Monday, 6 May 2019

Horror In Picture Books, by Pippa Goodhart

I have a new early reader picture book published this month, and it’s a ‘sort of’ retelling of a well-known tale. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s actually very very different from that well-known tale. Why? Because the original story is horrific! Working on adapting that story has set me thinking about which sorts of horror are, and aren’t, allowed in picture books.
            The story I was asked to write a simple version of was Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ story. Children love mermaids, especially little ones. They love Disney’s ‘Ariel’ story, based on Andersen’s tale. But the original story is very much about sex and temptation and damnation, and it is full of violence. The young woman Little Mermaid falls in love with a drowning prince whose life she saves. She wants to join the prince on land. So she goes to the Sea Witch who makes her a horrible offer. She will chop out the Little Mermaid’s tongue in exchange for giving her a pair of legs, and those legs and feet will always feel as if they are walking on sharp knives, and bleed. If the little mermaid can get the prince to marry her, she will attain a human soul, and go to Heaven when she dies. If not she will die and become sea foam. But the prince marries another. The Little Mermaid is dying, but her sisters save her with a new deal from the Sea Witch. The Little Mermaid will become a sea sprite instead of foam, and if she does good deeds for three hundred years she will then rise to The Kingdom of God. 
            Is that a pleasant story for young children to practice their reading skills on? No! So my story is about a child mermaid who wants to play with children on the beach. She chooses to have legs as her birthday wish, has a happy time with new friends, but decides she wants to go home to her own family, just in time before midnight when the legs would become permanent. 

            Which other classic stories have we changed to suit our modern sensibilities when rewriting those stories for very young children? No modern picture book version of the Cinderella story includes her sisters having their eyes pecked out by doves as happens in the Grimm brothers’ version of it. You won’t find picture books of the story of Noah’s Flood that include the people and animals drowning as God saves just those in the Ark.

            And yet we don’t always shy away from real horror of kinds much closer to home for young children. Think of award-winning powerful simple picture book ‘The Journey’ by Francesca Sanna. 

In that book we see the father going out into danger and not coming back. We see the mother in tears as she hurries with her children in search of safety. That safety isn’t sure for them even by the end of the book. It’s a book that is emotionally honest about war and killing and homelessness; what it is to be a refugee. But we don’t see the perpetrators of that death and destruction. 
Is the dividing line between what can, and can’t, be depicted in stories for young children the line between showing the violence and showing the aftermath of that violence? Should we judge differently between ‘real’ and clearly fictional horror in stories when deciding which horrors should, and shouldn’t, be included? Discuss….!   

1 comment:

Terry Doherty said...

Great, great question. To the question "what other tales have we changed," I would say Jack tales. Jack and the Beanstalk being one of many stories of violence - some quite graphic.

For the question of the dividing line, for me, two things come into play. 1. The realism. Can we sympathize with Cinderella? Yes. Do we empathize? No. Hers is not our experience. A child losing a parent - that is something where readers can build a connection bridge. 2. The audience. Picture books intended for older children (8+) may be "heavier" in their stories. Whether through word or illustration, the key word is "show" and where we want our readers' emotions focused. Understanding the impact on the characters we see/know/connect can be done with metaphor and carefully chosen words, not gory text or illustration.