Mar 13, 2019
Article on ‘The Dirt’: On Darkness in Children’s Literature
Edwina is a talented author of elegant prose for young readers. Her picture-book texts are crafted and exquisite and her fiction is light, layered, quirky and beautiful.
Edwina also has some bold and brave ideas about the kinds of narratives young readers are capable of accommodating, whether emotionally, imaginatively, or conceptually.
We love bold and brave ideas on The Dirt, so Edwina is the perfect author for our first instalment of the year as she ponders the limits of darkness in literature for young readers.
Food for thought as we stride boldly into 2019 …
What is and what is not an appropriate subject for a children’s book is a highly political and contentious subject. Let’s call this ‘the danger of ideas in fiction’.
There seems to be a widely-held belief that if a child encounters a dangerous idea in a story, perhaps a character doing bad things, they will not have the power to form their own view on the moral integrity of that behaviour or distinguish fiction from reality.
They will ascribe to those values. Confuse parallel possibilities with the world they inhabit.
Perhaps it is the preservation of innocence or protection from pain or sorrow that is our primary concern. This is a valid and fair consideration when choosing books to read to children: we want our children to feel safe, loved, hopeful. But is it also true that sometimes our best intentions and efforts to censor and protect can present a different type of danger? Is it possible that we are writing our own fears into stories and imposing them onto the child? Does the vigorous ‘shaping’ of children’s literature have the potential to do readers a disservice?
We need to ask, what is it that we are trying to protect children from? Is it possible that we are in fact trying to protect the self from being revealed to the self?
Author Hanya Yanigahara explored this possibility in her closing address at the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival titled, ‘The Conversations Between Words’. Here, her gaze is not turned to writing for children, but rather the relationship between the writer and her reader. She begins by discussing Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, the most famous of his Black Paintings (1819-1823) (below left).
Yanigahara posits that visual art illuminates but literature exposes. That as readers we are made to be co-creators; made to reach into the hidden places of our own pathologies. When confronted with darkness or ambiguity, our minds forage, often retrieving something rotten and unpleasant – our own ‘black imaginings’ as she puts it. Perhaps revealing the unpleasantness of yourself to you; we become vulnerable to ourselves.
“Fiction is the lone form of storytelling in which the human imagination is allowed to run wild. Unregulated and unharnessed. This makes it singularly frightening. Fiction implicates us, the reader, in a way that other forms of art don’t.”
With so much focus in education on teaching children how to be resilient in the face of adversity, perhaps challenging, honest literature can foster this in a way that is not didactic or purposeful but rather entertaining, soulful and illuminating.
The best stories are those that pose questions but do not answer them. Of little interest are stories that tackle ‘issues’ or include strategic tokenism for the sake of it. Story must be king. And when a story ventures to probe the human condition, then it is essential that the narrative and in turn the imagination, be unfettered.
Yanigahara also insightfully ponders the literary sadist, saying that writing that is designed purely to shock or repulse because the writer can, seeks only to test limits and provoke, making it nothing more than cheap pornography. She adds that pornographers desire only to create a reaction – to dare you to look for the spectacle of it which renders the literature meaningless and lazy.
But meaningful darkness creates empathy. And to not include it, to omit the violence of life in literature is to deny that it is a part of life – the stuff of being human. An act nothing short of, ‘…artistic irresponsibility. A covering of the eyes and silencing of the tongue because of some specious idea that there are certain territories into which fiction is not supposed to wander. But it is not only the fiction writer’s right, but the fiction writer’s duty to not just wander but to march into those territories.”
At Dirt Lane, we love to wander…
We invite you to march.
1. Og De Onde Lo (Alvida 2017), by Ellen Holmboe & Kristian Eskild Jensen.
2: Fransisco Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’
3: Italian illustrator Beni Monstresor (1926-2001) may have been inspired by Goya for this picture of the wolf devouring Red Riding Hood.
4. Illustration by Matt Ottley from Teacup (Scholastic) by Rebecca Young.
5. Illustration by Jim Kay for A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.
(c) Edwina Wyatt 2019