“PETER AND WENDY,” published 100 years ago this week, famously begins with the words, “All children, except one, grow up.” Like the play on which it was based, the story of Peter Pan captured the rough-and-tumble pleasures of childhood, along with its endless perils and possibilities – the heady “what if?” of imaginative play.
J. M. Barrie’s Neverland, like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland before it, delivers on the luminous promise of magic, with fairy dust and rainbow water, in a world ablaze with color and expressive energy. Yet the authors of “Peter Pan” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” also understood that “what if?” had a dark side: the Queen of Hearts ritually demands nearly everyone’s head and Captain Hook repeatedly brandishes his trademark weapon, while a clock ticking inside a crocodile reminds us that time is running out.
These are the traditional villains of
children’s books – fabulous monsters with a touch of the absurd. Like Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things and countless others, they walk a fine line between horror and zany eccentricity. They may frighten young readers, but their juvenile antics strip them of any real authority. Alice shrieks with delight when she learns that the Duchess has boxed the Queen’s ears and shouts words like “Nonsense!” to banish threats, while Peter triumphs over a pirate who undermines himself by worrying about “good form” and then resorting to childish practices like biting.
Many authors of more recent books for children and teenagers have similarly crossed over to the dark side, and we applaud them for it. 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 2009, Neil Gaiman won the Newbery Medal, the most distinguished award in the field of children’s literature, for “The Graveyard Book,” a work that makes no bones about its subject matter. Here is what children read on Page 1: “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” A few paragraphs later, the wielder of the knife has finished off three family members and is on his way to the nursery to slash the throat of the fourth. It is up to the hero, Bod – short for Nobody – to find the killer.
These books frequently offer expansive meditations on mortality, with heroes on crusades against death. J. K. Rowling described the Harry Potter books as “largely about death.” The drama of the series begins with the murder of Harry’s parents and turns on an emphatically humorless villain who seeks immortality at any price. Philip Pullman’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” takes on similar themes. It rewrites the Fall of Man – instead of being expelled from Paradise, the disobedient, curious heroine seeks redemption by journeying to the desolate Land of the Dead.
But neither the Harry Potter books nor “His Dark Materials” has anything to equal the horrors of what Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark suffer in Suzanne Collins’s wildly successful trilogy, “The Hunger Games.” Katniss must kill to survive in gladiator-like contests, and her victims are not the fabulous monsters of fairy tales or of Wonderland and Neverland, but other children.
It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote.