In Defense of Monsters: What Dark Books Teach Children About Empathy and Adversity

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” - Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing a quote by G.K. Chesterton

I’m five years old, standing in a drafty church-turned-library. Watery winter sunlight pours through arching windows and catches the dust that trickles from the rafters. All around me, wall to wall and floor to nearly ceiling, brightly colored spines advertise the contents of their hardbound covers. My rural public library is small but mighty, boasting an impressive children’s book selection for a tiny mountaintop town with a population of about 1700, but I don’t know or care about this at the time. I run my fingers along the books I can reach and select a few choice volumes; spines of black, red, or gray, titles written in a drippy or scratchy typeface. Anything with witch, ghost, tragedy, legend, or haunted in the title makes it into my little hands.

As if led by some lesser-known Dickensian spirit, I can catch a glimpse of myself at any age in the stacks, exploring the macabre side of children’s literature. The Ghost of Libraries Past shows me myself at five, when I’m begging my mother to let me check out a battered copy of The Tailypo, A Ghost Story. At age seven, I pick out a slew of early readers on tragic histories: The Titanic, the Salem Witch Trials, Pompeii. At ten, I’m nestled in a squashy beanbag chair next to a whole pile of Goosebumps books and one particular Roald Dahl. At twelve, I’m hastily shoving Pet Sematary back onto the shelf in the fiction section, regretting the entire series of decisions that led to pulling it down in the first place.

It wasn’t just me, of course; kids everywhere relish a good spooky story, although opinions vary on just how scary is too scary. They talk amongst their friends at school about that book in the library (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, anyone?) and take turns checking it out. But what is it about the dark that keeps children fascinated?

Between the covers of a book is a practice arena, where young readers can test drive their tolerance for the creepy, the intimidating, the sorrowful, and the downright terrifying.

As much as adults may believe darkness is inappropriate, inaccessible, or immaterial to children, the truth is that young people are generally powerless to influence their surroundings and circumstances—and they know it. This often leads to feelings of distress and frustration with things adults take for granted. To quote comedian John Mulaney, speaking from the perspective of a child: “I am very small, and I have no money. So you can imagine the kind of stress I am under.”

Last summer, The Guardian published a piece on parents’ growing reluctance to give their children frightening books. They discuss a study by an online UK-based bookseller, The Book People, which found that nearly one third of parents feel it’s inappropriate to present their children with books containing characters or situations that will scare them.

The presence of monsters, real and imaginary, is a truth of childhood. They can take many forms, from the Big Bad Wolf to a battle with depression, the death of a family member to The Trunchbull. These seem drastically different upon first glance, but each fictional struggle presents children with tools to help them navigate their own challenges and make the dark seem less solitary. Something of The Wicked Witch of the West is inside all of us; we all have feelings of envy and greed at times. The lesson children learn from witnessing the Witch’s demise is that all those green and warty feelings can be conquered, not simply covered up —and we can overcome them with help from our heart, our mind, some courage, and the support of our friends.

Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are classic examples of fiction that morally guides as well as entertains. They tell us about grief, guilt, compassion, empathy, persistence, sibling rivalry, and more—challenges as relevant to today’s children as when they were written, though this isn’t always apparent on the surface. When we read a fantastical tale of danger and adventure, no matter the plausibility, we ask ourselves, “What if?” We see ourselves in the characters—all the characters. Not only can this be a lot of fun for readers of any age, but it provides a platform for creative problem solving with real world applications.

Books with themes of struggle—and, more importantly, of eventual triumph—resonate with children because they speak to their experience.

Reading thoughtfully-made books on challenging topics helps them recognize and name their feelings and, along with the characters, emerge on the other side with a newfound understanding of what it means to overcome hardship. It’s important to note that while adult horror and suspense can end in catastrophe or failure, the key component to a good book for a children is hope. The young hero—and in a book for a child, the hero is always young—changes fundamentally at the end of their journey, and is stronger for their struggle.

On the flip side, sometimes a child will be afraid of something adults find perfectly innocuous. As a kid I refused to read any Curious George books, claiming he was “just too curious.” My apprehension about getting into trouble was provoked by George’s antics. While adults saw this fun-loving monkey as a gentle cautionary tale, I was wrought with anxiety watching him make mistakes. I once knew another child who would squirm when she read books with themes of social strife, such as Harriet the Spy and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Parents and teachers can use these cues to open discussion on topics that make children uncomfortable—and the great thing about a book is you can pick it up, and put it down, at any time (full disclosure: I still haven’t made it through Pet Sematary).

Note, however, that this does not translate to movies, television, or even too-creepy illustrations. While children should be challenged by the stories they’re reading on an emotional and cognitive level, adults should use discretion when introducing scary imagery. 

And, finally: all childhoods are not equal. As much as we would like to believe that being a kid is always a carefree time of safe exploration, this assumption erases the many children whose lives are already rocked by any number of challenges. Considering that the average person has a rich inner world complete with fears and apprehensions, it’s important to take this understanding further and realize there are children in your community who have yet more stress to handle. They may go to bed hungry at night, have an insecure or unpredictable home situation, be a member of a traditionally marginalized group, or struggle in other ways that aren’t immediately apparent. NPR recently published a report revealing that suicide rates among children age 10-14 doubled from 2007 to 2014, especially among young girls. This has been attributed to everything from the rise of internet bullying to the reluctance of doctors to prescribe antidepressants to young people, but no firm reason has been agreed upon.

Regardless of our attempts to keep tragedy from touching children’s lives, it will inevitably find a way in. The best we can do is prepare them by giving them the tools to work through the darkness to reach the light on the other side.

Reading about difficult topics such as racism, poverty, loss—again, meeting the child where they are emotionally and developmentally—is a way to nurture empathy, find commonalities with characters, and open discussions on these subjects in a natural and constructive way.  

Back in November 2016 I got to attend the Wondermore event here in Cambridge, MA, where I saw a presentation by author Jo Knowles titled “Tackling Social Issues in Children’s Literature”. Knowles has been writing realistic fiction for young people on challenging topics for over a decade, and she put special emphasis on the necessity for this type of literature to be accessible for children of all ages, citing, among others, the NPR report. In a nutshell, Knowles asserted that these books are most effective at dealing with feelings of darkness and tragedy because one, they tell the truth, and two, they give hope. The combination of these two elements make fiction a healing balm for an aching heart or crushed spirit, and gives young people a palette of emotion to return to time and time again. Books with themes of death—Knowles mentioned The Velveteen Rabbit as well as Charlotte’s Web—may be a child’s first experience empathizing with those who experience tragedy. In restricting these books and avoiding these conversations, we would effectively rob young people of an opportunity to grow into more conscientious and compassionate citizens.

So whether you're reading Ancient Roman mythology or something more contemporary, take the chance to talk through these stories and the feelings that accompany them with your children. Pull the compendium of Grimm’s Fairy Tales off the high shelf and dig out your copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Snuggle up with your little one at home and sink into Coraline or camp out at the library with a stack of your favorite spooky picture books, and get ready to sink into the opportunity for growth that comes with meeting monsters, together.   

Image: Little Red Riding Hood (1881) by Carl Larsson

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