Saturday, June 2, 2012

Darkness in Kidlit, Victorian Style

The other day my daughter flipped through my copy of Sing-Song, A Nursery Rhyme Book by Christina Rossetti. She was attracted by the little girl on the cover cavorting with a lamb, one of the gorgeous original illustrations by Arthur Hughes, the Pre-Raphaelite whose illustrations for George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin I've loved since I bought my copy in the third-grade Scholastic Book Fair.

Many of the poems in Sing-Song cover familiar childhood experiences, including many sweet, touching, and funny subjects. But the poems often take a dark turn, familiar to Victorians for whom the living and dead existed side by side.

For example, a poem about a bird:

Babies and flowers:

A sweet poem about sisters that takes a dark turn:

A bedtime poem from which there is no waking:

Darkness in children's literature is a hot topic lately, but it's nothing new. Dystopians reflect teens' fears and perceptions about society, but also their hope -- they are the ones who redeem the corrupt societies portrays. Cursing in YA reflects the way some teens speak, but certainly doesn't expose them to words they would otherwise never hear. And absent parents in middle grade and YA reflect, for many, reality, and for others, a chance to learn about how other kids solve their own problems and make their own decisions.

Children's literature has always dealt with death -- fairy tales are notoriously grisly in their original versions, and the origins of many nursery rhymes is similarly macabre. And Victorian childhood, despite its sentimentalization in popular images, was a risky world, where infant and maternal mortality was an ever present risk. Literature for children reflected that then, just as it reflects the darker side of our world now.

More Reading:


Michelle McLean said...

Excellent post, and so so true.

Jillian Schmidt said...

Great post. There is definitely a long history of darkness in children's literature, and it was really interesting to see evidence of it somewhere other than fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Those are some chilling poems!

Jillian Schmidt said...

...other than the well-known nursery rhymes, I should have said. I definitely haven't heard any of these recited to/by children lately!

Cynthia J. McGean said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking post. The darkness in childhood makes adults uncomfortable, but it is such a potent, real force for kids. The late Maurice Sendak understood this so well.

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

This is so sad. Back when these where written, I suppose the death of a baby was such a common thing that it made sense to have children's poems dealing with that issue.
As you already said, the dark issues we see in YA today are often what real teens are dealing with today. Just as young children dealt with death then.
Great post. Thank you for sharing. (Even though it made me sad.)

Amparo Ortiz said...

THIS POST. <3 <3 <3

I'm forever grateful to anyone who discusses Victorian poetry, as well as tough topics in kidlit. Your take on both is exactly how I see them. It actually reminds me of the Grimm fairy tales, especially since retellings are cropping up with much success. There's something engaging about the ugly side of life. At least there is to me.

Awesome post, Kelly!