Something I’ve been keeping in my back pocket is that, recently, I applied to write for a web-site. Won’t say which one, but I will say that it’s a pretty cool site. It was up in the air but, ultimately, I didn’t get the position. Which is all right. I mean, yeah, I’m a bit bummed, but I’ll get over it. As much of a cliche as it is to say, writing and rejection really does go hand-in-hand.
But one thing I am particularly bummed with is the future of the sample article I wrote for the site; an audition piece, as it were. I wrote it to show the site what I had to offer. Since I didn’t get picked for the job, that means the article I put several days of hard work into will fall by the wayside. So I figured I’d put it to good use and share it on here with you guys. It’s a bit rambley, but I’m still proud of what I came up with.
Inappropriate Moments Your Favorite Kids Books Got Away With
By Julia Gaskill
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It’s always amusing to go back and look at the things you loved as a kid. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that brings both immense happiness or vast sadness – sometimes both.
One of my favorite things about going through childhood interests is those moments when you realize the books/movies you loved maybe weren’t quite appropriate for the age when you loved them. Of course, all the inappropriate parts went over your head as a kid, which makes the realization all the more humorous. For myself, going back and rewatching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dome and relistening to Les Miserables makes me question my parents’ child-raising methods, cause I don’t know in what reality it’s okay for a seven year old to listen to songs about prostitution and Frollo’s raging boner for Esmeralda.
Looking at kids books and YA literature nowadays, it’s not hard to find lit that’s not exactly appropriate for younger audiences. We have books where children are pitted against each other to the death (Hunger Games), misogyny and unhealthy relationships are romanticized (Twilight), and there are depressing, post-apocalyptic novels coming out the wazoo (Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, etc. etc.). Yes, nowadays we don’t have to look far for books that don’t shy away from touchy reading material for youth.
(I realize books like I Am a Pole and Go the F**k to Sleep are meant for adults, but you wanna bet that there are adults who got those books for their kids either on accident or on purpose? Also, the books Where Willy Went and Maggie Goes on a Diet are books actually written for kids. Fun!)
But what about when we were kids? It seems when I was a kid, you didn’t get a lot of blatantly inappropriate themes in YA and children’s books. Everything was subtle; slid into the story in a way that we probably wouldn’t catch it.
Well, let’s see…
Ah yes, the Boy who Lived. Possibly the most influential book series for any kid who grew up in the 90s and late 80’s. Harry Potter, besides being the most successful literary franchise in the world, holds one of the most major nostalgia factors of any generation. All too often we find ourselves revisiting the series, longing to roam the corridors of Hogwarts one more time.
I’ve found, in retracing my steps through Harry’s life, that after the first four books there’s a definite shift. Suddenly the books go from being lighthearted, magical romps through fun-filled fantasy to a harrowing, coming-of-age tale filled with death, grief, and puberty. It makes sense, when you think about it, considering most of us went from being naive children to full blown teenagers by the time Order of the Phoenix hit our shelves. Rowling knowingly anticipated our growth spurts in step with the golden trio’s, and accommodated our reading perception (and raging hormones) quite well.
Yet, with the first four books being aimed at younger audiences, revisiting them has to make you question Rowling just a bit.
In those first four books alone, there’s a surprising number of plot points that are quite heavy. Quirrel’s face being burned off, Ginny scrawling messages in blood, Sirius having the life sucked out of him, Wormtail cutting off his own hand, and Cedric Diggory’s demise are some of the more obvious plot points.
But there are subtler moments in the early series that makes one raise an eyebrow. There’s consistent practice of racism, whether it’s against mudbloods, house elves, or werewolves. We discover Hagrid is half-human half-giant, which calls a mental image of Hagrid’s conception that is both disturbing and mindboggling. Some slight profanity slips in between the cracks, usually coming from either Ron or Harry. Hell, Moaning Myrtle threatens to release all the bubbles in the bath when Harry’s trying to figure out his clue. There’s something not quite right with that image.
But Harry Potter is a bit obvious, isn’t I? I mean, sure, lots of things in the series may not seem entirely appropriate, but Rowling wrote her books in such a way that it’s presented as mature and safe for younger audiences. Despite all the things listed above, it’s a series any kid could handle upon reaching the second or third grade.
So let’s look at another series, from a writer just as acclaimed as Rowling, but who never had to deal with the bible thumpers of the world seeing as, well, Jesus was kind of his go-to guy.
If you’re like me, you read The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then proceeded to get distracted by Harry Potter and never finish the Narnia series. So apparently there’s a lot of stuff I missed out on.
It’s no secret C.S. Lewis was a fan of religion. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Aslan dying for humanity and then coming back literally one chapter later was basically him being Jesus.
But emulating the bible isn’t that big of a deal. There are entire college courses dedicated to finding the religious elements in non-religious books and over analyzing passages to death.
Seeing as I haven’t read the series, I decided to skim over the synopsis of the final book, The Last Battle. Apparently, when Lewis got bored of writing Narnia and wanted to wrap it up, he decided to bring about the Book of Revelation, ie. he torched Narnia. Literally. He destroyed the entire world he created, just because he could.
Then religious enslavement is brought about by a donkey, who’s seen as the Anti-Christ, and an alcoholic ape (I’m guessing Lewis wasn’t the biggest Darwin fan). Basically Narnia gets destroyed, everyone dies and goes to heaven, and Susan doesn’t even get to be there for any of it because “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations” and being feminine is apparently a good enough reason to get you kicked out of Narnia.
So, can’t say I’m particularly bummed that I missed out on that reading experience.
Keeping to the theme of fantasy series I never read as a child because I was too busy writing fanfiction about being Neville Longbottom’s awesome Hufflepuff girlfriend, let’s look at the His Dark Materials books.
Whereas Narnia is known for being pretty gung-ho on the religious themes, Materials is known for its anti-religious themes. In the story, Lyra kills a god-like figure and the words “God is dead” are spoken by Father MacPhail in The Amber Spyglass. Those aren’t exactly words you hear often in YA literature.
Also, it’s heavily implied that Lyra and Will get it on at the end of the series, which wouldn’t be weird at all if, y’know, they weren’t twelve year old kids.
Then there’s Roald Dahl, who led a particularly seedy life, which would explain the disturbing nature found in a lot of his books. While considered one of the best children’s authors of all time, you have to admit there’s an element in each of his stories that leaves you a bit unsettled.
We see adults physically/verbally abusing kids in both Matilda and James and the Giant Peach. Matilda’s written in such a way that it’s over the top and almost silly, whereas in James the abuse the protagonist receives from his two aunts is horrifyingly reflective of how some children are actually treated in familial situations.
James presents a whole lot of other problems as well considering it’s been banned for portraying “mysticism, sexual inferences, profanity, racism, references to tobacco and alcohol, and promotes disobedience, drugs, and communism.” I guess my memory of the book is a little fuzzy, because I don’t remember any of that. Apparently at one point the Grasshopper says, “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican,” and a lot of people claim that a moment where the spider licks her lips could be considered sexual.
There’s always Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which provides us with the Oompa Loompa’s, who are basically slaves to Wonka. There’s The BFG, which is a book all about farting, nightmares, and eating people. Not to mention that the majority of Dahl’s books for kids are filled with strong language, which has gotten several of his books banned from schools over the years.
But the thing that has caught me most by surprise in revisiting Dahl’s books is the amount of misogyny found in his tales. Sure, Matilda has been hailed as an incredibly feminist book, which I can get behind to some extent, and even The BFG presents Sophie as an awesome protagonist, but let’s look at three groups of primary villains found in Dahl’s books.
The Trunchbull, James’ aunts, and the Witches are seen as incredibly evil ladies with heavy emphasis placed upon their physical distortions. James’ aunts are put on both ends of the spectrum, being incredibly fat and incredibly skinny. Their physical attributes are meant to be both humorous and disgusting. Then we have the Witches, who come across as beautiful women, but the second the reader discovers they’re evil – bam! – horrendously ugly. Then in Matilda we have the beautiful Miss Honey who is kind hearted and nurturing, whereas the large, masculine Trunchbull is a brute of a woman who cruelly torments all of her students.
In these circumstances, the three groupings of characters are terrific villains, but it feels as if all it comes down to is if a woman is nasty then she must be grotesque. Apparently appearance equals moral ethics? Thanks a lot, Dahl.
Looking through all of these stories, it’s hard to avoid the classic fairy tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The Grimm Brother’s fairy tales have been recycled many times over the years, giving us some of the greatest (and worst) works of film, television, theatre, and literature.
Most people seem aware that the Grimm’s fairy tales are not the lighthearted stories that Disney often portrays. Rumpelstiltskin tears himself in half when he loses his bargain. The evil queen is forced to wear burning iron shoes at Snow White’s wedding and dance until she drops dead. Rapunzel gets knocked up with twins, and her prince literally leaps off her tower and blinds himself. And, of course, Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes/heels in order to get her golden slipper to fit, and then have their eyes pecked out by birds. Slightly disturbing tales, no doubt, but at least they all contained good morals in the end, right?
Well, what about Grimm’s fairy tales we don’t hear of quite as often? Like Bluebeard, where a man’s previous wives keep disappearing, and his newest wife discovers them all dead and hanging on hooks in his cellar. Or The Jew Among the Thorns, in which a little boy’s magical fiddle music forces a Jewish man to dance in a thorn bush, and then the boy accuses the man of stealing gold and thus the man gets hanged. Let’s not forget The Juniper Tree, the story where a stepmother is so upset that her husband’s wealth will go to his son that she beheads the boy and feeds his corpse to her husband disguised as a stew, and then is killed when her stepson, reincarnated as a bird, drops a millstone on her head.
You get the point. The Brother’s Grimm were grim… and weird. Really, really weird.
Okay, so we’ve covered some YA lit and the creepy fairy tales of yesteryore. So what about books we read when we were little kids ourselves?
The Giving Tree is considered a beautiful classic that children everywhere should read, and I couldn’t agree more. It teaches us about self sacrifice for the ones we love. However, the Boy in the story takes literally everything the Giving Tree has and gives absolutely nothing back. At one point he chops down the tree to build a boat. A friggen boat.
This story draws many parallels to religion and parent-child relationships, wherein your religious figure or parent will give and give, even when they have nothing left. While the sentiment is powerful and it’s a wonderful message… Dude, he cut down his friend to build a boat out of her. You’ve got to admit that it’s kind of an abusive relationship.
Oh how I adored the Madeline books when I was a kid. While it’s not a series I’ve revisited since my childhood, it’s one I intend on sharing with my future-someday children.
As a kid, you wouldn’t think anything wrong with Madeline and the Gypsies. You’d probably see it as a whimsical story of Madeline and Pepito joining up with a band of people to be in the circus. This story, unfortunately, does portray gypsies in a negative stereotypical manner we’ve come to know. Despite the book being written in 1959, when racism was easy to get away with, the story does portray the Romani people as unclean and lazy, and although they don’t kidnap the children, the stereotype of thieving is heavily implied.
But hey, let’s visit another one of my favorite childhood book series: The Berenstain Bears. Surely we can find solace from all this racial intolerance, right?
Well, I think this cover, and Papa’s disapproving expression, speaks for itself.
Let’s move on from racist undertones, shall we?
In the Night Kitchen is considered one of Maurice Sendak’s best books – if anything only second to Where the Wild Things Are – and is still found on bookshelves around the world. Besides having a bit of a cooky plot, the story is fun and a delight to children. That, however, is not why this book is considered one of the most controversial books aimed at toddlers. Nope, it’s controversial because Mickey spends the majority of the book naked.
Over the years, parents have given Sendak grief for his choice to leave the protagonist completely nude, illustrating his butt and genitals throughout the story. This has also brought about people claiming the giant bottle is a phallic symbol and the flowing milk a metaphor for masturbation. This is another case, in my opinion, of people reading far too much into a children’s story.
Needless to say, it’s not too surprising to come across a copy of In the Night Kitchen where parents, teachers, and librarians have taken it upon themselves to cover up little Mickey, because god forbid children grasp the basic concept of anatomy.
Then, of course, no list would be complete without a reference to The Adventures of Tintin, because we haven’t had our fill of racism just yet.
Tintin writer, Hergé, was apparently a fan of some good ol’ fashioned racism. Native Americans and Africans are shown above, but he also depicted Hebrews, Chinese, and Russians in similar manners. This is something most kids wouldn’t recognize as wrong, thus painting negative images of ethnicities in their ever growing perception of the world. Not cool, Hergé. Not cool at all.
And yet, looking back over the books listed above, just about all of these books are considered classics or must read literature for kids.
So why is that?
Maybe not dumbing down adult themes for kids is a good thing. Nowadays kids are spoon fed blatant metaphors and themes, but back in my day (man, do I feel old) kids were expected to pick up on the nuanced subtleties of literature or to overlook them entirely. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – besides the racism, obviously. Maybe we should accept that children are mature enough to read books with mature themes and take away the correct morals. Maybe we need to stop banning children’s books for all the wrong reasons.
Maybe we should trust kids to know what’s best for themselves.
((Special thanks to Martin Schnieder, Aileen Sheedy, Angie Goffredi, Luke Wenmouth, Kyle Mahoney, Kayli Granberg, Zach Wood, and Rob Wiles.))