Why Write Dark Kids' Books?

Dark Books

I’ve heard that some (though not all) Copper Jungle books are “too dark” for kids. Stories like “The Shrunken Goblin” or “The Battle of Athens” deal bluntly with real peril and mortal outcomes. Some readers and reviewers ask “why?” Are these appropriate for kids? Will my kids be scared?

Those are fair questions. I have always had an intuitive answer for myself, but it may be helpful for some parents, teachers, or other shoppers to have those answers laid out more formally. So, here’s why I don’t shy from producing “dark” entertainment for kids.

Fundamentally, I believe that scary situations exist in the world. We do not do our children any favors by pretending they do not. Quite the contrary, we fail to prepare them for the world they inhabit.

One of the seminal moments in the development of Copper Jungle was a story I read to my eldest before she was even born. It was a modern adaptation of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” In the story, the shepherd boy falsely calls wolf for entertainment until the villagers no longer believe him when a real wolf arrives. Unlike the original story, in which the shepherd is eaten, the wolf gives the boy a scare, but it turns out he is just lonely and wants a friend. The shepherd befriends him and everyone lives happily ever after.

What is the lesson there? That lying is okay? That the solution for violent predators is to simply befriend them? Modern adaptation after modern adaption repeated the pattern; the wolves of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “The Three Little Pigs” were reduced to sad loners. The true danger of the natural order was resolved through naive inclusion. Peril was removed along with morals and lessons.  

I did not want to restrict my children to such a limited view of the world. A media diet of falsely sweetened outcomes is no better for a growing mind than a physical diet of sugar and artificial sweeteners are for a growing body.

More importantly, stories of peril provide children a chance to practice courage and to role-play responses to true danger. If we define courage as being scared of something, but doing it anyway, then the act of simply watching a scary movie or reading a scary book allows children to flex this emotional muscle. Tales that demonstrate how to respond to danger - hiding from a tornado, building a strong defense, protecting your family, etc - give children behavioral templates to mimic in play. In essence, they get the chance to practice facing scary situations emotionally and behaviorally before it is ever required.

I've heard the argument that scary entertainment can promote anxiety. I disagree. Anxiety is driven by scary things that we don't have a plan to deal with. And kids will see scary stuff. Both because we cannot insulate children from everything and because children have active imaginations. My kids have been as scared of a shiny closet knob and a curtain fold as anything in books or movies. Better for them to have templates for how to respond to a fright than to pretend we can protect them from their own imaginations (much less, for slightly older kids, the Internet).

Finally, a willingness to engage with difficult subject matter just plain makes for more interesting stories. The films and books that I remember most fondly from my childhood were not shy about danger. “Watership Down,” “The Last Unicorn,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven” come to mind. All had some scary scenes, but more than just being scary, those scenes added to the poignancy of the characters and the narrative in ways that helped their sadness, hopefulness, and triumph stick.

None of this is to suggest that the appropriateness of a story for a specific age or child shouldn’t be considered - I am not suggesting Hostel or The Northman for your sensitive preschooler.

Nor should this be interpreted to mean than more traditionally “kid-friendly” entertainment doesn’t have it’s place. There is value in innocence, kindness, and happiness. There is value in imagining worlds unburdened by fear and even in simple escapism. Some of our stories meet this criteria too. Children deserve the chance to be children and that means allowing them time to grow before they are saddled with the full weight of the world.

BUT… a failure to prepare them to take on the full weight of the world eventually is an abdication of our responsibility as parents and teachers. Just as a weightlifter gets stronger by practicing lifting physical weights, so too will our children be emotionally and mentally stronger with the practice of lifting mental weights.

I also believe in taking care of customers. I have no intention of tricking someone into buying something their kids will not enjoy. Whether you are looking for something challenging or something twee, all of our books can be previewed on our website.

In case you’re still not convinced, I’ll leave you with a quote from a much more accomplished author:

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.”― C.S. Lewis
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.