Frightening children and other nightmares

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Maurice Sendak died recently. There was a little extra sadness at The Folio Society because we’d been discussing whether we might approach Sendak for a one-off commission – although Sendak was in his early 80s, he was still illustrating books. Most of us in the office had either read the books as children or read them to our own children and had fond memories of Max in his wolf costume or the little naked Mickey in In the Night Kitchen. I was rather surprised to discover that Sendak’s children’s books had generated controversy: parents complained about the nudity and about the scary monsters. An obituary in The Guardian repeated Sendak’s forthright response: ‘I would tell them to go to hell’. He said that if children were frightened, they should “go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like.”

It’s an age-old debate in children’s literature. How frightening should stories be? What is good for children and what is bad? Sarah Trimmer was a children’s author at the end of the 18th century who worried imagination led children to lie. Her tales were didactic morals. Such an approach horrified Charles Lamb, who complained he could no longer find children’s classics he remembered from his own childhood. Charles and Mary Lamb famously rewrote Shakespeare’s plays for children. But although they cut some scenes considered inappropriate, they kept in plenty of the fantasy, violence and jokes of which educators like Sarah Trimmer disapproved.

Of course, theirs is the work that has survived, and not the didactic tales of Mrs Trimmer! It’s a pattern that has been repeated in every generation. Andrew Lang complained about the twee ‘fairies’ that populated children’s literature. His fairy books cut out some of the more terrifying elements of Grimm, but retained plenty of frightening scenes and characters.

As Sendak discovered, modern parents and educators are just as worried as the Victorian ones. In the nursery version of ‘Three Little Pigs’ that I read to my own daughter the other day, I was infuriated to discover that the pigs all escaped the wolf. Nor did the wolf fall into a boiling pot of water. A misguided friend gave my daughter a set of ‘adapted’ Beatrix Potter’s, rewritten to suit modern sensibilities: the fox-hound puppies do not eat up Jemima’s eggs; Peter Rabbit’s father was not put into a pie by Mrs McGregor and Samuel Whiskers has no plans to eat Tom Kitten.

I read through this adapted Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and noted that the following words were removed: ‘hospitable’, ‘conscientious’, ‘savoury’, ‘alighted’ and ‘escorted’.  And we complain about the impoverished vocabularies of our children! Thank heavens, I thought, that The Folio Society still publishes classics and hasn’t succumbed to the idea that children only have a ten-minute concentration span.

In a self-righteous fury I announced that no, she couldn’t have Winnie the Witch. Tonight Mummy would read Perrault’s Bluebeard from the Folio edition with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. My daughter squirmed reproachfully throughout the 22 page story … and then woke me at 4am with a nightmare… And I’m not quite sure what the moral of that story is.

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