Fear & Wonder in the Literature of Childhood
Arguably, childhood is the period of our lives in which we first experience sensations of fear and wonder. Often these emotions are introduced through literature or other storytelling mediums. Perhaps these feelings were evoked by a bedtime story from the Brothers Grimm or by sneaking out to the living room after bedtime to peer out from behind the couch at some forbidden movie or television program well beyond one’s years. How quickly, too, scary stories or tales of wonder are spread word of mouth from child to child on the playground or in the neighborhood where one grows up. This month, as the world turns toward the darkest nights of the year and our fancies turn toward the thrills and chills that dwell there, we asked our contributors to share the international children's books that, recalled from childhood, introduced the reader to feelings of fear or wonder. And we invite you, our readers, to think on this as well: What international (non-USA) children's book do you recall from your childhood that frightened you or filled you with a sense of wonder?
We wish to extend very warm appreciation to all who participated below!
Duck, Death, and The Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
“Fear is not a sensation I enjoy.” If you know me, you know this a common refrain from my teaching days. Students often came to class wanting to discuss the latest horror film. Little did they know, however, that a childhood encounter with Tremors—yes, the Kevin Bacon film—forever ruined the horror genre for me.
In adulthood, I have come to realize that fear is a far more mutable emotion than it might seem. The German picturebook Duck, Death, and The Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (2007/2011), in which a young duck develops a relationship with an anthropomorphized death, invited me to reimagine my relationship to seemingly fearful genres. For even death, when filtered through international perspectives, might become a welcome friend.
I am still reestablishing my relationship with fearful genres, and while I make no promises, International Children’s literature provides a frighteningly and perhaps even cheerful path forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Joshua Coleman (Josh) (he/him) is an assistant professor of English Education at San José State University. His research interests include critical literacy, queer studies in education, affect studies, and children’s literature. Please contact him at email@example.com.
The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, The Creatures of Midnight, and Legends of the Lower Gods by Maximo D. Ramos
I grew up with limited exposure to children’s books depicting my Filipino culture. However, as a child, I heard so many scary children stories shared through radio programs and illustrated magazines that were full of characters from the underworld. Afternoon naps were always interrupted with radio broadcasts about night creatures inhabiting the tall trees in the neighborhood. These trees were conducive as places for the Kapre, a giant man (quite similar to an Ogre) who smoked big cigars made of tobacco leaves. Further, local magazines carried illustrated stories in comic strip format about Aswangs (half-bodied women) flying at night and looking for young children to snatch from their beds. Finally, stories of sprouting mushrooms and growing mounds of earth could lead to appearances of a Duwendes (dwarves) and Tamawos (fairies) playing tricks to anybody crossing their paths. So, I did grow up with children’s literature though not in book form but in oral stories about Kapres, Aswangs, Duwendes, and Tamawos that still frighten me. Nowadays, Filipino children’s books are available and accessible, and they carry the same scary stories I heard growing up.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danilo M. Baylen is an education faculty at a state university in Georgia, USA. He studies visual representations especially in Filipino children’s books.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton
When I first read The Borrowers by Mary Norton, I was enchanted by the idea of tiny people living under the floorboards and adored Norton’s descriptions of the Clock family’s home. The text and illustrations revealed in perfect detail how familiar objects were repurposed by the Borrowers; cotton reel stools, a matchbox chest of drawers, sitting-room walls papered with scraps of old letters, the handwriting arranged sideways in vertical stripes. At one point in the series, the Borrowers find refuge in a model village, and what could be more perfect?
The whole effect was truly magical and sparked a real sense of wonder, and a conviction that surely my own home must have a family of Borrowers too, living secret lives under the kitchen tiles or behind the skirting boards. A lot of my childhood games involved illustrating tiny books and creating miniature dwellings, in fruitless attempts to attract Borrowers, and I’m sure all that imaginative play is the reason I’m a children’s writer now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lindsay Littleson won the Kelpies Prize in 2014 for her first children's novel, The Mixed-Up Summer of Lily McLean. Guardians of the Wild Unicorns, published by Floris Books, was nominated for the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal. Her latest novel, The Titanic Detective Agency, was published by Cranachan Books in April 2019.
The Rainbow Goblins by Ul de Rico
I remember my mother taking me to our local library’s children’s room even before I knew how to read. I also remember vividly pulling the picturebook The Rainbow Goblins by Ul de Rico off the shelf for the first time. As a four or five-year-old, I was immediately attracted to the colorful cover, and the extra-long shape of the book meant it poked enticingly off the edge of the shelf. When my mom read this book to me, I was absolutely enthralled; both the illustrations and the story sent shivers down my spine. The goblins are beautifully frightening villains, and the greedy way they plot to suck up the colors of the rainbow is captivating. For years, I checked out The Rainbow Goblins every chance I got, until one day the library said their copy had been lost. I never forgot about the book, however, and recently bought a copy for myself. As an adult, the book and illustrations still frighten and fill me with a sense of wonder.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carrie Anne Thomas is a doctoral student in Literature for Children and Young Adults at The Ohio State University. With a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and teaching experience in eight countries, her research interests focus on the ability of multicultural and multilingual children’s literature to embody cultural values and influence intercultural curiosity and empathy.
The Old Nurse’s Stocking-Basket by Eleanor Farjeon and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
The book that springs to mind is ‘The Old Nurse’s Stocking-Basket’, a collection of short stories written by Eleanor Farjeon and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. At bedtime, the Old Nurse takes a stocking from her mending basket and recounts a story to the children in her charge as she darns it.
How I loved dipping into this book as a child and being transported through story to far-off places like Persia, India, and China! Wondrous things happened in these lands: the Prince of India’s heart was laid inside a lotus flower, Bertha Goldfoot left a piece of gold behind her with every other step, and King Neptune created a hole so vast that even the Old Nurse was unable to mend it.
Sadly, I no longer have my copy of this book, so I was delighted to discover that it has been rereleased by Puffin Books.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Taylor is a writer, translator, and founder of children’s literature blog Planet Picture Book, where she posts reviews of picture books from around the world. She also writes a monthly book review for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative. Twitter: @plapibo
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, The Flying Doll by Kalvi Gopalakrishnan, & Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan
The first non American kids book in English that evoked a sense of wonder in me was A. A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh. I loved the idea of a world sans grown ups populated with teddies. I loved the philosophical bear and piglet and 100 acre wood. As an adult when I saw the TV series in USA I hated it because the beauty of the book was lost, I felt.
As for the first non US non English book I loved was a Tamil kid’s book called Parakkum paapa - the flying baby, and it was about a child who flew around the world and I loved just discovering how large and full of differences the world was. The author of the book was called Kalvi Gopalakrishnan.
I also loved Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan. Which is a charming book about a little boy in Southern South India. I loved seeing my part of the world brought alive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Padma Venkatraman is the author of The Bridge Home, A Time to Dance, Island’s End and Climbing The Stairs, all of which were released to multiple starred reviews and have won numerous honors and awards, including WNDB's Walter award. Her next novel, Born Behind Bars, is scheduled for October 2021 release. Before becoming a full-time author, Padma Venkatraman spent time on ships and underwater, directed a school in England and led diversity efforts at a university. Visit her on twitter @padmatv; on ig @venkatraman.padma; or via her website: http://padmavenkatraman.com
The Witches by Roald Dahl
Without a doubt, one of the books that scared me the most as a kid was Roald Dahl’s The Witches. In the past, I have always given credit for the anxiety that Dahl’s narrative created to both my life-long fear of rodents and the performance of the ever-amazing Angelica Huston as the Grand High Witch in the 1990s film adaptation. Strangely, despite the fear, The Witches became--and remains to this day--one of my favorite novels. As a scholar, I now realize that--even though what Dahl does in The Witches is certainly terrifying (particularly to children)--it is also empowering. By mixing tradition with brilliance, Dahl creates a children’s novel that is truly unique and markedly British.
First, Dahl begins by introducing an Everyman character in the form of a narrator whose name is never given throughout the entire novel. While the deeper origins of the Everyman character might be more contested, its long history in British culture and literature since the 16th century is inarguable. Using this literary staple, Dahl places a character that children can more readily identify with in the position of the narrator; then, he introduces a series of terrifying thoughts: What if the adults can’t protect you? What if they are absent, too infirm, or--in the case of The Witches--actual embodiments of evil? What will you do?
For Dahl’s characters, the answer is always: I will not be afraid, and I will win.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James M. Curtis’s research areas include children’s
literature and culture, psychoanalysis, and gender studies. His work can be found in Children’s Literature in Education, the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Gender Forum, and his most recent publication appears in Children and Childhood in the Works of Stephen King (October 2020).
Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki
As a child, I tended to avoid horror and scary stories. Even today, I don’t read traditionally "scary" books or watch horror movies, so when Tanja mentioned the topic for this post, I immediately thought back to the books that had kept me up at night. Certainly annihilation at the breakfast table falls into that category.
Written and illustrated by Japanese artist Toshi Maruki, Hiroshima No Pika tells the story of seven-year-old Mii who experiences the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as she eats breakfast with her parents. Maruki depicts their subsequent flight from the bombing through graphic watercolor images that show the horrors and fallout of nuclear warfare. In one memorable scene, Mii’s mother helps to remove the chopsticks that have been stuck in Mii’s hand for three days. Maruki’s vivid artwork coveys the chaos and the pain of the event in a way that stayed with me long after the book ended. The book notably won the 1983 Batchelder Award and the Jane Addams Children's Book Award for a book that “advances the causes of peace and social equality,” and the closing line stated by Mii’s mother on the anniversary of the tragedy echoes Maruki’s call for peace: “It can’t happen again….If no one drops the bomb.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Olivia Bushardt serves as co-editor of the ChLA International Committee’s blog and has presented her research at international children's literature conferences including the Children’s Literature Association and The Child and the Book Conference in Croatia. Working on the blog has enabled her to create connections with children’s literature scholars, authors, illustrators, and teachers around the world. We are always looking for more stories, and if you would like to contribute to the blog, please email us your ideas firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Frightened Forest by Ann Turnbull
A memorable touchstone book for me that excited feelings of fear and wonder is Ann Turnbull’s The Frightened Forest. In it, Gillian, a 10-year-old girl from London, spends her summer holiday with her cousins Paul and Stephanie in their country village in Wales (although Wales is not explicitly mentioned in the text, the author’s bio reveals that she was inspired by a trip to the Wye Valley). When Gillian traverses an abandoned railway tunnel on a dare, she unexpectedly releases a witch that had been imprisoned there under a spell. From that moment on, Gillian and her cousins must use what wit they possess to defeat the evil witch, because the good wizard who confined her has long since disappeared. Or has he?
What I enjoyed about this book was that the witch’s power is expressed as a force of nature— the witch herself never appears in physical form until the climactic conclusion. One only experiences the effects of her power. Snow falls in the middle of summer and the nearby river is locked in ice. Animals flee in terror. The narrative rarely resorts to magical pyrotechnics; instead, uncanny illusion weaves an undercurrent of fear. For example, when the children challenge the witch’s power by breaking up the river ice with rocks, she counters by immersing them in the river itself. The more they try to make for the shore, the deeper into the icy waters they find themselves. Their fear is petrifying and the suspense of their situation gripped me as a young reader.
Other moments of fear and wonder that stood out in the text include when a small carved wooden bird comes to life and nestles in Gillian’s hands—a sign that the erstwhile wizard’s power is returning. Also, when Gillian’s cousin Paul is turned into a tree—the visceral description has stayed with me all my life. Finally, witch and wizard clash in a mythological battle which resolves the balance of nature in the world.
Ann Turnbull’s The Frightened Forest is currently out of print, but there are still (thankfully) library copies available.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tanja Nathanael is currently a lecturer at San Jose State University and teaches Children’s Literature and Fantasy & Science Fiction Literature online. She received her doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi in 2019. Her research interests include Northern spaces in nineteenth-century British literature and borders and peripheries in international children’s literature. She formerly served on the ChLA international committee (2015-2018) and continues to support its goals as co-editor of the blog to encourage interest in international children’s literature.