Horror for Children?

The first cliffhanger I ever encountered. When is this thing gonna get a second season so I can see how it ends?!

Authors often need to talk about serious subjects to little children. Doctor Seuss presented the horrors of war and the threat of nuclear war rather brilliantly in his Butter Battle Book. I remember reading that book in frustration when I was young. “How does it end?” I asked my dad. “How come they’re still standing there? How does the good guy win?”

I don’t remember my father’s answer, but I remember the end of the book, as the two characters stare at each other. Who would drop the bomb first? Who?!

Mr. Rogers had a penchant for dealing with serious issues. I don’t expect every person in the world to be able to handle topics as he did. Mr. Rogers had special talent.

C. S. Lewis simply shrugged and assumed his readers knew why four children had to leave London to go to the country, even without their parents. The most recent movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe did a brilliant job of telling modern children why those four kids had to leave their home. I also thought they did a good job showing the horror of the situation in an age-appropriate way.

I couldn’t find any “war” images in my search, but I did find a picture of the train!

And there’s the center of it, isn’t it? It’s not that children can’t handle horror; they see nightmares every day to which we have simply grown callous. It’s figuring out how to convey the horror in an appropriate way. I’ve shown three examples of people I thought handled it very well. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline does a great job, too (the book – I’m not familiar enough with the movie to make that judgment). You could argue that movies like The Dark Crystal also have some elements of horror that present well to children.

I’m not sure what the line is. I think we can disagree where the line is. Parents also recognize that every child is unique. My son, at age five, can handle Brave. My daughter, at almost four, still can’t.

The cover doesn’t look scary…

I think we can generally agree on when horror for children is not presented well. I’d like to present a reading from N. K. Stouffer’s The Legend of Rah and the Muggles:

Although the C.O.U.P. arms treaties had boasted the elimination of nuclear weapons, it was the reassembly and use of such weapons that brought this anguishing war to a sudden and devastating conclusion.

Forests and valleys, farms and villages lay in waste. Only barren battlegrounds were visible where beautiful estates had dotted the landscape and productive farms once thrived. Here the lingering radiation made it impossible for ordinary human life to be sustained.

The nuclear holocaust had blanketed the sky with dark poisonous clouds of radiation. The sun disappeared behind the radiated eclipse just as Aurian citizens fled their homeland. Beaten, tired, and nearly starving, they deserted the ruins, leaving behind the imprisoned have-nots: the injured, the disabled, the ethnically impure, the elderly, and other less fortunate human beings.

No mercy was shown to even the children of the abandoned citizens. Their cries for help went unrecognized as they rang out with piercing resound. Despair painted their tiny faces like a mask of terror. Moans of anguish echoed in the air with dizzying repetitiveness as the have-nots struggled to clear the debris form the entrance of their cavernous prisons.

The self-appointed “chosen ones” felt no pity for the have-nots they had entombed in shore-line caves. In their minds there could be no reason for a have-not to survive if it meant one of them would not.

All right. Is this appropriate for a children’s book? Keep in mind that this is not aimed at tweens or teens. The marketing on the book makes me think it was aimed at those who might first read the Wizard of Oz. I’m imagining five to seven years old – I’m reading an illustrated version of The Wizard of Oz with my two older children (five and almost four) right now. Would this be appropriate for them?

And Wizard of Oz really does have some scary stuff in it!

We certainly don’t have vivid descriptions of radiation sickness. I don’t see paintings of the lesions nor blindness nor hair and teeth falling out.

And this isn’t great writing, either. It’s all telling and so very little showing. Granted, this chunk is from the introduction, which precedes the main action by hundreds of years. At the same time, as the first, well, introduction to the world, you’d think Stouffer would want to spice up the action with strong showing. We don’t get that here.

If we had strong showing, I’d think it would be terribly inappropriate for children. Little kids can handle monsters; they can’t handle innocent people suffering from a nuclear strike. They can handle the horror of losing a home (when done well); they can’t handle destruction of civilization.

Yet, this isn’t strong showing. We’re getting telling. We’re getting some big words that would be very difficult to teach to a small child. What does “the ethnically impure” mean? Is that a concept I want to teach to my son? Yes, it’s something he’ll encounter, if for no other reason than as he reads history. I get that. But do we need it in a fiction book as a throw-away line?

Radiation is another concept that’s hard to explain. I have no doubt there’s great books for children that explain what it is; Stouffer assumes that little kids already understand what radiation is and why it’s bad.

At one time, this except is so clinical as to negate any emotion, and just precise enough to make me think that I shouldn’t let my kids anywhere near it.

Truth to tell, we’ve got enough good literature here I don’t have to agonize. If nothing else, there’s a myriad of Oz books ready and waiting for my kids, and they intend to rip through all of them at this point. No need to consider putting something in front of them I’m unsure of.

What about you? What’s the border for appropriate and inappropriate horror or “serious subjects” for kids?

I want to be clear: I am not advocating that we wrap children in fuzzy pink entertainment that never presents any kind of conflict or fright. I do not want to eliminate scary things from children. I’m also not hoping that children never grapple with hard facts with their parents. Parents and children together need to step into the real world with all its dirtiness, brokenness, and sinfulness.

I am wondering how to properly convey such scary things in a story, though. How do we present these things to children that hold emotional resonance in an appropriate way?

Can I be like C. S. Lewis and assume that kids know what’s going on? That’s a way to do it, I think, but it assumes knowledge that may not be there.

Can we endeavor to be like Dr. Seuss and use clever analogies to open up children’s minds?

Can we be like The Dark Crystal and have huge scary monsters encased in solid fantasy?

These things were scary.

I don’t know if I have the answers. I do know that Stouffer fails on just about every count, though. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Can I challenge you? Can you rewrite Stouffer’s excerpt above for children that conveys the horror of nuclear war in a manner appropriate for children? Keep in mind that this is an introduction that takes place hundreds of years before the main action of the story, so we don’t want to linger overly long. If nothing else, the word count is about right for her goal.

Go for it. And I’ll consider “children’s horror” as well. It matches well with the recent Nation of the Child series I completed. Of course, though about toys in a child’s room, that was aimed at adults. Adult horror using children is not the same as children’s horror. They are related, though.

And while you’re at it… work on showing, not telling.

I’m very willing to admit that this may NOT have been appropriate horror for children! Yeesh that boat ride!

One thought on “Horror for Children?

  1. I remember my dad being highly opposed to the Butter Battle Book when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I understood why. Seuss was a bit of an anti-war hippie, and the book has a pretty anti-war propaganda feel. Maybe not all a bad message, but the way it is portrayed makes it look as though both sides are just completely ridiculous and out of line, and equally evil, while the reality is something quite different.

    That being said, how do you portray the horror of war and other issues effectively to children so that they understand without being either traumatized or fascinated? Is it even necessary to make that understood? Or is it wiser perhaps to let them learn of those things in a more appropriate context as they grow older?

    I’ve pondered this in relation to dealing with persecution. How much do I want my kids to know about the kinds of things they could someday face as Christians? Or the things other Christian children their age are facing in other countries? Compassion for those situations can be healthy, but I don’t want my children to live in fear either.

    Tough stuff. One thing I can say for certain, that Willy Wonka is a freaky jerk.

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