This summer some dear family friends gave us a few antique German children’s books for our son. They included a huge and heavy tome of Wilhelm Busch’s work for children – author of the savagely funny and come-uppance-heavy Max and Mortiz (look it up, it’s worth it) – and a curious little volume of (what do I call them?) morality tales for children called Der Struwwelpeter, which roughly translates from the German as “Shaggy Peter.” I’d seen a copy on my husband’s grandmother’s shelf, and even the cover illustration–fingernails like tentacles and ominous scissors–creeped me out a bit.
Heinrich Hoffman published the collection in 1845 when he couldn’t find a book he wanted to give his three-year-old son. If you read the stories now, you’ll wonder if someone might call child services on you if you trotted them out to a preschooler. It has the odious racism of the day, and a wild and violent terror-morality (for lack of a better term) that children–the book’s biggest fans–love.
I’m fascinated by youth’s appetite for danger and darkness. We adults have it, of course, but how many of us cast a though back to what it felt like to be eight or nine or even thirteen, when grown-ups dictated patronizing terms and we wanted to rip out the curtains and go screaming into the night à la Roger from Lord of the Flies. I loved nothing more than sneaking down to the library at night and stealing off with some book deemed “too mature.” Novels seemed illicit, deliciously so. I still remember the fevered dream of reading East of Eden after midnight with the sweltering Charlotte summer buzzing beyond my window. At fifteen I may have been in love with Cal, but even then I could see Samuel and Lee were the best men in the book. Kate still visits my nightmares on occasion.
The fear factor of books is something we risk forgetting with age. In my mind, the best of YA, the best of any literature, taps into the big risks, the big fears, the big unknowns. Self-consciousness drives writers from the Major Themes, but they never get old. Just ask a child, wide-eyed at the idea that he may get away with mischief for a while, but will eventually get ground up and fed to the geese, and you’ll see: the old dark magic lasts.