Not all children are afraid of the dark or the so-called big bad wolf

An exhibition dealing with the darker side of books for youngsters, and a complex reworking of Peter and the Wolf, highlight the sophistication of children’s cultural tastes

Coiscéim Dance Theatre’s The Wolf and Peter, turns the narrative – and the title – of Prokofiev’s classic on its head

Coiscéim Dance Theatre’s The Wolf and Peter, turns the narrative – and the title – of Prokofiev’s classic on its head

 

According to the author Maurice Sendak, “children are the best living audience in the world because they are so thoroughly honest”. They are also the least understood, frequently lumped together as an amorphous group with similar demands and behaviour patterns. But two shows – dance production The Wolf and Peter; and an exhibition, Come Closer: The Darker Side of Children’s Books – understand that children are sophisticated consumers of culture with as many diverse needs, opinions and biases as adults.

Come Closer showcases books dealing with violence, the body, death, sadness and monsters, whether real or imagined. Standing over a glass case in Pearse Street Library, curator Pádraic Whyte points out an original version of The Little Mermaid.

“This is completely different from the popular Disney version,” he says. “Here she gives up her voice and sacrifices her life so that the prince can go and live with another woman. She is caught up in a horrible patriarchy, but nowadays people tend to think of The Little Mermaid as a sweet love story.”

Come Closer is part of the National Collection of Children’s Books, an online catalogue of 200,000 children’s books from five academic and public libraries in Dublin, established by Trinity College’s school of English and the Church of Ireland College of Education, and funded by the Irish Research Council.

Whyte selected a range of books from this vast collection, from picture books to young adult fiction with dark themes. Of course, these deeply complex human experiences have always existed in children’s literature.

“Children as readers come in all shapes and sizes, like adults do,” says Whyte. “They’ve got different needs and different experiences. Not every child will want to look at these kinds of books, but some will, in the same way that not every child will want to look at safe, fluffy, conservative books, but a lot will.”

 

Five big topics

With just five cases, the choice is limited, but perfectly judged and with some inspired juxtapositions. (There is also a slideshow of books that didn’t make it into the exhibition.)

In the case named “Violence”, Nikolai Popov’s wordless picture book Why? – about how a tiny dispute between a frog and a mouse escalates into brutal war – sits alongside Still Falling, a young adult novel by Sheena Wilkinson set in contemporary Belfast. “It deals in a really sophisticated way with issues of love and abuse, and violence against children,” says Whyte. “It’s a good read, but a tough read at times.”

The “Body” case is a more ambiguous element of the exhibition. “There is nothing dark about the body, but we put this darkness around it. We make it controversial.” The classic Alice in Wonderland concerns Alice’s emerging sexuality, but so too does The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

“Her father edited out what he perceived to be more unsuitable elements of her diary, where she is exploring her body and talking about her relationship with Peter,” says Whyte. “The edition on display is an unedited edition that puts everything back in. She was a young person writing about real experiences, yet adults feel children shouldn’t read about those experiences.”

Alongside it, more controversially, is a Catholic workbook from the early 1980s that discusses homosexuality in a very conservative way, suggesting that it’s abnormal, even though the book is trying to explore it.

The “Death” case is Whyte’s favourite part of the exhibition, not because of the subject but because it features some of the older books from Trinity College Library, the National Library of Ireland and Pearse Street Library.

“Early children’s literature was about how to experience pious death,” he says. “Because child mortality rates were so high, there was an emphasis on dying well so that you will go to heaven. All of the early children’s literature from the 17th century would have engaged with this notion of death, but as cultural circumstances changed and mortality rates lowered, death became part of the text rather than its central component.”

Older texts might have sought to educate people how to die a pious death, but contemporary books are still a struggle for children’s minds in some capacity. In getting children to think about these bigger issues, can these books go too far?

“In literature it is what you conjure up in your imagination that is frightening. If you get too scared, you simply close the book. We sometimes forget that children are active readers. I would always say, ‘Don’t be afraid to give them a book. If they don’t like it they will put it down.’ ”

 

Leave that wolf alone

Ultimately, it’s about trusting children. The Wolf and Peter, Coiscéim Dance Theatre’s new children’s show, is a reimagining of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf that turns the narrative – and the title – on its head. Choreographer David Bolger has refused to accept the traditional story’s characterisations and is presenting children with a more sophisticated scenario.

Prokofiev’s original score, written over four days in 1936, tells the story of a boy who leaves the safety of his garden to walk in a meadow, leaving the gate open. A duck and cat follow him, and the duck is eaten by a wolf that emerges from the woods. Peter traps the wolf with a rope and persuades an arriving group of hunters not to kill the wolf but bring it to the zoo.

“Why should the wolf be punished?” says Bolger. “Why shouldn’t the cat [who also tries to catch the duck] be the evil animal? The wolf needs to eat to survive, but the cat doesn’t. And what’s wrong with eating duck? Most of us do. And isn’t Peter at fault for leaving the gate open?”

The audience will have to rethink their attitude to the wolf in particular. In some northern European languages, wolf also means a wicked person, and the animal’s malevolent role in fairy tales was probably sealed by Wilhelm Grimm’s assertion that it was “the most evil animal of all”. In contrast to the big bad wolf of traditional tales, Bolger discovered a more benign creature during research that included days observing wolves at Dublin Zoo.

 

First children’s show

It is Bolger’s first children’s show, and he is glad he didn’t create one earlier in his career, when his research and choreography skills were less finely honed. Now he can create a more sophisticated experience. During his research into children’s theatre and dance, he discovered thought-provoking subjects backed up by high production standards.

Later, when rehearsing The Wolf and Peter, he found that his artistic and technical collaborators were even more conscientious and meticulous because it was a children’s show.

According to Whyte, this is apt. “Peter and the Wolf was created in a society that valued children’s literature and children’s culture. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was the deputy minister of education, and instrumental in developing libraries and librarianship. Children’s books were seen as fundamental to literature.

“We need more support in Ireland to develop children’s culture, to ensure that cultural texts – whether it’s dance or theatre or books – are of an extremely high standard. There are already many out there, but there should be more, and there should be a lot more support for them.”

 

COME CLOSER EXHIBITION: WEIGHTY CHILDREN’S BOOKS

  • Violence: The Island by Armin Greder is a timely book with themes of refugees and xenophobia. Starkly illustrated, the understated text depicts how islanders project their fears on a stranger washed up on their shore.
  • The body: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak was banned or censored by marker-wielding librarians who objected to illustrations of a naked child. But it is about the sensuality of childhood experience, which Sendak presents as something natural through his illustrations.
  • Death: All Shining in the Spring: The Story of a Baby Who Died, by the first Laureate na nÓg, Siobhán Parkinson, was written for her son Mathew to help him to come to terms with her second baby dying at birth.
  • Sadness: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan opens with a young girl waking up. “Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to . . . and things go from bad to worse . . . darkness overcomes you . . . nobody understands . . . ” Fantastic illustrations capture the sense of depression more accurately than many adult books.
  • Monsters: The Dark by Lemony Snicket (text) and Jon Klasson (illustrations) captures perhaps childhood’s greatest fear: darkness and what might lurk within it.
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