Written by: Azita Rassi, Tiny Owl Publishing translator
*What follows is just my take on the topic above and it should by no means be seen as Tiny Owl’s opinion. I am unaware of how the publisher feels about the issue and am just grateful for the opportunity to state what I think and hear what the readers believe in this regard.
There is this popular Iranian folktale that, like most folktales and myths, has counterparts in other cultures. In the Iranian version, a mother goat says goodbye to her three kids every morning to go to the pasture, graze all day, and come back to the little ones with fresh, rich milk. There is a big bad wolf in the neighbourhood – of course there is — who finally succeeds in duping the kids into opening the door for him and gobbles them up without chewing. The rest of the story is about how the mother goat succeeds in winning back her kids, who miraculously step out of the wolf’s torn tummy, totally safe and sound.
As a child, I loved this story and, being the last child in my family, took pride in the fact that the youngest kid was the least gullible. Then I grew up, got married, had a child of my own, and became guilty of what I can best describe as “Disneyfication.” I looked at all the violent, scary traditional tales that I was supposed to tell my daughter at her bedtime, evening after evening, and decided that I could never do such a thing. For three years, I am ashamed to admit, I told her sweetened, sterilized, Disneyfied versions of these stories. For instance, in the above folktale, the wolf became a willing babysitter, taking care of the three kids in the absence of their mother. Then one day, she heard the real story from her grandma and was fascinated. Later, I had a chat with my mother-in-law, the grandma who had given me away, and she asked me why I thought I had to change these stories. I told her I was afraid of instilling a fear, paranoia even, in my daughter because of all the grimness in our folklore, all the bloodshed, deviousness, kidnappings, etc. “My dear,” said my wise mother-in-law, “the real world is no less ugly, but these stories show the child that a happy end is achievable in spite of all the violence and betrayals.”
She was right, of course. I was raised on the original stories and I had become an incorrigible optimist. I changed back my daughter’s bedtime stories to the authentic plots to her utter delight. She became an avid reader in primary school and quickly developed a taste for dark, twisted fiction. I am relieved to report that at the age of 23, she is also an unwavering optimist, one that, surprisingly enough — given her former inclination to gory literature — prefers Jane Austen and Scott Fitzgerald to Stephen King and John Grisham any day.
It is easy to anticipate a connection between children’s books and optimism when the stories and poems are all rainbows and butterflies, but I have come to believe that even, and maybe especially when, the books are reflecting the evil in the world more accurately, they help foster optimism in our young readers. It is an almost unquestioned tradition that children’s books should end on a high note. Even when the protagonist doesn’t make it, there is a figurative resurrection in the form of a young, enthusiastic character who steps forward to carry the fallen flag. An example can be seen in The Little Black Fish, where at the very end of the story, a little fish is dreaming of continuing on the path of the dead hero.
There is no wasted effort in children’s stories, no unrewarded kindness. The way I see it, even when children get a chance to look at the monstrosity of the world in their story books, they are reassured that good is stronger than evil. Unlike the early years of my daughter’s life, when I felt a crushing need to protect her from every danger, shock, and disappointment, I now maintain that it is a good idea to let our children take a peek at the evil in the controlled framework of the stories they read or are told. It will make them readier for the real deal, a sort of inoculation. Furthermore, stories that are not sugarcoated appeal to young readers, both because they find them more plausible and because these stories reflect their concerns, as Alison Flood fluently explains in her defense of darker children’s and young adult books. After all, it is natural for children to be worried about, even obsessed with, disloyalty, bullying, brutality, and death. They need to grapple with these issues in a safe environment, which a story can provide.
However, I think it is paramount that we pay attention to our children’s reactions and take our cue from them. Not all children are ready for the same dosage of darkness at the same age. Sometimes even innocent details that are a bit out of the ordinary can upset a young imagination. I remember another tale from my childhood, again about a goat, that spooked me to no end. There was this line in the story, saying that the goat sometimes took off his horns and put them on the shelf. I was terrified of this part of the story for some reason. I still remember the illustration for that page with a dimmed sense of alarm. So while I do not support hiding or changing the sadder, scarier parts of stories from children who can handle them, by no means do I advocate blindly unleashing all sorts of fiction on our youngsters. As responsible adults, we have to be attentive to our children’s sensitivities if we want to give stories a chance to create a strong sense of optimism in their audience.
More from this writer:
- Creation of a cultural bridge. An interview. Link
- The importance of translating children’s books to English. Link
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