Last week, our intern Emily (@notoed) was inspired to write a blog about adult themes in children’s literature after reviewing notes from our Parent Parlour. Emily studies Fine Art at Loughborough University and is hoping to pursue a career in publishing after her graduation this summer.
Adult themes in children’s literature are nothing new. From allegorical tales such as those of Dr. Seuss, to historical novels such as GOODNIGHT MR.TOM by Michelle Magorian and WITCH CHILD by Ceila Rees (both of which I read and loved as a child) children’s stories that explore issues of war, politics, poverty, even genocide have always found their way on to bookstore shelves. But is this difficult genre beginning to over-saturate the children’s market, and how dark is too dark?
During my week interning with Hot Key Books, one of the tasks I undertook was typing up notes from a parents conference held by Hot Key. The message from the parents was unanimous; they were concerned about appropriateness of the reading material that was readily available to their children. These concerns have even bred the term ‘sick lit’, attributed to books whose portrayal of harrowing themes such as torture and emotional abuse might be considered explicit or gratuitous.
For myself personally, as someone whose favourite books as a young teen were about apartheid (the wonderful NOUGHTS AND CROSSES series by Malorie Blackman), and who as a late teen cut their hipster lit teeth on Chuck Palahniuk (seriously NOT suitable for kids!), I feel that relaying social commentary in children’s lit is both appropriate and effective –if- and it’s a big if – those themes are delicately handled.
A young narrator can often allow an author to approach difficult topics with innocence and a lack of bias that only exists in the young and un-jaded. Maybe there’s a sense of idealism there; if we thought like children, wouldn’t the solutions to our worldly problems seem so much simpler?
Books with adult themes have a huge cross-over audience; Hot Key’s own Maggot Moon by Sally Gardener has both children and adult editions, and I vividly recall my Grandma lending me her copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon when I was 11 years old. I think that the ability to share the joy of books between families and across generations is something really quite special.
What I love most about children’s books that touch on adult themes is that they treat children like the intelligent and curious people that they are. Some of my favourite films are children’s movies that have the same kind of respect for their young audience; one being the beautiful adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze. In fact, I even gave a presentation on this film as part of my degree in Fine Art earlier this year.
In my experience working with kids in the past, I’ve often found that they have a huge capacity to cope with and understand difficult subjects, though of course, as with all things, there needs to be a line. There’s a big difference between tackling a difficult topic in an age-appropriate manner, and writing horror into children’s novels in an attempt to push the envelope.
What do you think about adult themes in kid’s books? Do you have any favourites from when you were younger, or any which you’ve read recently? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!