Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are–a story with a mischievous, young protagonist who disobeys his mother and crowns himself king in a land of monsters–has been cause for debate in the literary world since its publication in 1963. In the wake of its initial publication, many public schools and libraries banned the book, deeming it too disturbing and grim for its intended audience of young readers.
It’s a common parental instinct to protect children from things they may not yet understand. Subjects that may elicit fright or confusion in a child are typically shielded, up until a certain age, at which a parent decides a child is mature enough to encounter such material. However, from a practical standpoint, such a notion of planting a protective bubble around children is utterly absurd.
Kids are bound to come into contact with things that may scare them. After all, they live in the same tangible world as adults do. Any conflict that exists among members of a household–whether it’s between adults living in the house or in relation to external circumstances–is likely to have an impact on everybody who lives there. When adults suffer from stress, children are quick to pick up on it.
Children can learn to manage such sources of tension through coping strategies, which are often subtly conveyed in storybooks and fairy tales. As to whether these themes are appropriate for a young reader is dependent on an individual.
As reported by The Guardian, “It is not the content of the story which is upsetting, it’s the fact that these unconscionable situations actually happen fairly often in real life.”
Children are remarkably well-equipped at monitoring their own exposure to stories of dark subject matter. It’s arguably unjust to label specific children’s books as “not suitable for all ages,” considering that reading is a highly individualized experience. Individual children may be affected by a story in any number of ways, depending on their reading level, personality, emotional maturity, as well as other influences. The chronological age of a reader has very little to do with the ability to comprehend a story.
By exposing children to uncomfortable subjects in books, parents may help them overcome phobias and anxieties at a faster rate than they would if the topic were ignored. Stories about realistic rituals, such as turning off the lights at bedtime or visiting the doctor’s office, help young readers understand real life events that may at first glance seem frightening. Kids often conquer their fears by finding strength in their favorite storybooks and characters.
In children’s books, the dark matter at hand may appear magically transformed by an author’s words and the plot’s progression, but perhaps the most helpful aspect in altering a prior negative association in a reader’s mind is the story’s illustrations.
The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone contains a recognizable face from Sesame Street within its pages. The book chronicles Grover’s own anxiety-induced plight, cautioning readers not to turn the page because alas, a monster is rumored to be waiting at the finale. Most children who watch the popular TV program would not be frightened by Grover, nor would they interpret his warning as serious, since all the Muppets are characterized by their exaggerated silliness. The alleged monster at the end of the book is only Grover, waiting to bid the children adieu.
When parents go so far as to teach children that bad things simply do not happen, the realization of the truth can inflict lasting damage. Bad things do happen, every day, and it’s important to know how to cope to the best of a person’s ability.
John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, often writes about difficult issues in his books like being diagnosed with cancer. Nevertheless, he has an extremely supportive fanbase. It can be inferred that Green’s widespread success shows that many people find comfort from his stories.
Especially when people face complex situations in their own lives, the distraction provided by becoming absorbed in a fictional character’s troubles can provide a tremendous catharsis for readers of any age.
Featured image courtesy of Makia Minich.