Who would have thought that adopting a literary lens could even render a simple children’s book insightful and profound? Although this relates more to changing perspectives that come with age, no adult in his or her right mind is likely to pick up an Enid Blyton story to re-read (no generalizations here, plenty of eternal Blyton fans out there). Well someone did just that; someone picked up the famous Alice books, a perfectly innocent adventure tale of a little girl in a fairytale land, and managed to fish out hidden sexual and psychological motifs in them. And now these tales are an integral part of most University-level courses in English Literature. Amused? There’s no denying the increasing adult readership (and viewership) of children’s narratives, and the larger question that arises now is whether it is possible to define a ‘target reader’ reader while writing children’s fiction. And, in context of the above books, whether children’s fiction in reality is a layered, complex narrative, conveniently hidden under the ‘garb’ of fantasy. And one thing that stands out in this seemingly mushy and merry world of fantasy is the element of “the monstrous”.
When JRR Tolkein came out with his unanimously acclaimed children’s book, The Hobbit, in 1937, children all over the nation were smitten. All the fantastical elements were in perfect keeping with the supposed ‘conventions’ of a children’s story. It was only when Tolkein later came out with a sequel in the form of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, were the critics and readers able to go back and identify some deeper, more complex elements of the plot, not to mention some very unpleasant (employing a milder word) creatures. Interestingly, Tolkein had written the sequel for the same target group, who would have grown up by the time. Things got darker, the ring of the preceding tale was turned into a formidable symbol of materialistic greed and obsession, and it was no longer possible to view The Hobbit through the same rose-tinted glasses. The better known recent movie adaptations by Percy Jackson further embroils the narrative in gory images of fire-breathing dragons and repulsive Orcs, and of course, the haunting imagery of war in the climax, which were perhaps more toned down in the book. The increasing symbolism and metaphors here, however, are more glaring, simply because the movies do not suffer from the preconceptions of being an idyllic, moralistic children’s story.
Following that trail of thought, let us come to an unconventional element in a children’s story that Tolkein had triggered; that of horror. The Goosebumps series by RL Stine had a very unlikely combination to its credit, fusing the morbid and the essentially fairytale genre of children’s fiction. And, topping that, its target readership was even younger, ranging from 8-12-year-olds. In fact, the books were widely protested against by parents, teachers and school librarians, and it was an act of “reading-rebellion” by the children, who were provoked to explore the series because of the widespread dissent, that made it so popular. Yet apart from all the scenes of macabre and flayed animals, the aspect that makes it arguably “unsuitable” for children and preteens is the element of “fear” that the books thrive on. The books helped them define fear, an emotion parents went to great lengths to protect them from. In that sense, the books were almost epiphanic. giving them more ‘realistic’ expectations from life, however ironic that may sound. The stories told them that there would be problems to solve, that there would be ‘monsters’ to tackle, and that life would not always be all hunky-dory.
Clearly, there are larger aims, philosophies and metaphors of life that children’s fiction writers try to deal with. A child reader is like an explorer, analyzing the vast expanse of the written page free from biases, pre-conceived notions and logical and moral contrints. There are complexities like metaphors and symbolism present, but they probably are not as “in-your-face” as they are in adult literature, probably because a child’s open mind doesn’t need everything presented to them on a plate. Somehow, child readers would manage to read between the lines simply because they are much more inquisitive and willing to be contradicted than their adult counterparts. As Jostein Gaarder aptly describes in his masterpiece, Sophie’s World, this world is like the rabbit coming out of a magician’s hat; children and philosophers are the ones who are clinging on to the edge of the rabbit’s hair, constantly moving upwards in an attempt to find out where it came from, while the adults have moved deep inside the fur, having accpetped the existence of the rabbit and not looking for answers anymore.