Darkness And Light 2: In Children’s Books

Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes

‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales, and Arabian Nights have many much-loved stories which have been shared with generations of children. In more recent times many have been turned into Disney films. If you look at some of the original versions many parents might be shocked at their darkness, which may include violence, cannibalism and abuse. But, have the modern versions been too sanitised?

I remember reading some of the original versions as a child on my own about nine years of age and I was a bit shocked but realised that they were very old stories and in the times that they were written, life in general, could be very cruel. Many of these stories were penned from the oral tradition and represented that past.

Children can be very resilient. Admittedly some children can be very sensitive and one does have to acknowledge that. But, are we doing our children a disfavour by ‘wrapping them up in cottonwool’? Life isn’t all sweetness and light. I am not saying we should lay it all out there to very young children, but we all need to face our fears of the dark and imaginary monsters, and books can help children to do that.

Many nursery rhymes that sound quite innocent are based on some gruesome historic events…for example…’Ring Around the Rosie’.

‘The nursery rhyme is about the Black Plague. The “Rosie” refers to the rash that was a sign that the person was affected by the plague and it had such a terrible stench that the person would carry a pocketful of roses to mask the smell. You can connect the dots about what “we all fall down” refers to.’ https://cutacut.com/2021/07/01/fairytales-and-nursery-rhymes-with-a-dark-past/

Reality In Children’s Fiction

When I was about ten I received a copy of, ‘The Silver Sword’ (‘Escape From Warsaw’) from my godmother and it really opened my eyes to the reality of the Second World War. The subject matter may have been dark but the shining light in the work was the message of hope, love and human endurance.

‘The Silver Sword was written by Ian Serraillier and published in 1956. It is the wartime story of the three Balicki children, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia, aided by their friend, Jan, as they try to reach Switzerland in the hope of meeting up again with their father and mother……It is a story of family love and human failings, friendship and enmity, fear and hope. It is also a story about history, the history of mainland Europe during the Second World War. Or rather, it is a story of what it was like to experience that history as it unfolded, both from a child’s perspective but also from that of grown-ups. ‘http://www.nigelbernard.com/blog/silver-sword 

Polish boy in the ruins of Warsaw September 1939. Julien Bryan caption of the image from 1958. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘In an article on dark subjects in children’s books for The Guardian, young adult fiction writer Rebecca Westcott had this to say: “Children live in families; they are surrounded by adults with all their adult problems…Life happens and they are a part of that. Their books need to reflect what they hear, what they see. They need to recognise their situations in a book”.

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from what’s going on in the world. But children are also citizens of the world, and older children who are aware of life’s cruelty need books to help them process it.’

‘As children’s books are written by adults, there are certainly always elements of them that we can only understand when we have grown up and seen what the world is like. But the likes of children’s authors Tomi Ungerer and Maurice Sendak would argue that even sheltered, happy children should be exposed to the adult world, including things like war, violence and injustice through books. Tomi Ungerer writes in the treasury of his work that “children should be exposed to what war is like as early as possible. If you don’t share stories like this, how are you going to bring awareness?”. For Ungerer,  books are an important tool to teach young people about prejudice and injustice so that they can go into life wanting to improve the world.


At the end of the day, it is up to the discretion of parents, guardians and teachers to decide what books are suitable for the children in their care; but shining a light on the dark fears and realities we face in life through books can lead to informed and educated discussions, and help consolidate personal feelings and points of view through exploration of characters’ feelings and points of view.

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