My Bumper Fairy-Tale Book by Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm
Do modern children's books shelter youngsters too much? There is a place for The Poky Little Puppy and The Little Engine that Could, and maybe even for the Care Bears.  After all, following parents' instructions, perseverance and kindness are important life lessons. But surely there's still a place for the gruesome fairytales with wicked witches and hungry wolves, as well as matter-of-fact children's books that pull no punches. Literarily speaking, have we gone too soft?

I remember reading as a small child about Laura Ingalls (Wilder - creator of the Little House series, about growing up in a 19th-century pioneer family) and her sister Mary inflating a pig's bladder like a balloon on slaughter day, and having a grand time playing with it in Little House in the Big Woods. I also recall the graphic, frank descriptions of the pig being killed and drained, having its bristly whiskers scraped off, and then having its body rendered in an enormous cauldron of boiling water, while its head was chopped up for headcheese.

Even as a child who loved animals, I recognized there was no cruelty in this. The pig was killed quickly - for food, for fat, for life. I understood the connection between that pig and my dinner, and while it seemed a bit unfair and sad, the passages in the book were explained frankly, and to my young mind, were simple fact.

Another story that didn't make me bat an eyelash was Little Red Riding Hood. These days, there are countless versions. The best known the Brothers Grimm version, in which a little girl is accosted in the woods by a wolf on the way to bring food to her sick grandmother. Upon learning Red's destination, the wolf races ahead, consumes Grandma in one swallow, disguises himself in her clothes, and waits for Red. When Red arrives, the wolf swallows her, as well. However, there is a happy ending (not for the wolf) when a passing woodsman chops open the wolf, releasing both Little Red and Grandma unharmed.
Little Red Riding Hood - Adapted From the Grimm Brothers by Andrea Wisnewski
Little Red Riding Hood is hundreds and hundreds of years old. Variants of the story have been traced back as early as the 15th century. To a modern child like myself, the idea of walking alone through a forest, let alone a dark, dangerous forest teeming with wolves, was positively thrilling. More importantly, it was completely foreign and fictional.

The stories also held real value. Little Red Riding Hood cautions against trusting strangers with personal information. The Red Shoes, a gruesome tale by Hans Christian Andersen, sees a little girl trick her adoptive mother into buying her expensive red shoes. She is punished for her vanity when the shoes turn out to be cursed, and won't allow her to stop dancing or remove the shoes. She eventually begs an executioner to chop her feet off, and he complies. Grim, but it teaches the lesson of valuing loved ones over possessions.

Author Alexander McCall Smith shared an anecdote in our interview with him: "I remember the Struwwelpeter stories. Struwwelpeter translates as Shock-haired Peter and the tales were designed to stop children misbehaving. One of them, the Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb, was all about a boy who sucked his thumb and gets his thumbs cut off by a tailor. I once visited some friends, who had an eight-year-old who sucked his thumb to the extent that he needed orthodontic work and I told that story to him – the boy froze, petrified, and never sucked his thumb again."

James and the Giant Peach by Roald DahlChildren, I believe, are brighter, more observant, and more intuitive than many adults give them credit for. Children who are loved, taught, and read to, who are encouraged to be inquisitive, understand the difference between right and wrong, between reality from make-believe. They perceive lessons and symbols. They comprehend that while two nasty old biddies being squashed flat in a story book (as in Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach) is a funny example of just desserts, death in reality is a very big deal, and permanent. The difference between reality and stories isn't lost on children. While I might have been on the edge of my seat (bed) while reading Little Red Riding Hood, the story neither gave me a phobia of wolves nor a mistaken belief in the regurgitation of animals unharmed (Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing took care of that early on, when Peter's beloved pet turtle is swallowed and killed by his little brother). My brain, even at age five or six, knew real from pretend. And speaking of Judy Blume, puberty would not have been as easy as it was without her honest, open books. Every girl I knew (and some of the boys!) read Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret and understood what menstruation was, and that no, we weren't sick or dying. Her books, some of the most frequently challenged, also frankly discuss themes like the loss of a parent, masturbation, bullying, adolescent sex, disability and more.

I understand the desire to protect innocence and keep a child from unpleasantness. But is leading a child to believe that all is lovely and fluffy and safe and friendly fair? Does it give them an adequate picture of the world, or is it setting them up for a rude awakening when they get out on their own? It seems to me the best policy is to be honest and frank.

And what about the relish of a good gruesome read? When I was little I positively delighted in the dark and macabre, loved the squishy, dark, scary places, provided I knew when I closed the book I was tucked in and safe. And I always knew when I was being condescended to, and appreciated when I wasn't. Part of the fun of childhood, as well as reading, is in using our imagination - and not just one side of it.

Here's to the children's books that pull no punches, that tell it like it is, that realize gruesome guts and growing up are part of being a kid.


Books from the Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

early edition of Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Farmer Boy
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

On The Banks of Plum Creek
Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Fairytales from Hans Christian Andersen

Stories from Hans Andersen by Hans Christian Andersen

Stories from Hans Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen
The Little Mermaid and Other Stories by Hans Christian Andersen

The Little Mermaid and Other Stories

Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales
Hans Christian Andersen

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

The Snow Queen
Hans Christian Andersen

The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

The Ugly Duckling
Hans Christian Andersen

Stories of Growing Up from Judy Blume

Superfudge by Judy Blume

Judy Blume

Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You by Judy Blume

Letters to Judy
Judy Blume

Iggie's House by Judy Blume

Iggie's House
Judy Blume

Fairytales from The Brothers Grimm

Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm

Household Stories
The Brothers Grimm

Grimm's Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm

Grimm's Fairy Tales

The Brothers Grimm
Jorinda and Joringel by the Brothers Grimm

Jorinda and Joringel
The Brothers Grimm

Juicy Children's Choices from Roald Dahl

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches

Roald Dahl

The Twits by Roald Dahl

The Twits

Roald Dahl

What do you think - are authors typically too soft on kids?

More to explore:

The Magic of Roald Dahl
Children's Travel Books from Miroslav Sasek
Around the World in Children's Books

50 Books for an 11-Year-Old Just 

Rudyard Kipling Bad to the 

Bone - The Worst Children in Literature