Monday, 27 May 2019

Why Are We Afraid of the Dark? by Timothy Knapman

The great writer and illustrator Tomi Ungerer died this year.  I was very fortunate to see him a few years ago at Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, launching a “treasury” of six of his books that Phaidon were publishing. He was in his mid-eighties but still as spry and as sly as ever.  

Gripping his walking stick and looking like an Old Testament prophet who had spent more than his fair share of time in the wilderness, he was full of firmly held and not-to-be-questioned opinions: principally, that anyone who wanted to write picture books should teach themselves to draw because it was imperative that they illustrate them as well.  I’m not sure I agree with him on that, but something else he said did resonate with me.  For years, he told us, he’d been trying to get his books republished but in vain (the Phaidon edition is excellent, but it’s large and expensive: more an exercise in nostalgia for those of us who read him years ago than a practical way to introduce him to younger readers).

I think I know why. I loved Tomi for his storytelling and for his visual style (the éclair-like fingers and pudgy, good-enough-to-eat limbs and faces looked almost like the work of an especially witty pâtissier) but most of all for what we would now call his “darkness”.

Zeralda’s Ogre by Tomi Ungerer

My favourite of his books – one of the few picture books I still own from my childhood – is called Zeralda’s Ogre.  Zeralda is a farmer’s daughter, a girl of pluck and resource who is also a wonderful cook.  One market day, her father falls ill so Zeralda elects to take the farm’s produce to the local town to sell it (the setting seems to be a fairy tale nowhere land in the vicinity of Ungerer’s native Alsace).  What Zeralda does not know is that the town has been living in fear of a terrible ogre who eats children.  Parents have taken to hiding their children away so that they won’t get carried off. Good news for the children, bad news for the ogre, who has had nothing to eat for a long time now.  So imagine his joy when he sees little Zeralda on her cart, heading heedlessly straight into town.  He waits until the right moment and pounces on her.  Only his senses have been dimmed by lack of food and he misses the cart, falling on the road and bashing his head.  Zeralda – not knowing he’s an ogre – takes pity on this apparently poor, injured man, bandaging his head and cooking up some of her farm produce as she nurses him back to health.

The first mouthful is a revelation to the ogre – there’s something that tastes even nicer than children! – so Zeralda cooks him a banquet of ever more wonderful dishes (for some reason, “Chocolate sauce Rasputin” and “Pompano Sarah Bernhardt” always stuck in my memory) until he gives up on the whole being-an-ogre business. The parents of the town let their children out to play safely in the streets again.  The ogre shaves off his beard and, when she is old enough, marries Zeralda.  On the last page, we see a picture of the happy family; proud parents Zeralda and her ex-ogre are surrounded by their offspring and Zeralda has a baby in her arms. One of her older children leans over his new-born sibling, apparently adoringly.  But behind his back – visible to us but not to his parents – he holds a knife and fork.

I don’t know why that image has stayed with me ever since.  I do remember thinking it was funny rather than scary.  I was a ghoulish child, I suppose.  But – more than that – it’s the subversiveness of the image, the feeling that “you’re not supposed to do that! How did he get away with it?” that was – and remains – truly thrilling.  It was a glimpse of a world beyond the safe and saccharine fare that comprised the bulk of what was on offer to children then, and is even more prevalent today.

Because - as Tomi Ungerer discovered - there is no way you could get a book like that published now. Public taste in children’s books has turned decisively against anything that might be thought to be in anyway scary or upsetting.  And that is a huge shame – and a great loss, I think, for the current generation of children.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my young readers (it may sound pretentious to say it, but writing is an act of love: it has to be or it’s not worth doing); I don’t want to give children nightmares and I don’t want to upset or traumatise them.  Of course I understand that loving parents want to keep bad and hurtful things away from them.  But it worries me that the books they are allowed to read nowadays deliberately avoid territory that used to be part of the landscape of children’s books, limiting the very important job that stories for the young are supposed to perform.

There’s no doubt that the folk and fairy story collections – by the Brothers Grimm and the rest – that stand behind modern children’s literature are full of robustly bloodthirsty stuff.  At the end of the original Snow White, the Wicked Queen is made to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes.  Hansel and Gretel only escape being the main course at a witch’s cannibal banquet by beheading the old woman before she can murder them.  And then there are all those big bad wolves waiting to devour you if you take a wrong turning off the forest path.

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Little Red Riding Hood

Of course, these stories were intended, in part at least, to be warnings.  When they were being told in the years before the Grimms started writing them down, the countryside was a dangerous place for children.  They needed to be taught to keep an eye out for the threats that lurked in the dark places of their world if they were going to stand any chance of making it to adulthood.  The perils of the time also accounted for the level of cruelty depicted.

It might be argued that such warnings are no longer needed.  Why ruin a child’s bedtime by telling her a story about ravening wolves if she is going to spend her early years constantly supervised by caring adults who’ll spend their lives driving her from home to school to birthday party to sleepover? And it is true that, while the world is still, for many, a dangerous place, the lives of my readers are (thank goodness) infinitely safer and more enjoyable than those of their many-times-great-grandmothers and fathers who grew up in the shadow of the wolf-infested forest.

But metaphorical wolves can be as dangerous as real ones.  I am writing this on the day of the European elections (which may explain the dark turn my thoughts have taken) and the polling station where I voted is my local primary school.  Its walls are plastered in warnings and exhortations about “school values” and the correct way children should behave towards one another.  You don’t have to study them for long to see that today’s children still have problems to confront – about learning to control their antisocial impulses and cope with those of others: about dealing with the darkness inside all of us – just as earlier generations did.  The difference is that fiction and the imagination are no longer seen as appropriate places to engage with those problems.  There should only be sweetness and light on the bookshelf, at which point the bookshelf becomes a kind of lie because life isn’t like that.

I’m not saying that the principal purpose of children’s books is to tell their young readers how to behave and I know that the time for a book such as Struwwelpeter, with its threat of amputation as a way of discouraging thumb-sucking, has come and gone. I don’t, in fact, like “cautionary tales” except when someone of a particular genius, such as Hilaire Belloc, is writing them, because then you’re not reading for instruction but for entertainment.  Art is art and doesn’t need to be useful to justify itself.  And that’s the thing about a lot of scary books – one of the reasons I think children should read them is because they’re fun!

Some of the fun is obvious, because a lot of scary books are also very funny.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise: fear and amusement are very similar – both provoke a physical response,  be it screaming or laughter.  Also, comedy is an intellectual process: it resists emotional identification and so makes scary things easier to deal with.  Just think of the comedy staple of a man tripping over a banana peel: it’s hilarious providing you remain at a cool intellectual distance from the man and his plight and don’t start to feel for him, and imagine his physical pain and his embarrassment.  As Horace Walpole said, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”

Call me cool and distant but I think a house is not a home unless it contains a copy of Ruthless Rhymes For Heartless Homes (“Making toast at the fireside,/Nurse fell in the grate and died;/And, what makes it ten times worse,/All the toast was burned with nurse.”).  I’m equally certain that your family will be all the happier for spending time with the family created by Charles Addams.  One of Addams’ disciples at the New Yorker magazine, the appropriately named Edward Gorey, built brilliantly on his legacy.  If you’ve never encountered Gorey’s work, I recommend The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an alphabet of luckless children and how they died: “M is for Maud who was swept out to sea/N is for Neville who died of ennui.”  And in Gorey’s wake came Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events (who said Americans don’t do irony? That’s three generations of it).

The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Apart from Snicket (real name Daniel Handler, born 1970), those writers and illustrators belong to an earlier age, and it’s only because some of them are too big and canonical to ignore that modern children have a chance to read them.  On this side of the Atlantic, the great example of that is Roald Dahl.  A reclusive chocolate factory owner who carelessly tortures and punishes the children he disapproves of? A coven of witches plotting to turn children into mice so that their parents and teachers will stamp and poison them to death? Dahl had problems getting published in the 1960s and ’70s, but I think I can confidently say that no writer submitting similar material now would have any hope of having it accepted.  You only have to look at the books of the Dahl-lite David Walliams.  They’re designed and illustrated to look like Dahl, in a clear attempt to place Walliams in a line of succession, but there’s no way he would ever stray into territory as troubling as his infinitely superior precursor.

Quentin Blake’s picture of Roald Dahl’s Grand High Witch doing her worst

Which is, as I keep saying, a shame.  For not only can scary books be fun, I believe that they are also a necessary part of a child’s reading.  I believe that we are ineluctably drawn to the darkness as children – at least in our imaginations – despite the fact that we know bad things await us there.  It’s partly curiosity about the unknown – and human beings have always been unfailingly curious creatures.  But it’s mostly because in the world of the imagination, in the safe space provided by books, we have a chance to practise having emotions: joy and sorrow and envy and wonder, but also fear.  

I think it’s an evolutionary advantage, hard-wired into us, perhaps even the reason we have an imagination at all.  A self-conscious creature such as a human being wouldn’t last long if her first experience of fear was the first time she was confronted by actual danger.  The shock of the strangeness and power of the emotion would disable her and render her helpless in the face of the threat.  I believe that we are naturally disposed to imagine ourselves in many different kinds of danger, so that we can give fear a trial run and learn to master it.  That’s why there’s a strange comfort in seeking out the scary, a perverse feeling that we are actually doing something that we are supposed to when we are investigating that which is always forbidding and often forbidden.

I’m not suggesting that all children’s books should be scary.  Of course books should be places of joy, of course they should be refuges, sources of relief and reassurance.  But they should also help us to live our lives and prepare us for times that are not easy.  We may have left the forest far behind but the wolves will follow us forever.

Timothy Knapman has written lots of books that aren’t in the least bit scary.  There are funny ones, such as Dinosaurs in the Supermarket and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bogey?; sweet ones, such as Soon, Big Digger Little Digger and What’s Next?; loving ones, such as Superhero Mum, Dad and Gran; adventurous ones, such as Captain Sparklebeard.  Those made of sterner stuff are invited to seek out his Little Ogre’s Surprise Supper and Please Said Percy.  


Chris Haughton said...

Thank you for writing this Tim. It is something that I think about a lot too. I think it's a real shame. Jonathan Emmet has written about this subject too on his blog and he raises interesting points. I think one of the most problematic unintended consequences of sweetening up childrens books is that children who do want a darker outlet are put off by books and turn to TV and gaming where there is darker content.

Ruth Thorpe said...

Brilliant, Tim. Well said. Nothing better than a good scare while you can still climb into someone’s lap for a cuddle.

Enid Richemont said...

Oh I LOVE this post!

Michelle Robinson said...

Brilliant post, Tim. I'm trying to sell something scary at the minute. Not holding my breath. Handling fear is such an important life skill. Crazy to sanitise it out of books.

ReadItDaddy said...

Have endlessly blogged about this, and it's sad to think that year on year, the 'darker' books have all but disappeared from our reviews roster. They are still there, but they always seem to be published by small-print or independent publishers who care not for "what's doing the rounds at Hay this year" or "What trend can we camp on from this year's Bologna / London Book Fair". More power to them. Kids love and adore dark stories, they love living vicariously through vicious villains, they love mild scares, and sometimes they even love stuff that worms its way into their memory and imagination and stays put.

I think the problem is that we adults fear that our kids can't cope with the darker stuff, and make every attempt to wrap up their reading matter in cotton wool, books that push acceptable moral standards or some cheesy twee and sickly sweet 'message' about friendship, self worth, etc - when really what kids also want is a good mix of Fungus the Bogeyman, or Fearsome Beastie, or "The Dark" or "The Black Dog"

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Not Now Bernard by David McKee is still one of my favourite all time picture books. It gets pretty dark... There are very few in the UK (there were far more in France when we lived there twenty-ish years ago). One (at least a little bit dark) exception is The Baby That Roared (by Simon Puttock and Nadia Shireen; Nosy Crow) which is really funny and has an ending quite like the knife and fork ending you talk about above (though slightly less scary).