'Fostered alike by beauty and fear': should children’s literature comfort or unsettle?

Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Frobisher 1-3, Barbican Growing Pains

William Wordsworth depicted himself growing up ‘fostered alike by beauty and fear’. Indeed, from the after-lights-out delight of private reading to the shared thrill of big screen storytelling, children’s literature and film is a passport to other worlds of adventure, danger and challenge. But what happens – and what should happen – when those worlds seem too challenging, dangerous, immoral or frightening for young minds? Who decides what is the right literature and media for children and teens?

These are not new questions. Before the publication of Alice in Wonderland in 1865, children’s reading matter consisted mainly of improving texts such as The Pilgrim’s Progress, not written with entertainment in mind. With Alice, Lewis Carroll gave us for the first time a literature devised specifically for children, which prioritized the imaginative world of children over their moral improvement. Other children’s classics include the Brothers Grimm and their tales of malevolent step-mothers and violent retributions, the sinister child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the dark climax of the Harry Potter books.

Yet the tradition within children’s storytelling of moral education and reassurance proved persistent, from Mary Wollstonecraft’s snappily-titled Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness, to the modern morals of the Tracey Beaker books and The Dumping Ground.

Perhaps the best children’s media provide both a moral compass and a spine-tingling imaginative expansion of young horizons into dark and dangerous realms. But in a world increasingly conscious of real-life horrors, should we be more sensitive to the psychological impact of violence and horror on children’s minds? Should the job of children’s media be to reassure children and give them a sound moral and social direction?  Alternately, does a sweetness-and-light approach underestimate our children’s intelligence and imagination?

Sam Fell, co-director of ParaNorman argues: ‘There are mysteries beyond the nest that I think kids are fascinated by, and I think monsters and ghouls and ghosts and scary stuff kinda represents that slightly forbidden world beyond.’ So where should the moral and imaginative lines be drawn? Is the parent the best arbiter of what a child should read and watch? Do haunting tales or watch-through-the-fingers films have any social or moral purpose beyond entertainment?

Listen to the debate

Ian Douglas
journalist, Telegraph

Dr Thomas Karshan
lecturer in literature, University of East Anglia; author, Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play

Toby Mundy
founding director, TMA literary agency; executive director, Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

Maisie Rowe
landscape architect, writer and illustrator

Dr Shirley Dent
communications specialist (currently working with the British Veterinary Association media team); editor, tlfw.co.uk; author, Radical Blake
Recommended readings
Why Alice is still wonderful

Lewis Carroll knew the secret to children's stories – never moralise.

James Woudhuysen, spiked, 24 July 2015

Alice in Wonderland at 150: innocent fantasy or dark and druggy?

Is it just an innocent tale of a child’s dream-like adventure, or is there more to it than at first meets the eye?

Rosa Silverman, Telegraph, 4 July 2015

Today's Media Influences on Young Children

Children are inundated with messages from the popular media, and may interpret them differently than adults.

Mary Renck Jalongo, Scholastic

The Importance of Scaring Children

The long tradition of moral ambiguity and unhappy endings in kids' fiction returns with Evangeline Lilly's The Squickerwonkers.

Shirley Li, The Atlantic, 18 November 2014

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