Why N.D. Wilson Wants to Scare Your Children

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Outlaws-of-TimeBestselling children’s author N.D. Wilson has a new book out: Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle, the first in a new series. Written for ages 8-12 (grades 3-7), the 336-page hardcover is on sale from Amazon for under $10.

In a new piece for The Atlantic, Wilson writes:

I write violent stories. I write dark stories. I write them for my own children, and I write them for yours. And when the topic comes up with a radio host or a mom or a teacher in a hallway, the explanation is simple. Every kid in every classroom, every kid in a bunk bed frantically reading by flashlight, every latchkey kid and every helicoptered kid, every single mortal child is growing into a life story in a world full of dangers and beauties. Every one will have struggles and ultimately, every one will face death and loss.

There is absolutely a time and a place for The Pokey Little Puppy and Barnyard Dance, just like there’s a time and a place for footie pajamas. But as children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows. The stories on which their imaginations feed should empower a courage and bravery stronger than whatever they are facing. And if what they are facing is truly and horribly awful (as is the case for too many kids), then fearless sacrificial friends walking their own fantastical (or realistic) dark roads to victory can be a very real inspiration and help.

With five children of my own (currently aged between 6 and 14), I live within a perfect focus group. Like many parents and teachers and librarians, I often look into a pair of eyes and hear the question, “What should I read next?” At any given moment, a dozen books are being consumed in our home: My kids are off wandering in Narnia or Middle Earth, making friends with Anne of Green Gables and The Penderwicks, exploring “The Wingfeather Saga” or the vivid pages and volumes of Amulet. Stories are being shared, told, and revisited all the time in our house, and when I venture out on tour or into schools, I meet thousands of kids who are off on the same fictional journeys as my own.

Overwhelmingly, in my own family and far beyond, the stories that land with the greatest impact are those where darkness, loss, and danger (emotional or physical) is a reality. But the goal isn’t to steer kids into stories of darkness and violence because those are the stories that grip readers. The goal is to put the darkness in its place.

Later in the piece:

I’m not interested in stories that sear terrifying images or monsters or villains into young minds—enough of those exist in the real world, and plenty of others will grow in children’s imaginations without any help. I am interested in telling stories that help prepare living characters for tearing those monsters down.

I don’t write horror. But I do write stories about terrified sheltered kids and fatherless kids and kids with the ghosts of abuse in their pasts. Those kids encounter horrors—witches and swamp monsters, black magical doors and undying villains, mad scientists and giant cheese-loving snapping turtles. Those kids feel real pain, described in real ways. They feel real loss. They learn that the truest victory comes from standing in the right place and doing the right thing against all odds, even if doing the right thing means losing everything. Even if doing the right thing means death. My characters live in worlds that are fundamentally beautiful and magical, just like ours, in worlds that are broken and brutal, just like ours. And, when characters live courageously and sacrificially, good will ultimately triumph over evil.

As children grow, fear and danger and terror grow with them, courtesy of the world in which we live and the very real existence of shadows.

I’m not trying to con kids into optimism or false confidence. I really believe this stuff. My view of violence and victory in children’s stories hinges entirely on my faith. Samson lost his eyes and died . . . but he has new eyes in the resurrection. Israel was enslaved in Egypt, but God sent a wizard far more powerful than Gandalf to save His people. Christ took the world’s darkness on his shoulders and died in agony. But then . . . Easter.

In the end, good wins. Always.

You can read the whole thing here.

For some more quotes along this line, see the following:

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.

—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3d ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 216.

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
—G. K. Chesteron, “The Red Angel” (1909)

The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.

. . . Do fairy tales teach children to retreat into a world of wish-fulfillment—‘fantasy’ in the technical psychological sense of the word—instead of facing the problems of the real world? Now it is here that the problem becomes subtle. Let us again lay the fairy tale side by side with the school story or any other story which is labeled a ‘Boy’s Book’ or a ‘Girl’s Book’, as distinct from a ‘Children’s Book’. There is no doubt that both arouse, and imaginatively satisfy, wishes. We long to go through the looking glass, to reach fairy land. We also long to be the immensely popular and successful schoolboy or schoolgirl, or the lucky boy or girl who discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage.

But the two longings are very different.

The second, especially when directed on something so close as school life, is ravenous and deadly serious. Its fulfillment on the level of imagination is in very truth compensatory: we run to it from the disappointments and humiliations of the real world: it sends us back to the real world undividedly discontented. For it is all flattery to the ego. The pleasure consists in picturing oneself the object of admiration.

The other longing, that for fairy land, is very different. In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven. Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale?—really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so. It would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new ‘dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing. The boy reading the school story of the type I have in mind desires success and is unhappy (once the book is over) because he can’t get it: the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring. For his mind has not been concentrated on himself, as it often is in the more realistic story.

—C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (1946)

So this is a story about light and goodness and Truth with a capital T. It’s about beauty, and resurrection, and redemption. But for those things to ring true in a child’s heart, the storyteller has to be honest. He has to acknowledge that sometimes when the hall light goes out and the bedroom goes dark, the world is a scary place. He has to nod his head to the presence of all the sadness in the world; children know it’s there from a very young age, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why babies cry. He has to admit that sometimes characters make bad choices, because every child has seen their parent angry or irritable or deceitful-even the best people in our lives are capable of evil.

But of course the storyteller can’t stop there. He has to show in the end there is a Great Good in the world (and beyond it). Sometimes it is necessary to paint the sky black in order to show how beautiful is the prick of light. Gather all the wickedness in the universe into its loudest shriek and God hears it as a squeak at best. And that is a comforting thought. When a child reads the last sentence of my stories, I hope he or she drifts to sleep with a glow in their hearts and a warmth in their bones, believing that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

—Andrew Peterson, Note to Parents about the Wingfeather Saga series

Kids know—they instinctively know—that they’re living in a universe in which something’s gone awry. It’s not our job—as parents, or as Sunday school teachers—to disengage that. It’s our job to come in an to provide an answer to that. Yeah, you’re living in an enchanted world. Yeah, you’re living in a haunted world. You’re living in a world haunted by demonic powers. That’s exactly right—what you deeply fear is indeed the case. . . . Your worrying about the monster under the bed isn’t unreasonable; there’s a monster under the fabric of the cosmos. Instead, we give them a story that provides the only comfort that really is lasting comfort; it’s a comfort that the enemies have been defeated.

—Russell Moore

On children’s literature and moral imagination in general, see:
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