Does our risk-averse, Health And Safety aware, psychological damage sensitive culture allow, or even encourage, the inclusion of child murderers in books for very young children?
Yes! But should it?
I was happily writing a new picture book story called ‘Don’t Wake The Crocodile’ when my husband said,
“You can’t write a story about a crocodile who might eat children. Real crocodiles DO eat real children, and it’s a terrible thing.”
Well of course it IS a terrible thing, and not something to be made light of. And yet …. I’m not the only one. Is that any excuse?
Why are crocodiles such favourites in picture books for young children? Is it the thrill of flirting with danger in a way that, for British children, at least, is a danger that seems safely at a distance; in the world of fiction rather than reality? I wouldn’t contemplate writing a jolly story about children flirting with danger when crossing a busy road, for instance. Might our child characters get run over? That would be horrific to contemplate. So am I wrong to play with dangers that are real in other parts of the world? I genuinely don’t know.
I think that the smiley beady-eyed, teeth-on-display looks of a crocodile rather lend themselves to being turned into humans in an animal skin. They are often made to look more goofy than scary. In that form we can think of the crocodile as being a human bully in disguise, and read the story in those emotional terms. To me, it’s that clear fictionalisation of a crocodile into something other than a real crocodile that excuses the use of one in this sort of story. And yet my fictional crocodile lives in an African pool and does threaten to eat the children –
They played Who Can Gobble The Picnic, and it was lovely and cool in the Crocodile’s pool, and everyone was splashy-happy… until the bananas and pineapple and avocados and tangerines and ground nuts were all eaten, and Moses’ little sister said...
“I’m still hungry!”
“Mm,” said Crocodile. “I’m still hungry too! I just might like to gobble-up YOU!”
I had thought that children would relish the frisson of scariness in that crocodile threat that the children then run safely away from. The pictures would need to make clear that this is a game, and not real. But have I got this wrong? I really do want to know, so please share your own thoughts on this.