An important property of any doorway is that you can close it, and the same goes for a book. I was prompted to this thought by some interesting observations on Balaclava, the forum of the SAS (no, not the special forces, the Scattered Authors’ Society) regarding the misguided urge some people have (publishers among them) to sanitise children’s literature and make it ‘nice’.
‘Anodyne’ as applied to literature is something I have discussed elsewhere. What I want to do here is examine the misunderstanding that leads some people to think that children’s literature should be soft, cosy, reassuring and only that – with no place in it for anything even remotely frightening or disturbing.
They mean well, of course (though we know where good intentions lead). The loss of innocence is a grievous thing and the desire to preserve it as long as possible (in an increasingly hostile world) is perfectly understandable, but there is an analogy to be made here with disease: the best way to preserve your children against the physical ills of this world is not to keep them from any exposure to germs but rather to fortify their constitution and build up their resistance.
‘Ignorance is bliss,’ they say; ‘what you don’t know can’t harm you’ – but that is dangerous counsel. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that you can only control a small part of what gets into a child’s head; and besides, children being human, there is some there already that is strange and dark. Better to fortify them with good books that allow them to make their own excursions into the Dark Wood – because though the power of books is undeniable, we should not overlook the fact that the reader remains in charge.
Books, as I have said elsewhere, are doorways into other worlds – but it is essential to grasp that, like doorways, they can be shut. If a story is frightening you can escape and shut the door behind you (there is a family legend of my brother, when very young, switching off the wireless (as it was then) just as a reading of The Speckled Band reached its climax). Of course, if the book takes a hold on your imagination, you can remain vividly aware of the world that lies beyond the door and the memory can haunt you, in dreams and waking – I remember the same brother giving me an account of an adventure/horror story called (I think) Lonegan and the Ants, about an army of soldier ants eating everything in their path (including a man and a horse if I recall correctly). This so seized my mind that for a time I feared to pass the door of my sister’s room (vacant, as she was at university) lest a column of ants (originating, of course, from under the bed) should come streaming across the hallway.
Curiously, but importantly, I only ever allowed these imagined ants to stream across the hall into the bathroom; there was no question of their taking a right turn and coming down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my brothers. As long as I leapt or dashed past the door, I could make it to the living-room. It may have been that I was impressed by the fact that the ants in the story relentlessly pursued a straight line – that was part of their menace – but I also think that I was exercising a measure of control: I could not keep the monsters out completely, but I could work out an accommodation with them.
And that, in short, is what good children’s books – and, perhaps, all stories – teach us to do: they allow us to come to an accommodation with the monsters, acknowledging their presence but giving us ways of dodging them – the first heroic act we learn, perhaps, is the dark dash across the cold linoleum from the lightswitch, culminating in a flying leap onto the bed to evade the clutches of the creatures that we know are underneath it, but are not allowed to transgress the bounds that have been set for them.