Tales of a Seventh-Grade Scare Tactic

The new Gothicism of children’s books.

Consider this scenario, taken from a children’s book: An 11-year-old girl is wandering the streets of New York. Her parents don’t know where she is. She walks down alleys, climbs onto roofs, and actually breaks into strangers’ houses. What is the likely fate for this child?

Well, it depends on when the book was written. In a contemporary book, she would certainly be about to learn, the hard way, the results of such dangerous behavior: She might be kidnapped, or threatened, or encounter bad boys or drugs. Maybe she would be removed from the home where she is so tragically unsupervised. But in 1964, she was Harriet M. Welsch, heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. The note-taking she does in strangers’ houses teaches her valuable lessons and constitutes the safest, happiest part of her life. Harriet the Spy would surely be unpublishable as a new book today.

These days, there is no end to what can go wrong in the kids’ section of a bookstore or library. Just try visiting one: You’ll find utterly unmemorable, dreary, pointed tales in which girls and boys learn their lessons—actual and moral—in the most punishing way possible. What these books resemble most are Victorian tracts: moral tales where every action had to be met with an equal and opposite reaction. This genre’s marketing name is “realistic fiction,” but I prefer Dreadlit. On these shelves, children never enjoy any kind of unsupervised life without dire results. No one can misbehave or even take normal risks (lie to Mom, go out alone) without being made to realize what an awful mistake it was.

The range of dire results climbs with the age of the book’s intended audience. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, by Jack Gantos, intended for 9- to 12-year-olds, is about a horrible child on Ritalin who behaves appallingly and causes endless trouble. It could be called, except—oh dear—that’s the title of the sequel. In David Patneaude’s Framed in Fire, seventh-grader Peter has a few problems, behaves badly at home and school, so he’s immediately off to the mental hospital to make friends with an anorexic girl and a delusional boy. By the time you hit eighth grade, you’re in for serious risk of personal injury: The heroine of Laurie Halse Anderson’s goes to a drunken teen-age party, gets raped, calls the cops, and loses all her friends. Or take It Happened to Nancy—apparently nonfiction, published anonymously—“Nancy was an innocent fourteen-year-old when she fell in love. … Then he date-raped her and left her—infected with the HIV virus.” The book is her diary as she moves toward death. (I, who swore I would never censor, removed that one from the hands of my fifth-grader.) A book by Julius Lester is called When Dad Killed Mom, the blurb helpfully explaining, “Jenna suspected her parents’ marriage was in trouble.”

It often is. In addition to whatever they bring on themselves, today’s fictional children also have operatically unreliable parents: often only one and often with a substance-abuse problem. Then there is a bizarrely high incidence of cancer in these books, and the death rate in general is surely higher than is found in real life. (The prize author here is Lurlene McDaniel, whose works, aimed at the over-12s, include A Time To DieSix Months To Live, Don’t Die My Love, Until Angels Close My Eyes, and many, many more.) 

To be sure, children’s books have always terrorized their readers—but with mostly happy results. Monsters, space creatures, and dark, lonely houses are all designed to provoke healthy shivers and to let kids excise some of their darkest, least rational fears. Likewise, children’s literature has long featured strong moral overtones. But the most beloved and durable of these tales dress up their lesson plans in entertaining metaphors and fables. The new agents of fear—drugs, death, disease—are just plain terrifying, with no entertainment or allegorical value.

Of course, children can still find more cheerful and entertaining adventures, but they have to turn to science fiction, adventure, fantasy, or historical novels (ironic, considering we think of children in past times as leading more constrained lives). The neuroticism of Dreadlit may be the millionth reason why children like so much—he can go wandering round after dark, and his parents are dead rather than abusive. Similarly, authors such as Gary Paulsen strand their children in the wilderness, with excellent adventurous results. The sublime satirizes Dreadlit—the Baudelaire orphans suffer from a hilariously gothic pileup of miseries. Even the 9- to 12-year-olds who form the majority of Lemony fans are sharp enough to get the joke.

How to account for the neo-gothic shift of so much children’s literature? The most obvious explanation is that the world is simply a grimmer place now than it was when Harriet was published. Susan Rich of HarperCollins, editor of the Lemony Snicket series, explains the darkness of Dreadlit as “an overreaction to the discovery that it was possible to write and publish such stuff. … We’re using more and more shocking anecdotes to tell the same cautionary tales that have already been told.” She’s right: Earlier adventure books suffered from a certain willful naiveté. Characters ran away a lot, often to go in search of some lost relative: You don’t need to be told what would happen to a modern hero who tried that, but it was probably not a great idea back in the day, either. Another staple was the friendly adult stranger: Children in pursuit of an adventure might flag down a car (or even a farmer and his wagon) and the stranger would turn out to be someone terribly nice who helped them. No wonder there’s now a backlash against this kind of dopey innocence.

But are these reasons enough to justify constraining children’s imaginary adventures? Modern parents spend a lot of time trying to work out how to give their children a little more independence and freedom, even though kids can’t go out unaccompanied as previous generations did. Mightn’t a bit of practice in books help out?