I personally think there is a place for the ghastly and the gruesome on children's literature and so I am overjoyed to be welcoming Christoper William Hill to MGSB to share his feelings on the subject:
I was eight when I saw my first severed head. Not a real severed head, I hasten to add, but the prosthetic head that lurches out from the shattered keel of the abandoned fishing boat in the movie Jaws. This was precisely the sort of nightmare-inducing moment that my mother had been at pains to protect me from during my first few cotton-wool-swaddled years on this planet. If I hadn’t lost control of my BMX Raleigh Burner and spent the whole of my summer holiday in a hospital bed, many more years might have elapsed without a severed head in sight. But my mother held no dominion over the children’s ward and when the TV above the nurse’s desk was switched to Spielberg’s toothy epic I lay back and took my medicine. I was richer for the experience – it awakened a hitherto dormant love of horror that the obliging hospital staff were more than happy to encourage.
Hardly a day passed in that nine-week stay without a nurse sitting by my bedside to whisper some gruesome or murderous tale into my receptive lughole. I like to think that these spine-tingling sagas kept the blood pumping and sped up my recovery time enormously.
When at last I stepped out into the cold light of day I was a darker soul, but infinitely more interested in storytelling. I’m quietly convinced that depriving children of the chance to explore the gruesome side of their imagination does something to stunt creative growth; from our earliest days we have an innate interest in the grimmer aspects of human existence, or as Joseph Conrad so neatly put it “the fascination of the abomination”. My mother told me that when she was a girl she once prodded a dead deer with a stick – this wasn’t an indication of deep-rooted depravity but simply a sign of a curious mind at work.
Figuratively speaking we all need to prod that deer and reading dark and gruesome tales can be just the way of achieving such an end. Without wishing to torture the metaphor any further, authors of bloodthirsty books for children are helpfully providing the deer carcass. When I first sat down to write my Tales From Schwartzgarten series I kept the image of my eight-year-old self firmly in mind – and provided all the severed heads, battles and spurts of blood he needed to keep him entertained as he languished in his hospital bed.
Curiously, adults are often far more precious about what is and what is not suitable subject matter for middle grade readers than they ever are with films, television or computer games. But literature is arguably the safest place for a child to explore his or her most primal terrors – if it all gets too much then the book is simply slammed shut and the nightmare is at an end.
Marius and the Band of Blood, the fourth and final book in the Tales From Schwartzgarten series, is published in the UK today.