Do children really like depressing books?

I stumbled across this article in the Guardian, in answer to a teacher’s query about why gloomy books seem to be chosen for one of the top children’s book awards – the Carnegie Medal.  Julia Ecclestone summed up the shortlisted books with this description:

“This year the Carnegie Medal shortlist certainly has been drawn to tough subjects. Patrick Ness’s acclaimed A Monster Calls centres round a boy facing up to his mother’s death, Annabel Pitcher’s touching My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece tells of a young girl dealing with the fractures in her family following the death of her sister, Andy Mulligan’s Trash describes the harsh childhood endured by children sifting through waste to eek out a meagre living, Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Grey is a heart rending story of a endurance and fortitude in a detention camp in Siberia while in Sonia Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo set in a country devastated by war, two brothers carrying a small and very precious bundle come across a zoo filled with animals who are desperate need of hope.”

She did point out that they never assumed a child should read these back to back but intersperse them with other reading material. But I think this raises some interesting questions about why adults – who bizarrely are choosing the winners of the awards, not children – make the choices they do.

Various academics in children’s literature question whether there can really be a category called children’s literature since the vast majority of the content comes from adults writing for children. How can adults really know what children want? There have also been questions about whether adults have an agenda when they write for children – are they trying to teach them a lesson (eg in the case of fables)? Or are they trying to subvert adulthood by writing books that champion children’s rights or naughty behaviour (for example, Roald Dahl)?

Awards like this do very much cast doubt in my mind. Peter Hunt, in his essay Instruction and Delight puts it well when he says: “The role of adults in reading and mediating children’s books has to be examined in terms of motivation, ideology… and the manipulation or idealising or commodification of childhood. Should children’s books be for instruction or pleasure?”

Ecclestone says that “Dark subject matter makes good fiction and for children, and exploring challenging situations, life styles or even acts of inhumanity in a thoughtful and reflective manner is one of the things children’s books do best.  Through subtlety written stories children can get close to hard to handle emotions in a safe and manageable way.” I do agree with this but I often wonder if we should only think of books that do this as worthy of prizes. She points out that other prizes exist for humorous stories – such as the Roald Dahl Prize – but by separating comedy from mainstream literature are we making it inferior?

This is certainly what happens in the adult literature world. There are very few authors who can manage light-heartedness in a way that prize-givers deem is worthy of acclaim. It seems the more miserable the story the more it should be praised.

I am not saying gloomy books aren’t good for reading. Some of my favourite stories – particularly aimed at the young adult category – offer quite harrowing reading, such as Julie Hearn’s Rowan the Strange. Quite simply this is one of the best books I have ever read. But I am saying this as an adult. Would I have had the same opinion as a teenager? I’m not sure.

The children I have worked with, certainly up to 12 years of age, enjoy adventure and comedy and a huge slice of escapism. This could be the reason why Enid Blyton enjoys perpetual popularity – the children in her stories go off on adventures away from adult rules, they enjoy moderate peril and everything’s all right in the end. There is no real danger, I guess. Whereas stories about bleak existences where one can only hope there is a glimmer of escape can be more frightening for a child who cannot quite comprehend their place in the world. That said, Jacqueline Wilson is phenomenally well read and loved by children and her stories deal with some pretty traumatic subjects so who knows? It’s probably the same argument for children as well as adults – it depends on the reader what they want in a book. But my point with this piece is: who are we to judge?



  1. You make some very interesting & valid points. My daughter, 6, does not like books with frightening topics (monsters, illness, etc.)…they upset her. For example, she really doesn’t like to think about the death of a parent; she’s aware that it happens, but doesn’t want to dwell on it. She’d rather imagine what it would be like to live 100 years ago, go to the moon or be a ballerina. I’m all for tackling serious subjects if your child is ready for it, but why do adults think it’s somehow better for children to be exposed to so much when they are so young? For me, I think it’s a hurry-up-and-grow-up mentality. At least here in North America.


    • Thank you for replying to the post. You’re very right – I think children have to be ready to face up to ‘big’ topics that can be distressing and each child will be different as to when they reach that stage. Some children are more sensitive than others. Perhaps these darker books are aimed more at teenagers, who start exploring deep issues more as they grow older. My daughter is 9 and she very much prefers fun adventures and humour – we’re currently on Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, and I truly believe she would have been happier growing up in the 1940s or earlier!


      • Your daughter sounds a bit like my daughter in terms of literary tastes. Coincidentally, we just picked up Swallows and Amazons and a few others by Ransome. Looking forward to reading those–and to your review!


  2. This year’s Red House Children’s Book Award winner was Patrick Ness/Jim Kay’s A Monster Calls – one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in the past year. But the point I wanted to make is that the Red House Children’s Book Award is voted for SOLELY by children – they select the short list from the long list, and then the winner. I don’t know the numbers for this year, but last year over 140,000 children voted (if I remember correctly).

    I’m not a children’s librarian and my own children are only 7 and 4, but from discussions with others who do work with teenagers it would seem that darker books become much more popular once kids are into their teen years (rather than the age of lostandfound’s daughter, and your daughter) – and the examples Eccleshare gives would seem to me to be mostly aimed at that older group (I’ve not read them all, so can’t be sure).


    • Thanks, Zoe, for your comment. I think you’re right – the darker ones are aimed at the young adult market. It would be interesting to look at why that is. I suppose it could be that they are at an age when they are broaching adulthood and will soon be facing difficult choices without the protection of adults. This allows them to experience them without actually being personally involved.


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