The answer to a scary world can be found in scary books
When the world outside is full of struggles, of troubles, and of worries, I find I like my houses full of creaks, my wardrobe full of clowns, and my bedside lamp turned off (almost).
I like scares.
Books have always been presented as a way to retreat from the world but for me they are a way to deal with it. Luckily, children’s literature is the perfect medium to accomplish this.
From stories set against the backdrop of wars, through to stories about race, class, sexuality, drugs, ambitions and everything you can imagine, children’s literature is at the frontier of social change.
There are few areas of life into which children’s stories dare not tread.
But it’s the creepier stories which I’m drawn towards the most. I liked (and still do) creepy rather than gore. I find these sorts of stories focus on my kind of issues – alienation, acceptance, anxiety. As a child I entered the world of Where The Wild Things Are, Pan’s Book of Horrors, and Gormenghast. These books held my hand as they showed me the darker side of life.
Fairytales used to do this, before we cleaned them up and put ribbons in their hair. Red Riding Hood showed us how the most innocent of people can hide the most cunning of creatures. Beauty and the Beast showed that whilst it’s what’s on the inside which counts, men can be controlling no matter what they look like (though that’s a more modern interpretation).
The 19th Century took this to even greater heights. Whilst hiding the legs of women and tables beneath cloth so as to maintain propriety, they weren’t too shy about threatening children to keep them in line. Little Suck-a-Thumb told what would happen to children who sucked their thumbs – the tailor would come and chop them off with his large scissors. In light of this, Edward Scissorhands rather softens the tradition. Suck-a-Thumb is one of the stories in Struwwelpeter, a collection of rhymes for every offence – including not eating your soup (spoiler: you’ll die).
As grim (let’s sneak that pun in here) as such tales are, they are only grim when judged against what our parents read to us as children. Tootles the taxi, the Magic Porridge Pot, Bobby Brewster – these were the stories which fed my imagination and I loved them. They fired me up and left me wanting more. So whilst searching through the children’s section of my local library (a whole half of the building!) I found my way into entirely new worlds – always fantastic and often darker.
Judging from the reaction of my parents these worlds were something I ought to be protected from but I found light in the darkness. I found the edges of my worries and learned how to navigate them.
Dom Conlon and Carl Pugh are the author and illustrator team behind Badtime Stories, a collection of tales about twins Jacob and Jacob. It’s now available to pre-order from Unbound. Click for more details.