "One Piece" in both the original graphic novel and the anime, there's crazy funny (and downright weird) stuff, but I also love it's not afraid to get serious and deep when the characters and story demands it, and it will demand it, especially in the current story arc right now. Be prepared to CRY as much as you laugh with this series.

      I think the problem comes when we try too hard to be funny or serious.

      Having the right ratios (I know "balance" is a loaded word for most people, so I use ratios) will be different for every author and every book the author writes.

      My level of darkness will be tame to some and gut-wretching to others.

      I think whenever we talk about this issue we forget that it's not always about being developmentally approriate (RE: Kid/Teen readers) but simply personal preference, and I'm sure there are kids who may not as into the dark. Or they may love gritty books, but want light-hearted television or movies to balance it out.

  7. Kell, thank you for these wise words--I love your final point, that a dark story can also be comforting, because it reminds you that "others have felt as you do." Yes, indeed....

  8. So wonderfully said, Kell! Katherine Paterson talks about books being a dress rehearsal for life. I've always loved this idea. Stories provide us with a way to experience the sometimes scary world in safety, or, if in a scary situation ourselves, they give us comfort and hope.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!