June 3, 2021

Bath and teeth done, my boys climb into their pyjamas, snuggle under the duvet and demand a story every night. And they are a tough crowd to please. They won’t, for instance, be fobbed off with some shmaltzy tale of how much Daddy cares for them, or something improving about nature.

Their faces drop if I decide to pull out the story of Little Nutbrown Hare and all that “I love you as high as I can hop” stuff. They want mayhem, murder and destruction. And diggers, of course. Lots of diggers.

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Which is why I don’t suppose there will be much of an audience in the Fraser household for the Duchess of Sussex’s new offering, The Bench, out next week — a book about the relationship between a father and his son, as seen from a mother’s perspective, all illustrated with some very gentle watercolour images.

Some have argued that it is a bit rich for Meghan to publish a book purporting to extol the virtues of the parent-child relationship when she doesn’t speak to her own father, while her husband has such a massively dysfunctional relationship with his. But I’m not convinced. Philip Larkin was wrong: misery does not cascade down the family tree as some kind of historical inevitability. Children of bad parents can make good parents themselves.

The problem I have with the book is the same I suspect my boys will have. It all looks just a bit too saccharine, too tediously nice. In fact, it doesn’t look like a children’s book at all, but more like an adult fantasy about what childhood should be like. Perhaps it is a work of kitsch make-believe about the kind of perfect childhood the princess wished for herself.

But the mind of the child is often darker and more troubled than adults find comfortable. And the stories we tell them should help them negotiate what is disturbing about the world, not push it away as though it doesn’t exist.

In 1315, a volcano in New Zealand erupted, spewing millions of tonnes of dirt and debris into the atmosphere. In the years that followed, agriculture in Europe and elsewhere was devastated. The city chronicles in Bristol described it as “a great Famine of Dearth with such mortality that the living could scarce suffice to bury the dead, horse flesh and dog’s flesh was accounted good meat, and some ate their own Children”.

It was from such conditions that terrifying stories like that of Hansel and Gretel were born. Abandoned in the forest by their parents, the young siblings fall into the clutches of a cannibalistic witch who is eventually forced into an oven by Gretel where she burns. The children then escape with her money.

The Brothers Grimm are famous for their 1812 collection of dark fairy tales, the origin of so many of our children’s stories. As well as Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, their collection also includes Godfather DeathThe Devil and His GrandmotherThe Jew Among Thorns — and yes, they are as bad as they sound. Children’s literature often has a barely concealed dark side; they are horror stories covered in candy floss.

It’s no surprise, then, that many children’s authors have reached for much safer, more gentle territory. After all, what child could be reasonably expected to sleep well after a unsanitised rendition of Hansel and Gretel? Yet many children do love the darker tales. When Where The Wild Things Are was first published in 1963, libraries refused to stock it, believing its images to be nightmarish and disturbing. But parents soon discovered that children couldn’t get enough of it.

It was much the same with The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I read it to my boys in Hebrew. And though they are too young to understand why that makes the story twice as scary, the idea that some huge terrifying beast arrives at the door, demanding everything that you have, is nonetheless disturbing enough.

But childhood is itself inherently disturbing. And if the Freudians are right, we spend a lifetime in recovery from it. My four-year-old asked us the other day, over breakfast, who was going to look after him when we die. Of course, comfort and reassurance are the right response; Little Nut Brown Hare has a role to play, even though my boys would never admit it.

But the darkness needs to be represented, as much as anything to show them that it can be faced and defeated. That is why they sleep well at night, even after stories of Tigers taking their tea or Max finding friendship among the beasts. Naming these fears shows children how they can be spoken about without crippling terror. Nietzsche said we use art as a lens through which we are able to look at the truth without it destroying us. And nowhere is that more the case than in children’s stories.

Perhaps this seems a more dangerous truth for those of us who had dysfunctional childhoods, where cold, distant or absent parenting failed to lead us through our own fears — and so, as a result, we still find the darkness overwhelming and terrifying.

In cases such as these, it’s all too easy to imagine how a sentimental Hollywood tale of a princess who grows up to find her prince is preferred to Hansel and Gretel. Which is why I suspect that, even though Meghan has claimed that The Bench was inspired by her son’s relationship with her husband, the book will say a lot more about the Duchess than either of her boys.