by Riley Redgate
Like most strange adults, I was once a strange kid. Back in my elementary school days, I had a knack for sleepwalking: I'd end up downstairs a lot, managing our staircase with ease, and sometimes I'd have conversations with people while asleep. One night, my father found me in the hall outside my bedroom, staring at nothing. When he asked me what I was doing, I helpfully replied that I was "looking." Looking at what? I don't know. I didn't elaborate. We chatted for a minute or two about why I was still awake -- it was about 1 AM -- and then I went back into my room. I remember zero percent of this.
Nighttime is when I do my best work. Unfortunately, it is also when I am weirdest. This has always been true. Once, when I was eight, I walked downstairs in the middle of the night, sobbing. My parents asked me what was wrong. My response was, "I just don't want to die!" If I were my parents, I would've been terrified of me. (Note: I have not yet died.)
People wonder why old fairy tales were so bloodthirsty, what with all the violence, cannibalism, etc. I feel like the answer is pretty simple: children are obsessed with darknesses and terrors. I have spoken with innumerable people who tell me they went through a Holocaust fascination phase as a kid (so did I). When I was in elementary school, my fellow students loved this Jingle Bells parody, which is a blood-soaked piece of rewriting if I've ever seen one. And kids, Neil Gaiman says, read his notoriously horrifying book Coraline as an adventure, while adults get nightmares. Let's be honest, though: all you need to do is crack open one of those Scary Stories anthologies to find something traumatizing. Those were always popular at my school libraries.
When I was eight, the ideas of death and pain were everywhere in the media I consumed. Kids' books and movies have a high body count -- dead parents, dead kids, people getting injured all the time. Harry Potter is the poster child for fictional orphaned kids, who have been trendy in literature since Dickens. Kids get devoured by the handful in Roald Dahl's The BFG, and tortured by Ms. Trunchbull in his book Matilda. Part of this is the dichotomy kids' books often draw between good and evil: evil people hurt others, and good people stop that from happening. But there's more there.
I'm still scared of dying, like most people. But when I was eight, the fear of it crippled me. I had huge fears that swallowed me up every night as I lay there, staring at the ceiling. I have a body of experiences now that help me cope with fears based on how my life has gone this far. But when I was eight, fiction was the only way I could understand most fears. Stories make awful things comprehensible to kids. It's an incredibly important part of growing up, understanding what bad things are, why they happen, and how they operate.
Books taught me the best way to beat the monsters, too: keep going. Keep reading to the end of the story. Keep moving forward until something changes, or until you understand. That's why my favorite kids' books, from chapter books to YA, have heavy or dark elements -- these books help readers deal with hard truths, and persistence is always the way to tackle them.
It's understandable, wanting to shield kids from the worst parts of the world. Still, in my opinion, kids shouldn't be sheltered from scary topics. There's a time and a place for everything, obviously, and kids' literature has boundaries that adult categories don't. All the same, loss, pain, and death are part of being alive, from the youngest age, and in my life, books have been the weapons I've used to fight back the fear of them.
Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina attending college in Ohio. She is represented by Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Sporadically and with occasional weirdness, she blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.