An Awful Fact of Childhood

“It never did any child any harm to have something that was a tiny bit above them anyway, and I claim that anyone who can follow Doctor Who can follow absolutely anything.
Diana Wynne Jones

This month, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE authors explore children’s literature that deal with difficult subjects. It has been very interesting to read how other authors tackle the dark topics. Dark stories aren’t new. Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman and Lemony Snicket have been helping children face their darkest years for decades. As  Deborah Lytton reminds us, this category includes “every single Newberry Medal winner and even Harry Potter.”

Indeed, as Maurice Sendak stated in 1964 as he accepted the Caldecott Medal for his Where the Wild Things Are:

[It’s] an awful fact of childhood… The fact of [a child’s] vulnerability to fear, anger, hate, frustration—all the emotions that are an ordinary part of their lives and that they can only perceive as dangerous, ungovernable forces. To master these forces, children turn to fantasy: that imaginary world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction.

Rebecca Westcott reminds us in her article, How Dark is Too Dark in Children’s Literature ,
reading is an individual process. What impacts one young reader may well be bypassed by another. Categorizing books as appropriate for certain ages runs the risk of missing opportunities for discovery and exploration. As the Smack Dab authors shared, the world can be a scary place. Humans are messy. Children face poverty, racism, neglect, violence and more. Reading such books give young readers the words to express what they are feeling, and a model to follow how to navigate tough situations.

 In my own book, Girls of Gettysburg, I use three perspectives to explore the terrible impact of war. Annie, who lost her brothers to the war, is determined to take up arms in their stead. Tillie, the spoiled daughter of a merchant whose romantic notions of war comes face to face with the realities of the high cost. And Grace, the young daughter of a freeman who refuses to leave his home as the southern army marches down on them.

Two books I found particularly worthwhile include A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. In this powerful and poignant story, a boy struggles to cope with the consequences of his mother’s terminal cancer . And Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, presents a spirited protagonist with severe craniofacial deformities facing the world courageously to be accepted on his own terms.

What are the saddest and darkest books you loved as a reader?

Bobbi Miller


  1. I enjoyed both The Girls of Gettysburg and Wonder very much. I'm not familiar with your other recommendation. I loved The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. The sequel is great, too. They take place during World War II.

    1. I'm reading The War that Saved My Life now! Another excellent recommendation. Thank you!❤❤❤

  2. I loved THE WAT THAT SAVED MY LIFE. Even some of the classics like OLD YELLER, resonate today because they allow kids to talk about the things that we all have to share in this life.

    1. Oo! I LOVE Old Yeller! And another, Where the Red Fern Growns. Then, there's this classic, The Yearling! What good recommendations!

  3. The things that disturbed me as a kid were things that felt REAL. Horror flicks and blood baths were fake and fun. But a movie (or book) in which someone died a quiet death in a hospital? HORRIFYING.


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