Whether you want to call the precedent set by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series a positive change for children’s books or a negative influence, there isn’t any denying that almost every successful book for children has to have a challenging plot, plus be dark and intense than anything written before. This isn’t to say that preschool books still can’t focus on the concept of pure innocence to be a bestseller. But some authors are even starting to encroach on said territory with slightly more sophisticated tales for kids developing sophisticated tastes already at younger ages that are hard to fathom. Although for the ages 9-12 set, there really isn’t any turning back now in capturing the imagination of a grade school reader without delving into stories that delve into the most violent and macabre realms of the imagination.
If children’s writers thought there’d be a chance to turn it around after the tidal wave of Harry Potter, you have definitive proof now it’s at a point of no immediate return with a children’s book written by Neil Gaiman called “The Graveyard Book” winning the prestigious children’s book award, the Newbury Medal. The title does belie the details, despite still being one of the most morose children’s stories ever to hit the bestseller lists.
In the tradition of having protagonist child characters that end up having their family killed in a horrific way and leading to the lead character becoming an orphan, “The Graveyard Book” starts out the same way. Consider Harry Potter to be one of the direct beneficiaries of this idea that you’ll see in many more children’s books down the road. While Potter’s parents were murdered brutally within the periphery of the story, the story of the boy named Bod (or Nobody Owens) in “Graveyard Book” has his parents brutally stabbed to death right in the opening scene of the book. For most parents, that might incite an immediate display of shock and horror that such a book received a Newbury Medal.
Well, the good news is that once the child is taken in as an orphan by a group of ghosts residing in the titled graveyard, things get a little calmer and more relatable to children. It somehow manages to bypass the ability to spook kids realizing ghosts are raising the child of the story. As with Harry Potter, the darkest fears of childhood have now become matter of fact and ultimately make the story even more compelling for children who have to live in a world filled with fear.
To show a chasm here, and if you’ve read customer reviews of “The Graveyard Book” on Amazon and other media sites, you’ll occasionally run across comments from adult readers questioning how children’s lit ended up focused on stories of the macabre of late. The debates hardly ever mention Harry Potter as a heavy influence on exploring the darker sides of life at a younger age–though with points always brought up of one undeniable aspect to children’s writing: Many tales of yore for children were just as dark as they are today, but just went through a long period of time of being written more innocently. That sprung from an eventual conservative philosophy that perhaps was the result of heightened awareness of the world’s horrors and keeping a child’s innocence intact before inevitable assimilation of those horrors.
Trying to determine exactly when children’s stories became more sanitized might be a challenge, even though we know it wasn’t in any century prior to the 20th one when you size up the daring tales of the Brothers Grimm as just a start. The most likely era for America would be in the 1950’s when some of the best-known children’s book classics were written and right after the horrors of WWII when the populace was desperately attempting to construct a utopia of domestic bliss.
If the 1950’s were the key decade of when innocent children’s books truly began, then at least you can say that it was true imagination and education that were at the core of the trend. Despite not being American, C.S. Lewis defined the magic of children’s writing to its basic essence through his Narnia Chronicles that decade in a time when you could tell a compelling tale through sheer wonder. But Lewis didn’t hesitate to get into darker territory, yet always contrasted it with a good side to emphasize the always effective genre of Christian allegory and to give kids a differentiation between each world.
When teaching lessons to kids, it was Dick & Jane who taught the basics of ethical living with nary a hint at the dicey elements of life. And most of the Newbury Medal winners that decade for all ages up to 12 were stories that basked in the elements of learning about life without crossing a line into graphic territory. Nowhere did you see a children’s tale about murder to a child’s family or finding respites in the dark arts. Utopia was always found in the end after going through mild tumult within the real or a fantasy world.
Some might automatically blame the times and kids used to seeing horrific things on a daily basis why kids have suddenly shifted to wanting to read stories that explore the darker sides of life. In reality, kids likely just changed psychologically to a point where they need to explore darker territory in order to appreciate the fleeting utopia moments in their own lives. Even adults are astute enough to admit that exploring the most deeply disturbing elements to life in fiction (or unreality shows) can help us cope with the real world a lot easier. It wouldn’t surprise me if kids would say the same thing today if asked point blank why they’re attracted to these stories.
Whether it’s just a trend or not, it’s a situation that can garner a lot of misunderstandings by adults who grew up with certain guidelines to what makes a great children’s book. Already, there’s been numerous complaints about the Newbury Medal winners the last few years for choosing tales that objectors feel are more adult tales and too violent for kids. The judges who choose these more sophisticated books say that if it moves them, nothing is going to stop them from awarding the medal to the rightful winner.
And so goes the tipping point to what we’ll be seeing in children’s books in the coming decade or perhaps longer.
Of course, stories of ghosts, witches, vampires (i.e. the “Twilight” series) and explorations of murder and similar macabre genres have their circular patterns of becoming redundant after a while. A new era of more innocent tales for kids of all ages may pop up sooner than we think after every other author of children’s fiction follows Harry Potter’s path and covers it over with a million other footprints…