Dark Books and Children

Lately I’ve been looking for new read-alouds to read with the kids (both for fun and because some books just “should” be read!) and I’ve been revisiting books that I had to read in school.  I am a little unnerved at how many of them involved death and dying!  I also wonder if this is good, bad or matters at all.

Some of the books that sprang to mind as ones I had to read in grade school include: Where the Red Fern Grows, A Day No Pigs Would Die, Island of the Blue Dolphins and even Charlotte’s Web.  Even the short stories frequently centered around death.  I remember reading “The Lottery” in 4th grade, a story about a town where members must draw numbers to see which of them will be killed off (stoned to death!) for the community good.  Egads!  Isn’t this a bit dark for a 9 year old?

Part of me thinks that these books are good (within reason) because they introduce children to death, which frankly is going to come up in their real lives whether we like it or not.  These books give them practice, so to speak, with loss.  They also give kids an outlet for grief that may be bottled up, kind of the way we can watch a tearjerker when we’re feeling down and emotionally clean house that way.

Part of me thinks it’s just too heavy, though.  Reading an occasional book about death is one thing, but maybe they should be the exception.  Maybe books help even more when they offer friendship, escape, broadening of horizons, information, humor and just plain fun.  I look back at my childhood with books and I remember reading constantly but I also remember those books I read for school as existing under a sort of dark and dreary, unpleasant cloud.

There are lots of nasty things we have to face eventually in life, but does that mean we have to deal with so much of them as children?  Isn’t that like the anti-homeschool folks who say kids have to get used to boredom, bullies and other nastiness because someday they’ll encounter it?  I’ve always thought that reasoning was idiotic.  While we may have to deal with some unpleasant things in life, why willingly add extra just for practice?  And isn’t it better to teach our children that they can craft lives for themselves that are enriching and they don’t have to settle for lives where people harm, harrass or manipulate them or lives that are boring and uninspired?

Sorry, I seem to have gone off on a tangent there!

Finally, the last option is that these books have far less effect than we might think.  I remember reading a memoir called Zippy last year that was described as a book about a happy childhood.  Parts of it made me laugh out loud and Victoria wanted to read it, but I worried that parts would be too upsetting for her.  There was some truly horrifying animal abuse recounted in the book (not by the main character but by others and she witnessed it).  She finally convinced me to let her start to read it and she read the whole thing.  She said those parts made her mad but they didn’t traumatize her.

When we read The Island of the Blue Dolphins as a read-aloud several years ago, I had forgotten most of it.  My kids have dealt with deaths of neighbors, family members and had recently lost a close friend to leukemia, so once I got into the book I worried that it would be too much for them.  They were fine.

I hear a lot of complaints lately that modern children’s books are too dark and depressing.  I’m not sure what to think of that, since I remember plenty of dark and depressing books from when I was a kid quite a few years ago!  I think perhaps the subject matter has evolved to some more risque and modern issues, but children’s books and stories have been dark for as long as they have existed.  People die, the world is cruel and life is hard.  It seems to be a pretty common theme.  Count how many fairy tale heroines don’t have dead mothers!

So what do you think?  Do dark stories help children prepare for life and process emotions?  Is it too much, too young?  Or do we overthink it and our kids are a lot tougher than we think?

Are there any books you don’t want your kids to read yet because they’re just too dark, depressing or mature?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


3 thoughts on “Dark Books and Children

  1. Ugg…..I just wrote out a huge long detailed response and the internet ate it. Must have been a sign to shorten it up! I’ll try again.

    My thoughts are this…..we are starting to read more and more of the “dark” books. We have read them in the past and never have my kids mentioned or acted like it was hurting them emotionally.

    Stories have been dark for as far back as I can see. The stories in the bible can be dark, stories passed on by certain cultures can be dark, fairy tales can be dark, and the list goes on. But yet they are still around, considered classics, and used as teaching tools and considered great pieces of literature. There must be a reason for that 🙂

    I like them because they open the doors for communication. They start a path to talk about difficult subjects, that way when we are there, maybe we have something to relate that difficult subject with. Or maybe they teach some sort of lesson, like to not cry wolf lol. Children are just little adults and are capable of understanding for more than we sometimes give them credit for.

    They are enjoyable to read, even when touching on the tough subjects. Even if there is a sad spot in a story, my kids enjoy them. They want to read more, they want to find out what happens next. This is far better to me, than starting and reading a crap book and having to quit because there is no interest in it! If it interests my child, I consider that a good thing 🙂

    Overall, I think children are able to and most are capable of handling these books and retaining good information from them. I think the key is to watch and pay attention to how your child handles a story.

    If your reading a book, and they are in distress, they probably aren’t ready for them. Old Yeller may not be appropriate for a 4 y/o, but it can be a great book for a 9 y/o. KWIM? We have to use our motherly super powers. LOL 🙂

    And, I will add my rant to yours, I hate the abridged changed fairy tales. Yes they are sometimes dark and sad, but they are written that way for a reason. When they change them, they devalue the person who wrote them. It’s hard to find unabridged versions of a lot of stories!

    This summer we read Rumpelstiltskin to the boys. They loved it, absolutely loved it. Then we went to the play and they boys were very disappointed in it, it wasn’t anything like the original version of Rumpelstiltskin and they new it and it just took away from the story.

    Anyways, this didn’t turn out shorter at all. Just as long. Hopefully I was able to accurately type out my thoughts on the matter haha. I speak and write in mumble jumble a lot 🙂


  2. We are reading The Island of Blue Dolphins now and trying to see if DS will like Harry Potter. And he’s reading The Graveyard Book on his own. Definitely overdosing on dark, deathly themes here LOL. But DS (turns 7 in October) has been fine and dandy with it all. Probably something to do with the dark and depressing unabdridged fairy tales he’s been reading since he was 4 and his passion for deadly diseases.

    I think a huge part of it is our own protective instincts. It was odd for me…I had very very protective parents but when it came to books they let me read everything. As much as I want to protect him too I think I will allow him to read anything as long as it’s decent and well written. But that’s just me.

    Enjoyed this post! Thanks for writing it 🙂


  3. Well, I like to read books out loud that are about real life – things like the Little House books or the Penderwicks. But we also read “darker” books, like Roald Dahl or Kate DiCamillo. When I read “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” to my son, I ended up bawling through the last few chapters, but my son was pretty much unfazed by the death. Really, it’s probably better for them to encounter these themes while we are reading to them, so they can talk about anything that bothers them. Much better than seeing it in a movie or something as their first exposure to it.


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