Approaching Dark Themes in Children’s Literature

I was smiling through our entire class on Monday. Peter Rabbit and all of Beatrix Potter’s story were at the center of my childhood. The BBC version of her tales was one of my favorites as a child-I remember watching it many times over at my grandmother’s house on VCR. Still, I keep returning to the question posed in class about depicting death/difficult concepts in children’s literature. What is the right way to present dark topics to children? At what point should we draw the line in the genre of “children’s” literature?

This question reminded me of a Danish children’s book I came across this fall that directly confronts the concept of death in a beautifully illustrated story while remaining distinctly within the realm of children’s literature. In my experience, it is more precarious to attempt to skirt around difficult topics with children, attempting to shroud their harshness, than to confront them more directly. Cry Heart, But Never Break personifies Death, drawing him into the household of four young children as he arrives to take their grandmother. The book strikes a really beautiful balance between the stark necessity of dying and the tenderness and sensitivity that the character of Death exhibits while carrying out his duty. Glenn Ringtved offers a poignant and age-appropriate, yet not overly shrouded way of teaching children about death. Of course, the illustrations, by Charlotte Pardi, carry the brunt of the emotion in this story. Like in Peter Rabbit, the images are almost more important than the text, particularly because   On the other hand, the story of Peter Rabbit is generally so whimsical in its tone that the few darker moments feel quite stark. The casual reference to Peter’s father being baked into a rabbit pie interrupts the gentle narrative of the story. This moment seems to break up the pitter-patter cadence of the rest of the piece, tripping up the reader. If these more difficult/severe lessons were more evenly interspersed throughout Potter’s story, the rabbit pie moment would feel less severe. At root, it seems the keys to successfully introducing darker themes in children’s literature are balance and forthrightness.



If you want to know more, here’s a wonderful article about Cry Heart, But Never Break:

Cry, Heart, But Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Loss and Life


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