Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Children's books getting bleaker - study

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Reading under the cover of darkness may not protect children from bleak tales of lost childhoods found through the portal of their story books. Photo / Thinkstock
Reading under the cover of darkness may not protect children from bleak tales of lost childhoods found through the portal of their story books. Photo / Thinkstock

My young boys are fascinated by stories of children who become separated from their parents or their homes, and have to find them again: Are You My Mother?, Finding Nemo, a Mercer Mayer book in which Little Critter gets lost in a mall.

It was the first type of plot they seemed to truly understand, even as one-year-olds. It probably reflects their greatest fear, and the happy-reunion endings restore their faith in the world.

In fact, the storyline of the child who leaves home, has a growth experience and then gratefully returns is considered to be the most common plot in children's literature. (Think Badjelly the Witch, Where the Wild Things Are, The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ... )

But a new analysis of award-winning children's books suggests that the young protagonists of today are more likely to have been abandoned by their parents, feel alienated and/or have no home to return to.

Two American academics - Professors Kathy Short and Melissa Wilson - analysed award-winning books aimed at children aged eight to 12 that were published in Australia, the UK and the United States between 2003 and 2007.

They observed a new common story pattern, in which the book begins with the child being abandoned, rather than voluntarily leaving the home to have an adventure.

"Children's literature is rife with the idea of home," they said. "Home has traditionally been a place where the child protagonist is cared for, loved, and disciplined while waiting to become an adult. Generally, it is the beginning and end of a children's story. This is not to say home is not problematic - it often is. The child is unhappy and goes on a journey of wanderings and adventures to come home with a new appreciation for what was left behind."

Not any more. The academics concluded that the typical child hero of today has a different journey: to construct a new home for themselves, "within a postmodern milieu complete with competing truths and failed adults". The happy ending comes when the child leads the adults to a hopeful ending - a home.

"For these children, childhood is not the happy, carefree time it is 'supposed' to be," Short told the Guardian.

"Children don't leave home on a lark. They are thrust out. These children are not wild things. They are too busy taking care of their troubled parents to have time to follow a rabbit down a hole; too frightened of abuse to trust the Tinman, and too fearful to set out on an adventure for fear that their unreliable parent might not be there when they return."

Of course that sounds a lot like a dozen classic children's books that immediately come to mind. In Roald Dahl's 1961 book James and the Giant Peach, an orphaned James is forced to live with two abusive aunts. He escapes into a magical journey that ends when he creates a new home, with a new "family". And how about nearly any child in a Dickens novel, and all those wicked stepmothers and dysfunctional homes in fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella?

But I guess the point is that this storyline is now the rule, not the exception. It is sad but only logical that the statistics we're always being pelted with about child abuse, absent parents and the like are being reflected in children's literature.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that it's adults writing these books, not children. Are children's authors exploiting the dysfunctional family because it makes for a more dramatic story, rather than reflecting the average child's experience?

It's a common childhood fear that something tragic will happen to your parents. But are we fuelling (largely) irrational new fears - that their parents will abandon them or abuse them or become alcoholics?

But perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Children's author Francesca Simon has offered a more practical explanation:

"In these more protective times, a parent would get social services called on them if they let their child roam about, like Tom Sawyer's did, or the children in Swallows and Amazons.

"The challenge in children's books is to get the parents out of the way. This method is just a variation on a theme. It's not a plot issue; it's a technical issue."

Yep, to a children's author, there's no place like (a dysfunctional) home.

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