Grim lit

Why are children’s books so grim? In The Spectator (use this for registration), Rachel Johnson complains that children’s literature these days is all too devoted to sex and social issues. Instead of reading Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden, her daughter reads about a child who smears the walls with excrement, children who cope with a manic-depressive mother, a girl dumped in a dustbin at birth, etc.

Take Doing It by Melvin Burgess, about three boys learning about sex, and I quote from the blurb:
“Dino really fancies fit, sexy Jackie but she just won’t give him what he wants. Jonathan likes Deborah, but she’s a bit fat — what will his mates say? Ben’s been secretly shagging his teacher for ages. He used to love it, but what if he wants to stop?”

. . . why are some children’s books (pace Potter) so grim? (And I do mean grim rather than dark.) Philip Pullman and Lemony Snicket are dark in the way that C.S. Lewis or Roald Dahl are dark, in an inventive, fantastical, even anarchical way that takes root and sprouts in the child’s imagination. Whereas Doing It and the forthcoming Julie Burchill book, Sugar Rush, which I am told is a joyful exploration of the sunlit teenage world of drugs and lezzies, sound unquestionably grim and narrowly grotty.

Melvin Burgess also wrote Smack about two 14-year-olds who run away from their alcoholic, abusive and/or strict parents and become heroin addicts. It does sound depressing.

My daughter read a lot of social issues books — she must have read a dozen about dyslexia — in her youth, but they were lighter than this: The homeless girl would be a friend, not the main character. The crazy mother would be offstage after the first chapter, replaced by the difficult but basically decent grandmother.

She also read Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and the like. Anne is an orphan sent to live with strangers who want a boy to work on their farm. Mary is a neglected child who’s orphaned; her cousin is a neglected invalid. In Little Women, the father is away fighting the Civil War. Beth dies. Yet these books aren’t grim.

About Joanne


  1. I’ve never read it, but I think Little Women must be pretty grim. It reduced both Moe Syzslak and Chris Samuels to tears.

  2. It is grim.

    All those uplifting classics are still on the shelves in the bookstores and libraries, thank God.

  3. Most of the classics were written by ….Dead…White….Males (yes, yes: A few were DWFs {female}) However, they are all non-PC

  4. Only adults see a child’s hard life as grim. I knew a guy who grew up in eastern Europe in the middle of WWII. He ended up as a child in a forced labor camp. To hear him talk it was a great adventure

  5. Bill called it correctly, sadly. Grimness is the new PC.

    On the plus side, at least now I know I can put away the story I was working on that was set in a sort of faux Middle Ages and involved magic and kid’s stuff like that.

    Now I’m gonna write a serious kid’s book about a 12 year old serial murderer with a cannibal fetish who lashes out at society because he’s a genius but was rejected from medical school because of his dyslexia. He also produces and distributes bestiality porn wit his deranged (divorced) mother, blackmails teachers for fun and profit, sets houses on fire when bored, and writes poems about making bombs, which is what really disturbs “the Man”. The book ends with the misunderstood hero getting into a gun battle with the football team at the local high school.

    It’ll be an indictment of society and how it should have let this poor boy into medical school and why discrimination against murderous, insane, incestuous, sexually perverted, fire-loving, adulterous, cannibalistic pornographers is just plain wrong and backwards-thinking in this modern day and age. It’ll win awards and I’ll make millions because I’ll demand points instead of a flat fee when it becomes a Hollywood blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman as the lonely teacher who is seduced and impregnated by the hero.

    I can’t wait to get home and get started!

  6. Ken Two says:

    CCWBass should stick with his Middle Age set story. Only problem being that he will have to include a short entry explaining that middle age is not a stop on the road from the 30’s to the 50’s. So much for History.

    As someone presently writing a book which will aim at children and parents of children I cannot imagine not writing about something I know. So the authors of the grim tales noted in the column likely have done just that. My world is not of drugs. And I question whether readers are druggies.

    Where the compelling story goes – do they climb out of the cave and darkness and find the truth – is one of the measures on MY guage of the success of any story. But that’s because I am looking to illuminate truth and I am comfortable in the clothes I wear.

    But I have no desire to sit in a sewer or have my kids sit in one so the contemporary books Joanne mentions probably won’t be read by us.

    There’s a renewal of applauding the heroic in what is offered in literature and movies and I think, despite the setting, readers and viewers appreciate that in a character. Truly grim is when nobility of character is not rewarded by the outcome of the struggle.

    But that’s what sequels are for.

  7. interested observer says:


    Unfortunately, just the description of your new book is more interesting than much of what is actually being published today.

    In the past, imagination and wonderful characters filled books. Today, to paraphrase the Pentagon, “Shock and Grim” best describes the tactics of the new literature.

  8. [serious face on]

    My own childhood – I turned 12 in ’77 – was an endless series of fistfights and other horrors outside of the home (while in the home it was sibling warfare, which we all laugh about today), and it seems positively halcyon compared to what is presented today.

    But it was still scary and rough. I remember day coming home absolutely covered – head to toe – in spit on a day I decided NOT to fight back (never made that mistake again). Books were my escape FROM grimness, or at least a place to go to be reminded that, sure things can get tough, but hopelessness is the real killer. So I naturally respond rather harshly to the news that grimness – as opposed to beauty and wonder and morality lessons – is now the new ideal. Hey, today’s authors; kids already know life is frickin’ hard, thanks. Show them an alternative.

    [serious face off]

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    counterclockwise, Michael Moore has already done the movie.

    Ever since I learned that wells were located in hollows rather than on hilltops I have wondered why Jack and Jill REALLY went there.

    [My first theatrical role was as Jack in a panorama at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, in 1937. It has been downhill, dramaticly, ever since.]

  10. Bill Leonard says:

    FWIW, I started school in 1948. The popular and traditional nursery rhymes and stories of the time were much of the standard literary fare.

    And in candor, many of them scared me silly. Hansel and Gretel, where kids are to be put in the oven? Jack and the Beanstalk, where a giant says, “Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman” and kills and eats people? Any number of stories where a wicked stepmother forces a father to abandon his children? Any number of stories in which a wicked uncle or aunt (apparently a common figure in Germanic, which includes English, folk tales) sells or gives away children?

    This is scary stuff. I must say, I was very selective about nursery rhymes and stories with my kids. I will contiune to be so as a grandfather.

  11. Eric Jablow says:

    I remember an article in the Weekly Standard magazine that claimed that the source of all evil was R. L. Stine. I’m beginning to agree.

  12. mike from oregon says:

    Eric –

    I’m not sure where or when my oldest got started/hooked on the R.L. Stine books, but at the time was a bit concerned about it. However, at the time it was pointed out to me, that she wasn’t much of a reader and anything that got her to read was a good start. So reluctantly I allowed her to get her fill of that ilk. Thankfully within a couple years she developed into a beautiful reader and reads anything she can get her hands on. Old R.L. is just a vague, bad memory in the rear view mirror. She’s even read the C.S. Lewis series Tales of Narnia (about as far as R.L. as you can get). Moral of the story, letting her read crap turned her into a reader.

    As for the junk discussed in this article – yuck. I can’t see how reading any of it would either be interesting or help turn one into a reader. But maybe that’s just me.

  13. I always felt that it was very grim that my mother named me after the one who died in Little Women.

    When I was a kid, Trixie Belden books were my favorites – they were not grim.

  14. Unfortunately there has been a trend toward disgusting and unsuitable material for young children for years.

    When my oldest (now 22) was in 4th or 5th grade she came home from school with a booklist. Read some titles, picked the ones that sounded nice, sent off the list. One book scared my daughter so much I took it and read it.

    I was horrified. The story, for young girls, was this horridly morbid tale of a twin who was brain damaged in a horse riding accident, and following that accident her little sister takes revenge on all the people she felt wronged her sister by going on with their lives. She ends up basically committing suicide by going under the ice.

    I couldn’t conceive of how that story was suppose to teach or inform or guide or anything but deform a child’s life.

    Now I see things have gotten much worse. I pre-read my child’s books now, having learned.

  15. I did read Philip Pullman’s “Golden Compass” and, although no-one likes it much when I say this, there are scenes in it with seriously bad mojo. Take the one where they grab Lyra’s daemon against her will.

    But I was reading Stephen Donaldson at the age of 14 so I guess I can’t talk.

  16. Nobody likes the Golden Compass series? Maybe I’m too old (read them as they came out, and I am 30 now) but I just loved that series, almost as much as Narnia.

    I remember reading “Go Ask Alice” in 8th grade or so. I guess that was grim, but Alice was pretty positive through the whole book. Positive that doing drugs was a good thing, then positive that she could kick the habit.

  17. Dhanson says:

    The Phillip Pullman “His Dark Materials” books are indeed scary–they disturbed me enough that I dragged my feet for quite a while before allowing my daughter to read them (she was 10 at the time). They didn’t bother her as much as they did me, but I was glad I read them first and was able to talk to her about some aspects of the books both before and while she was reading them.

  18. The Secret Garden is a very grim book. I don’t think grimness (if that’s a word) is a modern concept. We might not like these modern books, but I think they do expose children to aspects of life they normally would experience and let them handle it vicariously.


  1. Willow Tree says:

    Reading for DISpleasure

    Arming children with good books.