Joe Fassler has a great piece in The Atlantic on the recently deceased Maurice Sendak. I think it’s a pretty thought-provoking topic, too – how much is too much for young readers to handle? He argues that Sendak, like other great children’s authors before him, understood that children don’t just like to be scared, they require it.
“Psychologists, child specialists, and literary critics alike argue that stories allow children to tame threatening feelings that might otherwise overwhelm them. In The Uses of Enchantment, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests that fairy tales help children externalize, and ultimately diffuse, their deepest anxieties. “The child must somehow distance himself from the content of his unconsciousness and see it as something external to him [if he is] to gain any sort of mastery over it,” Bettelheim writes. This is why so many fairy tales take place in the deep and mysterious woods–it is the realm of the subconscious, where the wandering child-mind can encounter its fears and wants in reified form, then neutralize them.
Bettelheim offers the folktale classic “Little Red Riding Hood” as one example. “The kindly grandmother undergoes a sudden replacement by the rapacious wolf which threatens to destroy the child.” It’s a terrifying transformation—unrealistic and, some might say, unnecessarily scary. “But when viewed in terms of a child’s way of experiencing,” Betteheim asks, “is it really any more scary than the sudden transformation of his own kindly grandma into a figure who…humiliates him for a pants-wetting incident?” In other words, the wolf and grandmother are two sides of the same person, the physical embodient of a parent’s bewildering duality. The fable helps the child reckon with the sudden, confounding changes that scare her.”