Books are an important element in most children's lives and development, and there is an ongoing controversy as to how complex they can and should be and what role they play or should play in the development of their readers or listeners.
Should children's books be just simple, interesting readings, with attractive photos and funny characters or can they explore complex feelings and educate? There are many opinions on the subject, some easier to adhere to than others, but all worth considering.
Main Theories on Children's Books
An impressive point of view, although not very popular and credited is that illustrated in the speech Phillip Pullman, the author of the famous "The Golden Compass", gave when accepting the Carnegie Medal, in 1996.
According to him, children's books can cover themes, subjects that are too large to be dealt with in adult books. While adult fiction focuses more on writing style, technique and literary knowingness, children's fiction is more straightforward, little to no attention being paid to literary craftsmanship.
Quoting Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pullman agrees that "events never grow stale" and claims that stories hide more wisdom than philosophy books ever could, brings tribute to some writers of the 19th century and criticizes contemporary writers who seem afraid of telling a story.
Unlike them, children's authors are not embarrassed to tell stories, and they do it directly, engaging their readers and leaving them no choice but to identify themselves with the characters, live the adventure and experience their heroes' emotions, with no room for fancy descriptions, controversial metaphors or putting the plot on hold.
Unlike adults, who are often in search of sophisticated techniques, children read and live for stories. While, at least at a young age, they do not understand much, they sure compensate that with passion.
And there is more: they learn from the stories they hear or they read, they learn even when the author did not intend to teach them a certain lesson. Every story sends a message, and, knowingly or not, fully or partially, children grasp that message and learn their lesson.
What is more, that lesson is never forgotten, as it is associated with the story. While rules are often forgotten, the same thing cannot be said about stories, and this is best reflected in the ending phrase of Pullman's speech: "Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever." (Pullman, 1996)
Thomas (1998), on the other hand, focuses not on the creative side of children's literature, but on the creative side of the reading process. According to him, reading is a creative, interactive process – the reader plays a part just as important as that of the author (p. 138). Starting from the Reader Response Theory, he categorized texts in "open" and "closed". While "closed" texts are straightforward, leave no room for interpretations and guide all readers to the same conclusions, "open" texts depend on the reader's ability to interpret them.
A similar, yet different perspective is illustrated by Margaret Meek (1988), who starts from Frank Smith's idea that ‘children learn to read by reading’ and shows that their involvement in what they read is what actually teaches children to read.
According to her, children have behaviors characteristic to readers even before they discover books, like their ability to recognize genres and patterns, to understand that reading involves following certain rules. Some of the rules, or secrets, involve that ‘words mean more than they say’ (p.16) and pictures and words often tell a different story in the same book, in order to create interaction opportunities and engage the reader.
Just like Margaret Meek and Thomas, Hoffman (2010) focuses on the "active" role of the readers and argues that the traditional perception of children as passive audience is limited and privileges the author, implying that the text can only have one meaning, the one intended by its creator (p. 239).
His research showed that children have the ability to interpret the texts they read in their own way, according to their previous experience and readings. Children are not sponges waiting to absorb the lesson the author wanted to teach, but personalities able to make their own connections and judgement of characters and draw their own conclusions (p. 243).
These perspectives are more than enough to show that even when their author writes them as such, books are anything but simple, limiting, bland and sentimental. Their complexity lies in the readers' ability to see beyond their apparent simplicity, to associate the events described to their own knowledge and experience, and there is reason to believe that this is easy to accomplish, no matter if we are talking about text books or picture books.
Fear as an Element of Complexity in Children’s Books
One of the most complex and controversial themes approached in children's books is fear. While feelings of love seem natural, and all children play some sorts of games, not many children's authors dare to write or inspire fear. Those that do, are usually successful, because this theme is one of the most complex and can be explored from many perspectives.
There is fear of the unknown, fear of animals or bad people, fear of doing something wrong or fear of being punished, to name just a few, and all children experience them sooner or later, at a certain level of intensity.
Sometimes, the fear is experienced by the reader or listener through catharsis, other times it is induced by the descriptions made by the author. Some stories encourage children to fear certain things, while others teach them to face their fears and overcome them.
How intense the feeling of fear is and how easy it can be overcome usually depends on the story and on the author's skills, but few children's books manage to explore the feelings of fear and stir controversies as well as "The Witches” and the “Little Mouse’s Big Book Of Fears”, the works of Roahl Dahl and, respectively, Emily Gravett.
“The Witches” – A Masterpiece or an Outcast in Children's Literature
Published in 1983, the book stirred controversial reactions from the very beginning. While some praised its complexity and depth, others went as far as declaring it unsuitable for children and accusing the author of misogyny and sexism, among others. Suitable to be read by children or not, "The Witches" occupied the 22nd position on the American Library Association list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books from 1990 to 1999 (Crew, 2013).
The story focuses on a young boy and his grandmother from Norway, who live in a world where witches that hate children still exist in secret. The book starts with the young boy moving with his grandmother, immediately after his parents die in a car crash. The woman is a great storyteller, so the boy ends up absolutely fascinated with her story of the witches that are only after killing children.
According to the description, these witches are terrible creatures, “demons in the shape of humans”, who hide their bald heads under wigs, their long finger nails under gloves, and who can hardly wear pretty shoes, because they have no toes (Schmoop, 2008).
The story gets more interesting when the boy has to return to England, because of his parents will. His grandmother warns him that English witches are some of the worst in the world, and that they like to magically turn human children into small creatures, such as mice, in order to make the adults kill them. The biggest witch of them all is known as the “Grand High Witch”, and her evilness is feared by all the witches in the world.
The boy meets one of these witches soon after moving back to England, while he is working on his tree house. She tries to convince him to come down, but he realizes who he is talking to and stays in the tree until his grandmother comes out looking for him. After this, the boy decides to observe each woman and see who is a witch and who is not.
Close to the end of the book, the boy’s grandmother gets ill, and the doctor recommends that she cancels her trip to Norway. Instead, she takes the boy to Bournemouth. But, as it happens, the “Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children” have their annual meeting in the same place where the boy and his grandmother are staying.
This meeting is actually the annual council of witches, lead by the “Grand High Witch” herself. She reveals to the other witches a plan about how to turn children into mice, without anyone suspecting anything, and she even gives a demonstration, by luring a child with the promise of chocolate and turning him into a mouse.
Shortly after, she senses that someone else is watching and they catch the boy, turning him into a mouse also. He manages to go back to his grandmother and tell her everything that has happened. Together, they plan to give the witches a taste of their own medicine and decide that the best way to do that is to pour the formula that the witches are using to turn children into mice into their own food. They do that and the witches are transformed, instantly, into mice, and they get killed by the unknowingly hotel staff.
But the story does not end here. Killing the Grand High Witch only makes the boy, who is now a mouse, and his grandmother, want to free the world from these creatures. So they find out where the Grand High Witch's Castle is, in Norway, and they turn her replacement and the other witches into mice as well, letting cats kill them. In the end, the boy’s grandmother tells him that, since he is now a mouse, he will not live more than nine years, but the boy is not upset, because he does not want to live more than his grandmother, anyways.
Children are fascinated with terrifying and mythical things, so Roald Dahl gives them just that. The complex and, in many ways, scary story about witches that hate children and want to kill them is not necessarily appalling, especially since he also gave the children a hero, a seven year old orphan who finds out how the witches plan to kill the children and uses their own plan against them. The way he tells this story is worth a closer look, however.
Writing it in the first person, with the seven year old as narrator, Dahl invites his readers to live everything at full intensity, from the perspective of losing parents and starting a whole new life to the scary image of “baldheaded women, with long claws and toeless feet, which hide their deformities under wigs, gloves and pointy shoes” (Dahl, 1983) and to the terrifying (although unexploited) experience of witnessing murder.
The fears represented in this story are known by all children and exploited in many other books, such as the fear of death, the fear of the unknown or the fear of strangers (especially women), the last one being metaphorically presented in the episode where Bruno Jenkins is lured and then transformed into a mouse by the Grand High Witch.
The problem is that the author manages to take these fears to extreme, as we are not talking about just any death, but that of the hero's parents and of a child of closer age, we are not talking about just any stranger, but about the possibility for every woman the child encounters to be an evil witch in disguise.
It is no doubt that after reading this book, most children will study the women around them looking for gloves or wigs that could signal a witch in disguise or wonder if a mouse is not, in fact, a child transformed by the witches.
If the sexist or misogynist character of the book (Driscoll, 2011) can be argued, considering that the grandmother is a woman and one of the good characters in the book, the dimension fear reaches could easily be considered exaggerated for a reader who probably has not yet come to terms with the concepts of life and death and cannot easily distinguish myth and fiction from reality.
Luckily, the author compensates with other aspects of the book, such as the complexity of the hero, who turns from a nameless child into a role model. At just seven years of age, he takes on and defeats all the witches in England, and even in Norway. He is the typical hero, committed to fight evil and save the weak (Schmoop, 2008).
This portrayal is all the more surprising considering that it all starts with an unfortunate, sad and scared child, who, after having lost both his parents, he places all the love and respect he has left in his grandma, an old and chubby Norwegian woman walking with the help of a stick, smoking cigars and telling witch stories.
She in no way resembles the typical grandma, all kind and gentle, baking cookies and knitting on the porch, but she is rather a portrayal of the author himself (the character was actually built starting from the author's own mother), mysterious, but great at telling stories and having has her share of extreme experiences and sufferance. The hero offers her all the love and devotion he is capable of, reaching the point when he is glad to die younger just to avoid outliving her.
Then, the main character is very curious, and this is under no circumstances bad, but quite the contrary. Had he not asked questions and tried to find out more, he would have never recognized the witches, revealed their plans or take them down. If anything matches this curiosity, then it is his courage. He is not afraid of dangers, of death, of pretty much anything, or, to be more precise, he manages to get over his fears and act with courage (Schmoop, 2008).
Add to these the wonder of his age, the enthusiasm with which he tells the story, and it is easy to understand why children and adults alike are conquered by this book and cannot let it out of their hands. Who cares that witches don't actually exist and cannot turn children into mice and kill them? That does not mean you cannot fantasize about fighting them and saving the world, and that is so very easy and fulfilling when you are in the shoes of a brave and smart seven-year-old.
Through the power of example, children are taught to listen to their loved ones carefully, just like the hero listened to his grandmother's stories and they helped him recognize witches when he saw them, and to never talk to strangers or trust them simply because they offer treats or toys. Had Bruno Jenkins not talked to the witch and let himself fooled by the chocolate she offered, he would have never been turned into a mouse and killed.
The fear of death is well exploited in this book from the very beginning, turning into a parable. While premature, violent death is not acceptable, and should be avoided at all cost, inevitably, all creatures die sooner or later and, instead of reaching desperation because of that, they should embrace their fate and make the most of the time they have left.
The whole story is a lesson for children and adults alike, one about love towards one's family (or what is left of it) and towards the other people. Although the boy himself is afraid of witches, using the information he received from his grandmother, he manages to overcome his fears and, after having won his own battles and having been turned into a mouse, he decides to fight other children's battles as well.
The value of this story depends on the way it is told. If the reader or listener were a disabled child, his fear of witches would be a fear of the uncertain future, of other people mocking his condition. In order to overcome his fear, the hero would have to leave the house, go to school and get involved in activities no other disabled children would dare to try, setting an example.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he would have to enjoy life as it is, learn to live with his disability and enjoy all the things that he can still do, just like Dahl's hero learned to live as a mouse and never cried at the news that he would only live for a few more years.
Is this enough to make a story suitable for children or does the way in which it is told matter more than the underlying message?
A starting point in establishing whether "The Witches" is a story suitable for children would be Watson's theory (1992) on the responsibility of writers and readers. While most critics and theorists support their verdict regarding a book with arguments built around the text, others, especially Watson, emphasize that this approach is misleading. The analysis should not focus on the text, but rather on the impact it has on the reader, on the way the text challenges the reader and on the reader's ability to understand the text and live up to its complexity.
In Watson's perception, writers can be irresponsible and write about violence, death, fear and any other controversial theme. It is the reader's responsibility to identify the real intentions of the author and distinguish between good and bad, between right and wrong. Those who succeed to do so at a young age are those who will enjoy the reading the most and see beyond the surface characteristics of the text (p. 6).
Children should therefore not be perceived as blank slates that, in Dahl's case, will start hunting witches and protecting mice, but rather as deep thinkers who will treasure their safety and freedom and think twice before falling into traps.
“Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears”, A Scrapbook of Fear and Hope – Frightening or Educative
This picture book was written and illustrated by Emily Gravett. The first element of surprise or, better yet, interest, is the cover, where a great hole is depicted and the author’s name is crossed off and replaced with Little Mouse, suggesting that the story is told from the point of view of the small creature.
Both covers are filled with characters that look like hieroglyphs and intrigue the reader, stir curiosity. As the book slowly reveals, these hieroglyphs represent the different fears the book is about.
The first fear represented in the book can be found on the very first page, right where the nibble hole from the cover was. Shaped like a spider, it represents fear of all things that crawl, a fear that most children have, intuitively. The terms used by the author to describe this fear are “Arachnophobia (fear of spiders)” and “Entomophobia (fear of insects)”.
With every page turned, the reader sees Little Mouse facing each of his fears, and, through the power of the pictures, lives that fear. Along the way, he faces “Teratophobia”, fear of monsters, and “Clinophobia”, fear of going to bed. The two are connected by a large bed, under which there are a lot of eyes peeking around.
On page 3, Little Mouse is faced with his fear of knives, called “Aichmophobia”. After that, he is confronted with his “Ablutophobia”, fear of taking a bath, “Hydrophobia”, fear of water, “Dystyciphobia”, fear of accidents and “Rupophobia”, fear of dirt. The story also covers “Ligyrophobia”, fear of loud noises, and “Chronomrnmtrophobia”, fear of clocks.
One of the worst fears presented is “Isolophobia”, fear of isolation, of solitude, which is continued by “WhereamIophobia”, the fear of getting lost, present in the heart and mind of every child. Even though it is a not a real phobia, Emily Gravett did a great job depicting it.
The most incredible illustration from this book is, of course, the map of “Isle of Fright”. On it, the reader can find an owl, a cat on a fence, and giant spider webs, all making references to previous fears presented in the book.
The fears the Little Mouse illustrates do not end here. There are many more, such as “Ornitophobia”, fear of birds, or “Phagophobia”, fear of being eaten. When this one is presented, Little Mouse is chased by … feathers, which are very much alive and have real teeth and eyes.
The end of the book gives the reader a glimpse of hope: “I’m afraid of nearly everything I see. But even though I am very small, she is afraid of me!”. After being confronted with all those fears and after realizing that he is afraid of pretty much everything out there, Little Mouse discovers those who suffer from “Musophobia”, or fear of mice. Therefore, a large smile appears on his small face, and, after surviving the adventure, he now feels very tall.
The end of the story depicts a satisfied Little Mouse, who is hugging his companion, the pencil that stood by his side from the beginning of the book, and is covered in tiny bits of paper that represent the fears he managed to overcome. Children will easily identify with the hero, especially since most of them share the fears of the Little Mouse.
The “Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears” is not an illustrated book, but a picture book, because the story would never be complete or lived at the right intensity without the pictures, the story is actually in the pictures. It is the best illustration of Graham's definition of the picture book as a complete design based on both text and illustrations, as a historical, cultural and social document, a complex experience for the young reader.
As a form of art, it relies on a relation of interdependence between words and pictures, on the display of the two facing pages, as well as on the suspense that each turn of the page creates. (Bader, 1976, p 1).
The book is very complex, based mostly on crayon drawings and embedding various techniques, such as chrosshatching, to obtain various tones of grey and make images look old fashion, doublespread pages, meant to accentuate the feeling of fear, the frames imitating old paper, meant to suggest that the book was put together in time, but the fears illustrated in it are timeless.
The endpapers and the layout work together to create the impression of a scrapbook, further strengthened by the relief map and the apparently randomly placed pictures and animated with the use of lines, hesitant when the little mouse is scared and bold in the end, when he discovers that he still holds a great deal of power.
The scrapbook is put together by the mouse, the narrator and the main character of the running story. His importance is suggested by the colored crayon in his "hands", as opposed to the black, white and grey drawings, scaled according to the intensity of the feeling of fear – the more intense the feeling, the bigger and scarier the images that depict it are.
The text is handwritten, shaky and unsure, betraying the emotion that the mouse would feel while facing his fears, because that is what representing those fears in the "big book" means – facing them. However, it is very clear, easy to understand, suggesting that the fears are universal, common to many creatures and, probably, anyone who would browse the book.
The point of view, that of the mouse, is the key ingredient in the whole story – the readers see everything through the eyes of the mouse, their perspective is reduced to the tip of the mouse's crayon, they shake with fear in the first part of the book and jump with enthusiasm and hope in the end, as the narrator dictates.
While picture books are considered by many theorists among the simplest children's books available, this is certainly not the case of the “Little Mouse’s Big Book Of Fears”, and the above elements are just some of the proofs in this sense. With it, Emily Gravett succeeds to tell a complicated story in a simple language, to reach out to both children and adults and help them exteriorize and face their deepest fears.
For the children that consider the images used to depict the fears rather funny, the book will be the push they needed to understand that their fear is mostly in their head and they basically have nothing to worry about.
For those who live the whole story through the eyes of the Little Mouse, every page is an adventure that, luckily, has a happy ending – they learn that every creature has its own fears and weaknesses, the secret to a happy life being to leave one's fears and weaknesses aside and focus on one's strengths. The best part is that everyone has his or her own strength, just like the tiny, fragile Little Mouse does.
Following the example set by Rousseau, in 1762, Emily Gravett uses familiar things to help children overcome certain fears, but she also introduces the idea of new, experimental fears that help the readers overcome fear in general.
The main difference between the two is that Rousseau considered it necessary to use notions that children could associate with different objects or events, denying the latter the ability to understand things (2004). Emily Gravett, on the other hand, believes in the children's power to understand fear and arranges such an encounter for them, engaging her small readers and determining them to cope with their fears.
"The Witches" and the "Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears" – Common Elements
While the approach and the techniques used by the two authors are completely different, the two books do have several important elements in common:
- Both of them have fear as a central theme, exploit it and present it under various forms.
- Both are written in the first person: while Emily Gravett's narrator is a mouse from beginning to end, Dahl's narrator turns into a mouse throughout the story;
- Both books have a positive ending, encouraging readers to face and overcome their fears and showing them that there is always a positive side: a mouse can kill bad witches, respectively scare grown up people.
- Both books are written for active readers, expecting them to engage, interpret and live the story every step of the way.
- Both books make great educational tools. In the right hands, they could teach people discipline, facing fears, fighting for what they want, never losing hope and always seeing the bright side of things.
Leaving theory aside and returning to Philip Pullman's perspective, a book is as great as the story it tells. These two books tell two great stories of fear and courage, they represent a deep and rewarding experience, worth trying by anyone, young or old, happy or sad. They educate and they challenge the reader's imagination, they are complex and bold, and they should be granted their place in children literature and not only.
Last but not least, no book should be simple, limiting, bland and sentimental. If it were, no one would read it.