How dark is too dark in kid’s lit? – Jean Lee

This is part 2 in a series from Jean Lee. You can check out part 1 here.


As my daughter’s sixth birthday drew to a close, my husband Bo revealed one final present: a tattered paperback titled Bunnicula. “This was one of my favorite stories when I was a kid,” he said as Blondie jumped into bed. She studied the cover showing a shaggy dog, wide-eyed cat, and red-eyed rabbit with pointed teeth. “Oooo, it’s a vampire bunny!” she squealed.

My copy of Diana Wynne Jones’ Wild Robert was quickly forgotten. Any request to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with me was met with a, “Those books are weird.” But vampire bunnies? Totally acceptable.

Still, I sighed, it’s a good Daddy-Daughter time. Let’em be.

Bunnicula devoured, Bo dug out Howliday Inn. The cover itself is quite a change: Chester the cat’s hair stands on end as Harold the shaggy dog cowers behind him. A house reminiscent of Psycho looms behind them while lightning flashes across the sky. It’s literally darker, and spookier.

The content even more so. Just two nights into reading, Bo steps out during Blondie’s prayers with a worried look on his face. “Maybe I should’ve skimmed through this first.”

I look up from grading. “Why, what’s wrong?”

“Chester’s accusing some dogs of murder, and another pet’s talking about husband’s murdering wives.”

Uh oh. “Is Blondie okay?”

“She just sat quiet, like normal, but…eesh.” He went back to finish prayers with her. I listened to Blondie carefully the next day: no play-talk about murder, or questions about murder. She understood death as much as a little kid can (her grandfather died when she was three), but “murder” had been just a word in a story she knew to be made-up. And the story itself focused more on disappearing pets than on murder…until the end, where Chester explained he felt certain the human culprit behind the disappearances planned on exterminating pet parents after selling off their valuable puppies.

Yikes! We’re reading this to a first-grader!

Now our Blondie, and many other children, can handle this level of darkness just fine. They see a stark separation between “story” and “reality,” so if something unpleasant happens in the story, they know it won’t directly affect them. It’s when that separation thins that we get into trouble with such kids. For example, my kids finally saw Wall-E for the first time a month ago. After the fourth viewing Blondie started inserting her own commentary. “Look at that planet! It’s EARTH! It’s covered in garbage! Our earth could never be like that.” When I told her that actually, if we don’t take care of our earth, it could very well look like that, she grew solemn. “But Wall-E isn’t real. It’s just a story.” Yes, but it’s a story that reminds us we need to be careful so the real earth doesn’t look like that. She thinks again. “Wall-E is real, but it happened a long time ago.” Sigh, no, I didn’t say that, but I was doing something she wasn’t used to: I was thinning the separation between story and reality. Wall-E is a delightful science fiction adventure, yes, but it’s a cautionary tale, too, one that not all kids are prepared to handle.

Other authors push the limits into darkness, too, if you care to hear me out next week.


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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.

3 thoughts on “How dark is too dark in kid’s lit? – Jean Lee”

  1. Oh I love Jean Lee’s writings and her blog. It was great to see this come up on facebook and pop in. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I never am

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