Harvest House Publishers
Children’s book publishing was rescued by the fast-growing
chain bookstores to be found in malls.…To
attract children and adults as consumers of literature,
the very nature of the book—its design and
contents—began to change.1
folklore expert, University of Minnesota
Once upon a time, children’s literature was carefully chosen and published by editors whose main goal was to inspire and elevate young minds. But today, according to many publishing insiders, consumerism is driving the children’s book industry. Tom Engelhardt, a longtime editor at Pantheon Books, alleges that the main goal of too many publishers today is the facilitation of sales relating to expensive book spin-offs such as DVDs, clothing, movies, and computer or video games.2
In the words of one expert, publishing is now “in the hands of the financiers.”3 Hence, many children’s book producers (most of which are tied in to food or toy companies) now do little more than create in kids an appetite for specific kinds of literature. Then, to satisfy that appetite, they mass-market only those types of books—right alongside their costly side-products.
As folklore expert Jack Zipes observes, “Rather than opening new worlds to children,” book publishers are now inviting them “to repeat certain predictable and comforting experiences that they can easily and affordably buy into.”4 Fantasy author Donna Jo Napoli agrees: “The market right now is for a particular kind of book, constructed by the publishers because they happen to be making money on it.”5
But there is more to this disturbing story. Once children’s books became big business, publishers saw that the actual moneyholders (that is, parents) had to be motivated to lay down cash for whatever was being offered. So book producers, with the help of well-meaning librarians and teachers, began painting a frightful portrait of millions of illiterate youths glued to the TV or video games—all because they had not developed good reading habits. Fear soon replaced critical thinking about children’s literature, which in turn caused many adults to no longer care about what kids were reading. The new goal was just to get them reading again—reading anything!
In a hard-hitting 1991 article, “Reading May Be Harmful to Your Kids,” Tom Engelhardt complained that the habit of reading “was invoked with reverential seriousness by the people producing the flood of new books.…The issue was increasingly not so much what you read but that you read at all.”6
This modern approach to children’s reading, however, is little more than a panic response to false notions about the academic performance of students. “The best evidence we have on the reading crisis indicates that no crisis exists on average in United States reading,” says Jeff McQuillan, author of The Literacy Crisis. “Despite a few minor shifts, reading achievement has either stayed even or increased over the past thirty years.” American nine-year-olds, for example, “ranked second in the world” in a 1992 study, and “fourteen-year-olds ranked a very respectable ninth out of 31.”7 Even the assumption that kids are reading less today than they did a generation ago is “difficult to prove,” says a 2002 article in Book Magazine.8
There are indeed hurdles to be overcome with regard to helping youth develop better reading habits.9 But the problems are not new. In “Youth and Reading: A Survey of Leisure Reading Pursuits of Female and Male Adolescents,” two researchers showed that adolescent reading habits have changed little since 1927, when reading ranked third among children’s leisure activities (following sports and spending time with friends).10
The real issue today, then, is not that kids are not reading. Rather, it’s the substance of what they are reading:
People are reading more and more trash and less and less serious literature. One of the odd situations facing the country is that we have too…many writers and not enough readers. I don’t know what the answer to this dilemma is.11
In other words, some children’s books might get kids to read, but not necessarily in a good way. Consider Harry Potter. In “Literacy in America,” Patrick Clinton cautions that the series represents the very kind of literature that could “push back the day when kids turn to the kind of serious, adult reading that has always played an important role in teaching kids about complex language, shifting points of view and the like.”12
Who is primarily responsible for the presence of such material? The likely culprit is corporate America. Its campaign to warn the public about the dangers of juvenile illiteracy has resulted in a global acceptance of the highly flawed and perilous idea that any reading is better than no reading. Most adults, in fact, seem entrenched in the false notion that reading is intrinsically good regardless of the quality of material being read.
This misconception has allowed for a steady stream of less-than-admirable but highly profitable “children’s” books. Moreover, although some of these works contain fairly mature themes, anyone daring to call for even moderate care in offering them to young children is vehemently shouted down by terror-stricken adults worried about only one thing: getting kids to read again.
Some commentators see this widespread fear as a major driving force behind J.K. Rowling’s meteoric rise to literary stardom— the Harry Potter books “are pitched to kids, and today’s parents are so terrified the little ones won’t read anything, won’t even learn to read, that sensible mothers and fathers will line up at the Potter altar with good money, just to see their offspring turning pages.”13
Rowan University writing professor Diana Penrod agrees: “Someone saying negative things about the Harry Potter series practically elicits the same reaction as cursing motherhood, apple pie, and baseball—how dare anyone question something, anything, that motivates children to read?”14
The plain truth is that far too many adults are not only overlooking the content of children’s books, but they are not recognizing that the current glut of mass-marketed volumes reflect “a calculated way of looking at children as consumers with a common denominator, and many of the products represent a dumbing down of children rather than a challenge to their creativity.”15
In reference not only to this ongoing problem, but also to the media’s inundation of kids with gratuitous violence and overt sexuality, respected film critic David Denby wrote a scathing 1996 essay for The New Yorker titled “Buried Alive: Our Children and the Avalanche of Crud”:
The danger is not mere exposure to occasional violent or prurient images but the acceptance of a degraded environment that devalues everything—a shadow world in which our kids are breathing an awful lot of poison without knowing that there’s clean air and sunshine elsewhere. They are shaped by the media as consumers before they’ve had a chance to develop their souls.16
Denby also lambasted pop culture in general, noting that it “consumes our children.” He then criticized parents for allowing their kids to be turned into cookie-cutter victims of mass-market interests and materialism.17
If Denby is correct, then the foe we find ourselves facing is not really illiteracy, but rather, a money-making industry that has co-opted the formerly honorable label “Children’s Literature.” It is a corporate industry force-feeding today’s youth anything and everything—as long as it sells. And fantasy, thanks to media marketing strategies, has been at the center of this whole controversy.
The most obvious example of consumerism’s link to kids’ books is the hysteria over Harry Potter. Even J.K. Rowling’s supporters have noticed the merchandising push of her fantasy, as one Internet fan site complained in 2004: “Why must everyone’s vision of the HP series become corrected and unified by movies, posters, and memorabilia?”18 Jack Zipes observes,
Phenomena such as the Harry Potter books are driven by commodity consumption that at the same time sets the parameters of reading and aesthetic taste.…What readers passionately devour and enjoy may be, like many a Disney film or Barbie doll, a phenomenal experience and have personal significance, but it is also an induced experience calculated to conform to a cultural convention of amusement and distraction.19
Zipes, a well-respected and knowledgeable children’s literature specialist, additionally feels that the Harry Potter novels are not only formulaic, but also sexist. Interestingly, for expressing such views during radio shows, he has been “aggressively attacked” by callers accusing him of demeaning Rowling.20
And Zipes is not alone. A number of others who find Harry Potter to be fairly ordinary (or even substandard) when compared to similar literature have been castigated by Rowling’s fans. The critics have been labeled either arrogant snobs or jealous knownothings too rigid to see the excellence of Harry Potter.21
Literary critic Harold Bloom, for instance, took off the proverbial gloves in his Wall Street Journal article titled “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” Then, during a PBS interview, Bloom candidly remarked, “They’re just an endless string of clichés. I cannot think that does anyone any good. That’s not Wind in the Willows. That’s not Through the Looking Glass.…It’s really just slop.”22
Needless to say, Harry Potter fans were not happy. But even greater disdain has been directed at anyone daring to raise the slightest hint of concern about the “child-appropriateness” of Harry Potter. Such critics have been called stupid, narrow-minded, and ignorant.
The most vilified critics, however, continue to be persons concerned about occultism in Rowling’s fantasy (see chapter 7). They have been called everything from hate-mongers to extremists comparable to the Taliban and terrorist Osama bin Laden.23 Oddly, such reactions rarely address the actual objections that have been made but instead concentrate on blasting religion, with an emphasis on deriding Christianity.24
This overdefensive attitude might be related to “Pottermania” itself. Once any phenomenon begins, especially one that is media-driven, people habitually lose the ability to reason or think objectively. Zipes explains:
The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and we are so taken by the phenomenon that we admire, worship, and idolize it without grasping fully why we regard it with so much reverence and awe except to say that so many others regard it as a phenomenon and, therefore, it must be a phenomenon.25
It is undeniable that blind allegiance to anything (whether a piece of literature, a religion, a politician, or an entertainment personality) opens a Pandora’s box of detrimental and destructive consequences. Yet this is precisely what is taking place within our society as certain kinds of fantasy and fiction are being marketed to children. Such books are known as “shock fiction” for kids and are nothing short of reprehensible—morally, intellectually, and spiritually.
In 1970, child-education expert James Higgins noted, “No one has to remind parents that a bad book can seduce.”26 But that was 1970. Today, many adults have indeed forgotten that some books, though entertaining, might not be so good for kids. All manner of reading material is now being introduced to impressionable minds. The Fear Street books and Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine typify—indeed, have served as a prototype for—such books.
Stine (born 1943) gained notoriety in 1986 with Blind Date, his first horror story for teenagers.27 Three years later he started releasing his Fear Street series for pre-teens and teens. It now numbers more than 100 titles and has sold more than 80 million copies.28 It is often read by nine- to ten-year-olds. Fear Street depicts nonstop gruesome events that befall people living on or near “Fear Street” in the fictional town of Shadyside.
The teen characters in the books encounter all kinds of mayhem, violence, brutality, murder, and oftentimes, occult phenomena. A publicity blurb for Halloween Party (1993), for instance, reads, “An invitation to a Halloween party hosted by the beautiful but mysterious Justine Cameron spells danger, terror, and murder for the guests.”
Other titles are equally revealing: Spring Break: Sun, Fun… Murder! (1999); Graduation Day: Will Anyone Get Out Alive? (1999); Dance of Death (1997); Killer’s Kiss (1997); and Who Killed the Homecoming Queen? (1997).
Moreover, Stine’s books often feature the nonstop terrorization of women. This subject matter is all the more disturbing given his book-cover illustrations—they often depict attractive teenage girls being stalked, or kidnapped, or lying dead. The plots are almost misogynistic in their incessant portrayal of women being verbally and physically victimized.
Fiction writer Diana West argued, “In this literary landscape, narrative exists solely to support a series of shocks occurring at absurdly frequent intervals. Push-button characters serve as disposable inserts to advance the narrative shock after shock.”29
How have parents responded? In an interview with New York Newsday, a mother of an 11-year-old exclaimed, “I’m thrilled.” She added, “He’s literally reading a book a day. He always says, ‘Just a few more pages.’…He devours [them].” The mother of a 9-year-old explained, “They just weren’t my choice of subject matter. But I’m happy he’s reading. If he wasn’t reading this, he wouldn’t be reading anything at all. Now he’s at the point where he’s constantly reading. He’s fixated on horror.”30
For even younger readers (aged eight to nine), Stine has written his Goosebumps series. It has sold 300 million copies in 28 languages since 1992.31 These books are packed with ghastly plots involving murder, revenge, violence, occultism, and pure gore.32 The titles are telling: Return to Horrorland: No Time to Scream; Welcome to Dead House: It Will Just Kill You; and Piano Lessons Can Be Murder. Michael O’Brien, author of the bestselling Father Elijah, makes these observations:
For sheer perversity these tales rival anything that has been published to date.…Shock after shock pummels the reader’s mind, and the child experiences them as both psychological and physical stimuli. These shocks are presented as ends in themselves, raw violence as entertainment.33
It is no surprise that Stine’s books have caused immense controversy in public schools. Some parents have even demanded that libraries ban the volumes. (In 1997 they topped the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books.) But such protests have been drowned out by the same argument: “At least the kids are reading.” (Interestingly, the producer of these grisly volumes is none other than Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of Harry Potter.)34
Predictably, Stine feels that kids should have virtually no restrictions placed on their reading material: “Kids are the best judge of what they should read and not read.…I think kids are really smart, and I don’t think they will read anything that is inappropriate for them.…I think everyone is glad that kids are reading.”35
This is virtually the same mind-set held by J.K. Rowling, who enjoyed complete freedom as a child. She revealed in 1999, “I was really very lucky growing up—my parents let me read anything and everything. Adult books. The works.” Elsewhere she has explained, “I don’t believe in censorship for any age group.”
And in reference to some of the darker, more adult scenes in her own books, she declares, “My parents never censored what I read, so I wouldn’t say don’t read them to a six-year-old.”36 Librarian Shirley Emmert of a Minneapolis suburb school district used a similar line of reasoning in 1997 during a debate over Goosebumps. When interviewed by KTCA-TV, she was asked, “Your approach would be to get the kids to read?”
Emmert replied, “Yes.”
“No matter what they’re reading, to begin with?” asked the KTCA newsman.
“Yes,” she responded.
“And then worry about exactly what they read later on?”
Emmert’s attitude continues to be advanced by many parents, teachers, and librarians.38 But others disagree. Fourthgrade teacher David Edholm, who was part of the 1997 St. Paul–Minneapolis area controversy, stated, “For them to say at least the kids are reading, if they’re reading a wrong message, their reading skill does not mean that much.” He added, “The same argument could be used if middle school boys aren’t reading, you know, do we put erotic novels in the middle school library so that they would read?”39
Unfortunately, the now popular “let’s just get kids reading” perspective, coupled with Stine’s success, has only encouraged other writers to produce similar volumes (for example, Christopher Pike’s Spooksville books, targeting children aged 9 to 12).
Author Diana West has pinpointed perhaps the most damaging aspect of these books. She argues they show a lack of respect for the journey from childhood to adulthood:
Stine’s audience is being encouraged at a critical age to engage in literary pursuits devoid of content, crammed with shock.…[We should object to] shock fiction, for its role in desensitizing the very young, stunting the life of the mind before it has even begun.40
Steve Russo, author of The Devil’s Playground and coauthor of The Seduction of Our Children and an expert in the occult, also has expressed concerns. He admits it would be too extreme to say that all children reading Goosebumps will end up Satanists or perpetrators of a heinous crime. He does, however, offer a word of caution: “They will become desensitized to evil and violence. This type of desensitization is subtle and can affect the child long term.”41
Russo further believes that Goosebumps and similar works also might serve as a gateway into the world of the occult. “Evil is enticing,” he says. “And for some kids a hunger for more can easily develop, causing them to search down the wrong path to satisfy their appetite by dabbling in the darkness.”42
Another popular fantasy series for young readers is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which has sold several million copies worldwide. Although these books may not be as horrifying as those written by Stine, or as laced with real-world occultism as Harry Potter (see chapters 7 and 8), they are blatantly antireligious—more specifically, anti-Christian. Nevertheless, his trilogy—The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—has garnered many honors, including the prestigious Whitbread Award (2001).
But amid the rave reviews and accolades, the anti-Christian venom that permeates His Dark Materials has caused great controversy.
Even The Times of London agreed that “religion is spared no indignity” in the series.43 Another British publication, The Mail on Sunday, criticized Pullman even more pointedly:
In his worlds, the Church is wicked, cruel and childhating; priests are sinister, murderous or drunk.…The one religious character who turns out to be benevolent is that liberal favourite, an ex-nun who has renounced her vows and lost her faith.44
The complex plot of His Dark Materials involves two children from two separate worlds. Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua possesses the Golden Compass, which can be used to discern the truth of any situation. Will Parry, a boy who is Lyra’s age, has the Subtle Knife, which can slice open windows to other worlds.
The series begins in a time and place similar to ours, but with a few changes. The Roman Catholic papacy no longer exists, having been dissolved after the death of the final pope, John Calvin. There are no Protestants. The Eastern Orthodox Church is not to be found. And heaven is “a lie.”45
The sole “Church” is a nightmarish caricature of Roman Catholicism—an evil, greedy, and tyrannical institution that rules Lyra’s world with an iron fist. It is led by an utterly corrupt hierarchy known as the “Magisterium,” which controls the masses via propaganda about a false “God” called the “Authority.”46
The Church was founded by “God,” who in arrogance and selfish ambition, instituted church-enforced rules to destroy human freedom, stifle creativity, advance ignorance, and foster a slave mentality. Both Lyra and Will are swept up in the politics of it all, traveling between worlds and having adventures until they discover the purpose of their lives and relationship: They are destined to be the new Adam and Eve.
It is basically a reworking of the Genesis story. But in this version, the innocent couple does not damage humanity, but instead, delivers it. Through their love for each other, they rescue everyone else from a spiritually darkened state (what Pullman disparagingly labels the “Kingdom of Heaven”). How is such a feat accomplished? By killing the Authority—or rather, by killing the angel who falsely set himself up as “God.”
According to His Dark Materials, this nasty creature is the same being we find exalted throughout the Old Testament:
The Authority, god, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are.…The Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.47
Perhaps the best summation of this trilogy’s theme can be found in the statement made by one of its characters—the ex-Christian, former-nun character mentioned earlier. She says, “I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” The series also tells us, “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”48
Fortunately for Lyra and Will, the Authority is annihilated by the conclusion of The Amber Spyglass. His death scene paints the Judeo–Christian God thus: “Demented and powerless, the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery.” He mumbles, whimpers, grinds his teeth, picks at himself, and in the end, after being led into the sunlight, dissolves into nothingness.49
Pullman, a self-professed atheist–agnostic,50 sees religion and the religious as little more than dispensers of “lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts.”51 And he holds a special contempt for Christians.
Even some fans of His Dark Materials have expressed concern over the transparent way that Pullman presents his antireligious views. But he has responded, “Every time I thought I was overdoing it, up came another scandal about brutal monks mistreating children in Irish schools, or sadistic nuns tormenting children in Scottish orphanages, to name but two.”52
Pullman’s rancorous stand against religion is reflected at various points throughout his fantasy, especially where one character condemns the Church: “It’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them [natural impulses], it cuts them out.”53 In 2002 he detailed why he specifically targeted Christianity:
When you look at organized religion of whatever sort—whether it’s Christianity in all its variants, or whether it’s Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism—wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It’s almost a universal law. It’s not just Christianity I’m getting at. The reason that the forms of religion in the books seem to be Christian is because that’s the world I’m familiar with. That’s the world I grew up in and I knew.54
A distinction must be made at this point. His Dark Materials is not against the idea of a God per se (even though Pullman has publicly stated not only “I am all for the death of God,” but also, “If there is a God and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.”55) Technically, the trilogy condemns only the evils that have come from religions built around faith in God. This is a fine distinction, to be sure, and one that is not made at all in the series.
But in fairness, one must recognize Pullman’s intentions. When one fan asked Pullman point-blank, “Why do you hate God so much as it appears in your books?” the fantasy writer answered:
Well, it is not that I hate God, it is just because I don’t believe in God, it is just that I think the people who do believe in God and persecute the people who don’t believe in God are thoroughly dangerous, that is the way I would put it.56
Pullman is even more explicit on his Web site, where he explains that his trilogy “is against those who pervert and misuse religion, or any other kind of doctrine with a holy book and a priesthood and an apparatus of power that wields unchallengeable authority, in order to dominate and suppress human freedoms.”57
The tragic irony here is that Pullman’s stand against religious abuse actually echoes Christianity—which is based on love, forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, patience, and humility. Jesus nowhere teaches his followers to kill, persecute, dominate, or suppress others. Although Pullman recognizes this inescapable fact, he still fixates on the bad that has been done in the name of religion:
The greatest moral advances have been made by religious leaders such as Jesus and the Buddha. And the greatest moral wickedness has been perpetrated by their followers. How many millions of people have been killed in the name of this religion or that one? Burnt, hanged, tortured. It’s just extraordinary.58
But apparently, for some reason, Pullman does not find as equally extraordinary the many positive contributions that Christianity has made to society: art, music, hospitals, orphanages, and the elevation of women from near-slavery to a status on par with men (see John 20:17-18; Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:26-28). And what about the many Christian physicians, scientists, and educators throughout history? Why does Pullman also not mention the long list of Christian activists throughout the world who have stood against social injustice and oppression? How can he overlook the multitude of humanitarian relief efforts spearheaded by Christians (most recently, for example, the assistance and donations provided by churches to Asian tsunami victims in 2004 and 2005)?
Instead of giving any honor or credit to Christianity, Pullman incessantly harps on gross abuses committed by so-called Christians. His final conclusion, which is based on the worst assumptions about religion, basically condemns everything and everyone connected to faith:
Churches are malevolent forces in our world. If we look at the history of the Christian church alone we see persecution, hanging, burning and torture carried out the name of the God of Love. It’s a history of infamy almost without parallel, and we don’t have to look very far in the world today for examples of zealotry entirely fuelled and sustained by religious hatreds of one sort or another.59
One can only wonder why Pullman has targeted religion, rather than atheism, since so many brutal totalitarian regimes in history have been atheistic.60 He has admitted that repressive power has been “wielded at various times in the name of religion as well as in the name of ‘scientific’ atheism.”61 He concedes that “the most dogmatic materialist is functionally equivalent to the most fanatical believer, Stalin’s Russia [is] exactly the same as Khomeini’s Iran. It isn’t belief in God that causes the problem.”62
His “main quarrel,” he clarifies, is really “with the literalist, fundamentalist nature of absolute power, whether it’s manifested in the religious police state of Saudi Arabia or the atheist police state of Soviet Russia.” Elsewhere he has said he is not opposed to “Christianity, but every religion and fundamental organization where there is one truth and they will kill you if you don’t believe it.”63
Yet none of these points appear in His Dark Materials. Instead, children and teens—the ones to whom his books are marketed— receive blanket denunciations of religion, Christianity, the church, and faith.64 It is slipped into their minds under the guise of “fantasy.” Pullman himself agrees, “All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions.”65
Despite the drawbacks of some fantasy, the genre can provide a wonderful way for children (and adults) to live vicariously through the adventures of fictitious characters. Fantasy also can help us learn how others might handle certain problems, which in turn can alter how we look at our own situations. Fantasy, then, is not intrinsically evil. But because it sends powerful messages, care ought to be taken when choosing material to read. So exactly how does one evaluate a children’s fantasy book?66
First, consider the text itself, including its plot, language, and underlying message. Check for what you may consider disturbing or child-inappropriate images. Read the description of the book on either the inside cover flap or the back cover. Take a moment to read about the author and see what other kinds of books he or she has written.
Second, know why you are buying the book for your child. Is it for private reading? Classroom reading? Will you be reading it to your child, or will your child be reading it unsupervised? What message, values, or lessons will the book impart?
Third, read a few chapters. Many bookstores now have a café where you can relax and peruse a volume before purchasing it. You also might want to use the Internet to look up some reviews of the book from sources you trust, making sure to read the comments of at least two or three different reviewers.67
In light of the current esteem for horror/fantasy novels, it should be remembered that some children can be negatively affected by scary images (visual and textual). According to Nicholas Tucker, an educational psychologist at the University of Sussex, even a child able to distinguish fantasy from reality may have difficulties with some literature. “There are still some books that by the very force and vividness of their detail can overcome his defenses and make him dread the light going out and the bad dream.”68
Tucker also has raised a cautionary flag over stories that “dwell on certain details with such lingering and even gloating effect that this too can become difficult for a child who is not yet ready for them.”69 Gratuitous, says Tucker, are scenes of “unnecessary nastiness.… Although young children can take some horror, there is a difference between a story containing a ghost and a ghost story. One mentions fears, the other aggrandizes them.”70
In the book A Landscape with Dragons, author Michael O’Brien addresses this same issue by comparing the horror of Goosebumps with classic scary tales:
The momentary horrors that occur in classical tales always have a higher purpose; they are intended to underline the necessity of courage, ingenuity, and character; the tales are about brave young people struggling through adversity to moments of illumination, truth, and maturity; they emphatically demonstrate that good is far more powerful than evil. Not so with the new wave of shock-fiction.71
Lastly, the morality in some fantasy also may pose a problem. Celebrated novelist Jan Mark (The Ennead and Nothing to Be Afraid Of) has found that “in contemporary popular fiction, it’s sometimes very difficult, if you are not told, to decide which of the main characters is the hero and which is the villain, because their behavior and attitudes are so morally dubious.”72
Throughout Harry Potter, for instance, “good” characters often indulge the kind of “bad” behavior usually linked to evil characters (see chapter 8).
Fantasy should not be forgotten by anyone seeking good children’s literature. As Lillian Smith (1887–1983), the first children’s librarian in Great Britain, said, “We should put into their hands only books worthy of them, the books of honesty, integrity, and vision—the books on which they can grow.”73
Of course, giving children “appropriate” literature does not mean giving them sanitized, lifeless volumes that shy away from difficult issues, intense emotion, or frightening scenes. Mild violence may be an appropriate and necessary part of the story (for example, the battles in The Lord of the Rings). Furthermore, such encounters can help children deal with real-world dangers and evils. How so? By providing “mock battles” that can “better prepare a child to live a pure life in a fallen world.”74
But there is a proper way to deal with such issues. Parents, of course, should be the final arbiter of what is and what is not proper reading for their children, especially when it comes to the horror-style of books so popular today. Only a parent knows their child well enough to make determinations concerning appropriate reading material.
In conclusion, then, fantasy can be used either for good or for evil; to extol morality or glorify immorality; to terrify or to teach. There is no reason to reject outright the whole genre just because negative examples within that category exist. A little discernment and care can go a long way.
Such an approach is especially true when it comes to those works of modern fantasy wherein real-world occultism is a featured element. This is something relatively new to fantasy, and as such, must be considered. What is occultism? How has it crept into children’s books? Why is occultism so popular? Why is it so potentially dangerous? These questions will be answered in our next chapter.