I read this op-ed piece in the Times the other day. It’s part of a not-so-quiet wave of criticism and interest in YA fiction over the past little while. There was an article about dark teen fiction involving self-harm that caused quite a bit of uproar, which I don’t agree with, by the way. Critics should critique, and discussion is good. What I think a lot of parents are facing at the moment is the creeping, disquieting realization that childhood innocence is a precious commodity. There have been huge bites taken out of childhood lately, what with the economic collapse, divorced and/or out of work parents, ramped-up pressure to succeed in school as educational quality plummets, the prevalence of reality television… the list goes on. (Though I will admit that perhaps reality television isn’t as much of a scourge as I want it to be, but come on. Snookie? Really?)
While I understand Maria Tatar’s point that books for children have become blatantly darker in recent years, I think she’s underestimating how dark they always were. Let’s look at her examples in a different light for a moment.
The Red Queen and Captain Hook are powerful, unpredictable adults who have everything on their side. Resources, minions, the power to make all the rules. They can threaten, kidnap, and manipulate children. Flowers, insects, mermaids, food and drink, cute fluffy animals, even one’s own friends can be dangerous adversaries. These worlds, while brightly colored, are hardly safe places. The child characters are left to struggle and make their way as best they can. In “Alice,” Alice spends much of the book trying to please a tyrannical and terrible queen, while in “Peter Pan,” the children spend most of their time running from pirates and mermaids, with short breaks during which they save a kidnapped girl from drowning after an adult has tied her to a rock as bait.
Alice has to navigate an adult world where none of the rules make sense. She, in a sense, has to become the responsible adult, only with no power. Wendy has to be the voice of reason among a wild cadre of young boys, and on her last night in the nursery, no less! She is already too old to really play their games. Instead, she is nearly drowned by some beautiful mermaids, who see her as a threat. Alice only escapes the Red Queen’s playing cards by waking up. Wendy chooses to go back and be an adult, because she’s already too old to stay in Neverland. She’s partly grown up, assuming responsibilities beyond her years.
These romps are not as enchanting as the author suggests. I don’t have any small children of my own to ask, and the local constabulary frowns upon approaching random children in parks to do surveys, but what I remember from my own childhood (how relatively close it was, and yet how far off it seems!) is that I was much more scared by Alice in Wonderland than I ever was by Harry Potter. Captain Hook was a frightening. Neverland and Wonderland had no rules. The Potterverse, the world of His Dark Materials, even the grim future in Hunger Games, they all have rules, and not ALL the adults are out to kill the children. (Just a lot of them.)
She says “danger is balanced by enchantment” in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan,” but that seems to be a judgment based only on the conceptual backbone and atmospherics of modern YA. She talks about J.K. Rowling basing Dementors on her experiences with clinical depression, and that’s somehow less child-friendly than Lewis Carroll basing the Caterpillar on his experiences smoking opium? J.M. Barrie created children who would never grow up, immune to adult experience and responsibility. What was floating around in his psyche? Is it the children who don’t want to grow up, or the adults who don’t want them to?
Children and teenagers love these new versions of what children can accomplish. The books are immensely popular. So, I ask again: Is it the children who need to be protected from growing up, or the adults who need to be protected from realizing how unsafe their children really feel?