Historically, children’s literature has often featured violence and death. In “Der Struwwelpeter,” a popular German children’s book of rhymed stories written in 1845, a child’s thumbs are cut off because he sucks them. “The Juniper Tree” from Grimms’ Fairy Tales may arguably be the most horrendous fairy tale ever: A woman invites her stepson to fetch an apple from a box and as he peers in, she slams the lid shut, beheading him. She then cooks him in a stew and serves it to her husband. In the Chinese fairy tale “The Wizard’s Lesson,” a man smashes a baby’s head against a rock, and a woman is cut up “inch by inch,” starting at the feet.
Why were traditional fairy tales so gruesome? One theory is that these tales were not meant primarily for children, but rather originated from oral traditions, with adults telling these stories to one another. Another explanation is that the societies these stories grew out of were very different from contemporary Western society, beset with food scarcity and high mortality, and the stories reflected the realities of the age.
Parenting style has also evolved over time. It was Benjamin Spock’s classic “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” that helped shift Western society’s parenting gears by advocating for a gentler approach. Today parents, teachers and librarians don’t voluntarily expose kids to excessively violent literature such as the tales above. And perhaps unsurprisingly, books that are considered dark by today’s standards have nothing on the gore of past literature.
Nevertheless, parents habitually express serious misgivings about certain present-day books. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom keeps track of official complaints filed with schools and libraries requesting that books be removed because of their subject matter. (The association tracks reported challenges only, which it estimates account for only one-fourth or one-fifth of the actual number of challenges such institutions receive.) From 2000 to 2009, for instance, the office recorded 619 challenges filed on the grounds of violence. Some of the books that parents wanted banned: the Harry Potter series; “The Giver,” a distressing dystopian novel written for children; and “Bridge to Terabithia,” a harrowing story that turns on the protagonist’s best friend being killed by lightning.
Those in favor of book bans ostensibly wish to protect school-age children. But I have encouraged my 10-year-old son to read all the above novels or listen to the audiobooks while we’re driving. Not only do I find them inventive and thought provoking, but I also think they help expand his mind — at an age when he is starting to process more sophisticated information and is no longer satisfied with simple narratives — and prepare him for a real world that is darker than most merry children’s tales would have him believe.
Of course, parents aren’t entirely wrong to want to avoid exposing kids to violence. Some studies suggest that children who play violent video games display greater hostility. But other research appears to question the relationship between real-life violence and video games. The science may not be settled yet, but when it comes to violent television shows or video games, I would err on the side of limiting my son’s exposure, mainly because the possible cons are so much greater than the pros.
But the fear with violence on television shows and in video games is that children may get inured to it to the point that they find it acceptable; after all, violence in this context is often repetitive. In contemporary literature, however, violence or darkness tends to be one facet of a story that also embraces themes such as kindness, love and perseverance. In the Harry Potter series, while evil appears to lurk around every corner and characters do get killed, each chapter also features competitions, adventures, teenage jealousy, attraction and acts of friendship. Ultimately, the impression these books create is greater than the sum of their parts.
Swiss author Nicola Bardola supports violence in children’s literature. Violence “is an almost daily part of children’s lives, either directly — through war, civil unrest or abuse at home — or through the all-pervasive media,” he writes in his essay “The Sense of Violence in Children’s Literature.” “It is not right that these children be left alone to deal with these uncomfortable subjects with no recourse to books which can lead them to reflection and deeper understanding. They need children’s books that can help them cope with the circumstances of their lives and the images in the media.”
I have decided that I will not protect my son from certain kinds of somber literature. My reasoning is experiential. My mother passed away unexpectedly when I was 17, and when I look back, one thing that helped me cope with the loss and emerge from the experience intact was the voracious reading I have done ever since I was a child. Likewise, as an adult dealing with a difficult divorce and subsequent single parenthood, the literary novels I read were a solace, reminding me that the human experience can often be a maze of challenges and that I’m not alone in having to solve mine.
This belief that books help cope with life’s difficulties has some scientific grounding. In a paper published in Science in 2013, researchers found that reading literary fiction increased certain social skills, including the capacity for empathy. A recent study, meanwhile, revealed that reading thrilling fantasy stories, such as the Harry Potter series, activates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is associated with the processing of emotions, in a way that other genres don’t.
While I would worry if my son chose only excessively gory books, I suspect that cushioning him from instances of darkness or sadness will handicap him in the same way that helicopter parenting does. After all, when parents swoop in and solve their children’s problems, their self-confidence diminishes in the long run. Similarly, exposing children to a worldview that is full of only amusement and adventure is subverting the truth: While joy is real and precious, life can also be unfair; death, which is inevitable, can also be arbitrary; and evil exists. Children need to know that.