EXTREME cautionary tales! – Jean Lee

This is part 3 of commentary from Jean Lee. Read Part 1 here and part 2 here.


I don’t pretend to know the vast wealth of children’s literature available to today’s kids. My idea of a classic is NOT another’s; I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories at the age of 8, and my father even read them to me at bedtime. (Link to Jean’s article.) But I also read more age-appropriate fare, such as the Ramona Quimby series and the Chronicles of Narnia.

But in a recent discussion with AJ Cosmo over “how dark is too dark?”, two particular authors arose: Roald Dahl, and Philip Pullman. AJ felt that “Dahl wrote for adults and kids happened to like it.” I can’t help but wonder that in his switching back and forth between stories for kids and grown-ups, he found himself a grey area and plunked down there every now and again to write.

Goodness, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that Dahl did write for adults: Some Time Never, Kiss Kiss, My Uncle Oswald…yowza. And even the cover series seems to blend the lines a little. If you visit the official Roald Dahl website, you’ll see that the latest cover illustrations aren’t limited to the kid’s books. Going Solo is Dahl’s account of his early adulthood, which includes war conflicts and a plane crash.

Appropriate material for one on the cusp of puberty, I suppose, but not for one my daughter’s age. And if one’s a beleaguered parent on three hours of sleep snatching up pretty-looking covers like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, what’s to stop her from grabbing Going Solo?

Then there’s the stories themselves. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is well-known by all, with two film adaptations, to boot. Children get to read/watch other children be squished through tubes, shrunk, turned into fruit, attacked by squirrels (in Tim Burton’s version, anyway) and sent towards an incinerator, all in a magical factory full of sweets. This is barely one level up from a gingerbread house and a witch determined to throw kids into an oven. The Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” was told as a cautionary tale, and I wonder if Dahl didn’t have that same mindset as he wrote: parents, tell your kids to beware of too many sweets. Of wanting too much. Of staring at the tv too long. Of being too competitive. Of stealing. Dahl WANTED kids to be scared.

Don’t agree? Have you read/seen The Witches? If ever a story scared me s***less, it’s that one. People threw a huge hulabaloo over Suzanne Collins’ description of a child getting speared in Hunger Games. The witches of Dahl’s story are kidnapping children, never to return them into the proper world. One child is magically inserted into a painting inside her family’s house. Her family gets to watch her live the rest of her life in the painting. She dies, in. The. Painting. How is that NOT horrifying?

Philip Pullman gives his villains an equally horrific task in The Golden Compass. In the primary world of the His Dark Materials trilogy, protagonist Lyra and other human beings are born with what are called daemons—an animal-like creature. It has its own thoughts and speech, but it can’t help but reflect the inner nature of its companion human, too, especially children, for it morphs into creatures that befit the child’s maturity and/or mood. It is the human’s soul, and companion. Upon first reading this, I thought it a very creative, cool move on Pullman’s part.

Then come the Magisterium, the powerful theocratic force throughout Lyra’s world. On the surface they are simply bureaucratic and awful. But when Lyra’s hunt for her kidnapped friend takes her up to the snowy north, she discovers a secret facility run by the Magisterium, where they perform intercisions. What are intercisions? We learn when Lyra meets one of the practice’s victims in a forest:

He spoke, and Iorek Byrnison said: “He says that isn’t the not the only child of that kind. He’s seen others in the forest. Sometimes they die quickly, sometimes they don’t die. This one is tough he thinks. But it would be better for him if he died.”

The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon (her daemon), with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

Later Lyra is kidnapped by the Magisterium and joins other children being held for intercisions. Nurses there call it “just a little cut” to help them grow up and ensure their daemons don’t change. Only the daemons turn ghost-like, and the children, worse. Beware the church, children, I could see Pullman say. It will take your soul, and leave you lifeless.

Did I mention Lyra is only 11 years old in The Golden Compass? Stories with kid protagonists are usually marketed to the age group slightly younger; that means kids not much older than my daughter are meant to read about children literally being severed from their souls. How is that not terrifying?

Yes, different children can handle different levels of darkness, just as some kids need nightlights and some kids don’t. A friend of mine would see Golden Compass as “full of talking points” to have with her daughter. Perhaps your child is capable of discussing soul severance and witches snatching you from your doorstep. Considering the state of today’s world, these talks are certainly worth having. But please, do consider when you start that talk. Know your child. Nurture her bravery, wit, and spirit. Only then, when she can walk over the separation from reality to story and back can you, as parent and child, face the darkness together.


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Jean Lee has been writing all her life, from picture books for preschool to a screenplay for her Masters in Fine Arts. Nowadays she blogs about the fiction, music, and landscape that inspire her as a writer. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband and three children.

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