Who's afraid of the big bad wolf
I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of adults who have now read The Glass Table. One adult reader wrote to ask if I thought child readers might be disturbed by the fact that one of the characters, Faith, turns into a mass of bubbles and floats away on the river Kai, and I can say with certainty that I do not think so. It is a topical subject though—content and themes in children's fiction—and even more so since the movie releases of Where the Wild Things Are and A Christmas Carol.
In Where the Wild Things Are, 9-year-old Max is in constant danger: older boys collapse his igloo while he is inside; a monster nearly knocks him off a cliff; he barely escapes falling trees, flailing claws, and dirt clods; and the manic wild things want to hug him one minute then eat him the next. It's a lot for a young boy to manage and resolve, and the question arises—is it too much? Andrew Romano at NEWSWEEK says not.
According to Romano, "The greatest children's stories are about what happens when we become untethered from authority, whether by disobedience, disaster, or disregard, and the twinned feelings of freedom and fear we experience as we grapple with an autonomy we're not quite ready for. They are, in that sense, rehearsals for adulthood."
Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are, says, "[Max] doesn't know what's to come next ... that's gotta be scary for a kid, but it's also gotta be what a kid likes most. It's that enticement of what might or might not happen."
The views of Romano and Sendak are supported by science. According to a recent article in the journal of Psychological Science, experiences that perplex or amaze "prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss—in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large." So movies and literature that replicate the confusion of being a child can actually help children to navigate their way through childhood and beyond.
For younger readers, fairy tales we enjoyed as children, which incidentally did not cause us fear or irreparable harm, are now being abandoned for being too scary or politically incorrect. Here are a few examples:
Snow White - the wicked witch is too frightening and references to dwarves is politically incorrect;
Rapunzel is considered too dark;
Cinderella does not portray women appropriately because she is forced to do housework and sit on cinders;
Little Red Riding Hood walks alone through the woods and discovers her grandmother has been eaten by a wolf;
Hansel & Gretel are abandoned in a forest by their parents and forced to fend for themselves;
The Gingerbread Man because he is eaten by a fox.
There are plenty more stories about child abandonment in Harry Potter, The Cat in the Hat, The Secret Garden, James and the Giant Peach. For adults, the thought of a child left alone in the world is mortifying, but it seems less so for children, strangely. Stories of orphans and abandoned children are popular with younger readers possibly because as Romano suggests "Fiction and fantasy let children indulge their primal desire to grow up—to be rid of rules and face a dangerous and exhilarating world alone—from the safety of their own bedrooms."
Before The Glass Table was published, I arranged a small focus group of four children ranging in age from seven to fourteen. The feedback was surprising. None of the four was disturbed or concerned by Faith turning into a mass of bubbles and floating away on the river. Three said that the scenes in Madam Aurora's parlour were favourites and especially the scene where Zeb was pulled into another dimension by evil spirits, although this is possibly because Zeb was the resident bully. I had thought that this storyline might be too frightening for children, but I was wrong.
I was also wrong about the witch's rules—I thought the rules might be too complicated and difficult for children to understand, but I certainly underestimated my readers. The children also liked how the child spirits found ways to leave messages for their family in the real world ie they liked 'watching' as other children found solutions to their problems. This is consistent with Romano's view that children enjoy stories where other children are untethered from authority, free and autonomous.
All four children in the focus group were saddened and affected by the storyline in The Glass Table where Jack returns home as a child spirit to discover that life has returned to normal despite his disappearance, contrary to what happened when his younger brother Colby died. I was hoping this might touch a chord with children, and it did. Later in the scene, it is put into perspective for Jack and he realizes how much he is loved and missed.
Dave Eggers, author of the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are, told NEWSWEEK "we underestimate children's interest and taste in things that have a more subtle palette and face the truth head-on."