the darkness in children's literature

CW: Spoilers for The Graveyard Book, Coraline, and A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I often introduce myself as “Caroline from North Carolina,” a simple device that helps people remember both my name and where I’m from, but I confess there’s a particular misremembering of my name that I’m fond of. When the Coraline movie came out in 2009, people called me that name for weeks, mostly as a joke, a few times sincerely. I didn’t watch the film until I was eighteen—nine-year-old me saw the trailers and was terrified—but I read the book when I was ten, mostly because I was just curious about the name being so similar to mine. I immediately fell in love with my almost-name twin, sparking my lifelong love of Neil Gaiman. Though my younger self was a voracious reader who would never have admitted to a preference for a specific genre, reading everything from Junie B. Jones to Gone With the Wind (in the same year!), I look back and realize how much dark children literature I was fond of: Coraline, Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, A Series of Unfortunate Events. I loved the whimsical fantastical elements, the morbid humor, and the conspiratorial narrators who seemed to understand that certain dark and monstrous things children understand much better than adults.

These were books for children who didn’t fit in. A common theme in literature, obviously, but much less palatable than cheerful, fluffy children’s lit with its neatly tied-up happy endings. (To this day, I still am not sure what happened in Lemony Snicket’s The End, and I’m still dying to know why the sugar bowl was so important.) These books had characters who didn’t fit in not because they had odd hobbies or felt self-conscious about their braces or hated pink, but because they were children recovering from traumas: dead or abducted parents, murderous villains chasing after them, metaphorical and literal ghosts haunting them. Yesterday when I recommended the movie Coraline to my roommate, she mentioned she was too freaked out by the button eyes, an aspect of Coraline that I both adore and am terrified by.

Remembering The Graveyard Book in particular, it’s hard not to read it through the lens of a disabled person. Bod, the protagonist—short for Nobody Owens—is a child raised by ghosts; he’s taught various skills that stray into the supernatural, like how to invade people’s dreams or force them to feel afraid. He grows up befriending mostly ghosts his age, save for one young girl who moves away and then moves back years later, only to find herself terrified by his circumstances and forced to forget him entirely. When Bod goes to school with the “normal” children (who aren’t raised by ghosts), everyone there finds him off-putting and strange, including the teachers, who are ill-equipped to handle his unique set of needs. As Bod grows older, though, he has to take care of himself more and more without relying on his family or ghost-learned skills, eventually leaving the graveyard to join the living human world.

I loved the idea of being raised by ghosts as a child, and his inability to fit in was something I strongly related to. As a shy and anxious child—diagnosed in high school as an anxiety disorder—I recall my vindictive delight reading a scene where Bod retaliates against a school bully by manipulating his levels of fear, causing the bully anxiety and terror in return. I guiltily enjoyed that the anxiety others caused me could be returned to them. The fact that Bod was able to walk among ghosts and other supernatural creatures with so little fear, but was so different from his living peers, was something I liked considering: the idea that I was simply better suited for a different, more fantastical environment.

Though I don’t know that I would diagnose my younger self with the depression I have now, I was certainly in that mental space from a young age. In that way, these books were also validating to me. Children are so often characterized as bubbly, energetic, and hyperactive; I was none of these. I preferred to stay indoors, was terrified of anyone I didn’t know and even most people I did know, and was an emotional child who cried at the slightest provocation. In these books, the characters were not required to be bubbly or happy. Coraline’s inclination to complain constantly, especially about her parents, was both entertaining and sympathetic. Her neighbors were not the cheerful, well-adjusted, middle-class suburban nuclear families I’ve seen so often, but quirky, a little macabre, and even a bit gross at times (hard to forget the image of all those rats her neighbor owns). Lemony Snicket is essentially just a constant downer, and rightfully so, writing about such tragic events; he doesn’t try to portray the Baudelaire orphans’ misfortune in a positive light, letting them survive their traumas as best as children know how to do. None of the children, despite their pessimism and acknowledgment of their problems, seemed self-pitying, as I was used to seeing in narratives featuring sadness. They were resourceful, brave, and intelligent. They did their best to overcome their obstacles, without their creators ever insinuating they were poorly behaved for not pretending to be happy, and that inspired me to do the same.

Narratives like these are important to have for children, who often struggle to put their feelings or problems into words. As a child, I couldn’t have ever communicated why I loved these books so much, but upon further introspection as an adult, I understand they provided validation and an outlet for who I was: a reflection of the monstrous aspects of me, something I could process, be okay with, and reclaim.