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.