Darkness and Oz

There’s been another recent kerfuffle, albeit a relatively minor one, about darkness in children’s books.

What set it off was Maria Tatar’s Opinion piece in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland.” A notable paragraph includes: “But the savagery we offer children today is more unforgiving than it once was, and the shadows are rarely banished by comic relief. Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive.” In another section, she says, “Children today get an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.” Mind you, then she brings up an example that was definitely written for young adults, not children.

Her final paragraph mourns what she calls a lost tradition: “Still, it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie, for they also bridged generational divides. No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

I’ve read some thoughtful responses to that piece from Monica Edinger, Nina Lindsay, and Betsy Bird, along with some insightful comments from their readers. I don’t think I have a lot to add to the discussion.

But I did read something this week that made me laugh, when juxtaposed in my mind with Maria Tatar’s article. Believe it or not, it’s the Introduction to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

I was rereading this fabulous book for a meeting of the DCKidLit Book Club.

Bearing in mind Ms. Tatar’s article and that L. Frank Baum wrote this in 1900, see if you can see why this Introduction made me laugh:

Folk lore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old-time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder-tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.

– L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900

It’s funny in several ways. First, he was complaining that existing children’s literature is too dark. But also, he was saying the opposite of what people say today: That it’s “modern” to have sweetness and light in children’s books.

So perhaps critics have a point. But I’m thinking there were two camps then and there are two camps now. One camp thinks that childhood should be G-rated, and you should try to keep unpleasant things from the little dears. (I guess you can already tell which camp I’m in.) The other camp thinks that kids can handle unpleasant things, in reasonable context and as they grow.

To be honest, I love the Oz books, but they do have a sentimental, grandfatherly tone. This makes their best audience tend to be younger children, who don’t mind being talked down to. Mind you, they’re wonderful adventures. But the reader must not mind that the heroine is called a “little girl,” as in this passage: “Dorothy was an innocent, harmless little girl, who had been carried by a cyclone many miles from home; and she had never killed anything in all her life.”

I’ve been thinking about it, and Oz is a perfect family read-aloud for young children, as well as an ideal choice for early readers. The reading level is a little higher than the interest level, because as kids get older they are less taken by the grandfatherly sentimental tone. (Though if you once hook kids on the Oz stories, I’m convinced they’ll continue to gobble them up, and will take longer to outgrow them.)

Like J. K. Rowling, L. Frank Baum had an incredible imagination, and threw all kinds of bizarre countries, characters, and adventures into his books. As far as creating new, American wonder-tales, he certainly succeeded.

But how funny that he was trying to save the world from dark children’s literature of “heart-aches and nightmares”!

Actually, if everyone who finds children’s literature too dark would take his approach, I would have no complaints at all: Go out there and write something wonderful without the darkness. L. Frank Baum decided to write light-hearted wonder-tales, and did a magnificent job.

And whether or not you think L. Frank Baum was right that the tales before his time were too dark, you’ve got to admire his response. He didn’t just complain. He did something about it, and created the kind of tales he wanted to see. If today’s critics would only do the same.

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