The terrifying world of children’s story books

I am a huge advocate of children reading. I’m not sure you’ll find a bigger one. When I first became a Godmother, I shunned the traditional silver bangles and rattles (what is the point?) and instead bought a library of classics. She may only have been a couple of months old, but you are never too young for Dear Zoo! 
Aside from the many cognitive and educational benefits, it is one of the few guaranteed ways of getting a cuddle once the kids are old enough to run away from you and, quite frankly, I don’t know how anyone gets through bedtime without a story
Yet, if reading is supposed to calm and relax children before bed, why are we determined to scare them?
Have you read any children’s books recently? I have. Sadly, there is an awful lot of rubbish out there. Peppa Pig books make me want to climb the walls and nothing compares to the mind numbing boredom of being preached at about emotions in ‘Anna Angrysaurus’. 
Thankfully, my extensive research has allowed us to find a huge number of excellent books, but I am slightly disturbed by how keen we seem to be to terrify our children just before they go to sleep. 
Let’s start with the classics. Grimm’s fairy tales certainly live up to their name, with a genuinely disturbing view on the world where curses are commonplace, parents show their love for their children by locking them in towers and small children escape getting eaten by witches only to turn delinquent and burn said witch alive.
Then again, being eaten seems to be a recurring theme. From Red Riding Hood and the wolf, to the witch in Room on the Broom and the dragon, imminent ingestion seems to be a permanent threat in a child’s world. Often it remains only a dark threat, or something just escaped by the wily protagonists, but occasionally you will stumble across a slightly more sinister tale, where the threat becomes a reality, such as the excellent but disturbing ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen. I will never forget the disapproving stares I received when, bored on maternity leave, I took the book in to a baby group to share with the others. As she reached the big reveal of what happened to the naughty hat stealing rabbit, our group leader, ‘Judgemental Jane’ as I shall call her, drew back in horror and shot me a look as if she was considering calling social services, before gently placing the book down and reaching for ‘I Love My Mum’, or some other boring, saccharine nonsense. At the time, I grinned cheekily across to the one other like minded mum in the room, but now my son is older I’m reluctant to read it again, wary of the moment he realises what has actually happened and grows up to believe that the punishment for poor behaviour is being eaten!
Still, I guess it can’t do much harm. I come from a generation which grew up almost exclusively reading Roald Dahl, undoubtably the best children’s writer ever, yet also perhaps the darkest. Remember the jolly old tale of James and the Giant Peach? Remember how he ends up with the horrible aunts because his parents are eaten by a hippo? Hardly a relaxing bedtime tale. What about The Witches? Perhaps it’s the enduring image of a terrifying Angelica Huston immortalised on screen as the Grand High Witch, but I am still a little nervous of eating sweets on the off chance I turn into a mouse and get squashed under foot. Even into our twenties and thirties, a group of workmates and I discussed animatedly only the other day how scarred we were by the idea of being trapped forever in a painting, then gradually disappearing, such is the power of the Dahl. And living in Hackney has become a nightmare since the beard trend came in: don’t these people remember the Twits?
Part of me is deeply concerned about the psyche of a person who decides to make their living telling stories to young children, then filling them with nightmare inducing possibilities: horrific prospects which, if acted out in full, would result in an 18 rating.
Still, it does make a better story, and if it meant I’d never have to read Peppa Pig and the Biggest Muddy Puddle in the World again, I would happily terrify my child every night of the week.

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