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.

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.

Real Lessons in Unreal Books, Jean Lee

I met Jean via Twitter and connected over the idea that sometimes the best way to communicate a solution to a real problem is through a fantasy story. Personally, I go back and forth between realism and screaming monsters, so this question is particularly pertinent. So here’s Jean Lee with an excerpt from “Lessons Learned, a collection of essays” to shed some light.


In Reflections on the Magic of Writing, Diana Wynne Jones notes more than once that she received flak for not writing “Real Books.” Real Books were to be about present-day, everyday-world children handling real, everyday problems: abusive parents, poverty, illness, etc. These books should then be passed on to kids actually experiencing said problems to…I don’t know, strengthen character or something. She didn’t get it either, which is why you don’t see any Real Books with Jones’ name on them. (Personally I like her recollection of fellow writer Jill Paton Walsh’s words on the matter: “If you know two people who are divorcing, would you give them each a copy of Anna Karenina? Can you imagine a less helpful book? Yet people do this to children all the time.”)

What I do love is Jones’ own style of handling Real Problems in Unreal Ways. Take Witch Week, or Year of the Griffin—who doesn’t experience some lousy spells (couldn’t resist, sorry) in school? It doesn’t matter that one of the main characters in Year is a griffin: she’s a still a new student trying to find her way through a school with horrible teachers. Eight Days of Luke, Black Maria, and Fire and Hemlock all have terrible adult guardians the child protagonist has to survive; some are mean, some are self-centered, and some are, well, magical.

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Now granted, I haven’t completed my journey through all of Jones’ work, but I did just finish The Ogre Downstairs. As I read the final pages, it occurred to me that this was the first book where magic was part of the problem, but not the solution. It’s a story of a mixed family created by a widow marrying a divorced man the widow’s children nickname The Ogre. The Ogre’s two sons are just as beastly at the outset. When The Ogre gives each group of children a unique chemical set (enter the magic!), everything gets profoundly worse with The Ogre, but better among the children. Why? Because they work together to figure out how to stop floating, or how to get their minds re-switched to their proper bodies. Magic forces them to see things from each other’s perspective, and from this they unite against The Ogre.

Magic completely destroys a party the widow wanted so badly to succeed, and the row afterwards drives the widow out of the house for space. Everyone feels terrible, including The Ogre, who is not, the children realize, an ogre at all. The story ends with a family that better understands each other and, thanks to a final round with the magical chemistry sets, enough money to live in a new house sans magic toffee creatures or living dust balls. So yes, I suppose the magic did help with a solution in the way end, but the primary conflict was not solved by magic, but by understanding and teamwork.

A Real Book kind of solution to a Real Book kind of problem in an Unreal Book. Fancy that.


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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.