Too Hard And Too Real: Bowdlerizing And Condescension In Children’s Books

From Wikipedia:  Thomas Bowdler (11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825) was an English physician and philanthropist, best known for publishing The Family Shakspeare, an expurgated edition of William Shakespeare's work, edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler, intended to be more appropriate for 19th century women and children than the original.

When children read books, is it a good thing?

Books are a bit of a two-way street. Writers put their thoughts down and send them out into the world, but readers put things into books, too – time, effort, and a lot more. People can pour their hearts into books and be shaped by what they find. You can form opinions, feel emotions, and change your life because of stories. Stories are the nuggets of old things that get hidden, just enough, that they survive to come back again and again.

The answer to that question above seems obvious, doesn't it? Yes, children should read books! Of course! Hooray!

But books have their opponents – or, more specifically, certain books have opponents.  There are big, important, confusing topics in this world that make a lot of adults nervous, and when those things get put in children’s books, some adults get very annoyed. They see it as trickery, as an attempt to slip in nasty things by hiding them in something that’s supposed to be nice. Because shouldn't books be nice, and happy?


Stories are mad and wild, and the things you can say in the best stories – that life is good, but painful, that bad things exist and need fighting, that death is a real, big thing – make uncomfortable reading for the best of us. It can be tempting to pretend – after all, aren't books just pretend? – and hide things from children and younger readers. It can be tempting to use easier words, easier stories, and happier endings to make books into entertainment alone.

But ...

Where entertainment and truth meet – that’s where the best books are, in my opinion. And talking down to children, making assumptions and excuses and sanitizing everything – doesn't end well for anyone.
There have been some truly fantastic children’s books come out lately that looked Bad Things right in the face and said, as only a child really could, ‘Hah!’

Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls refused to lie, even when the adults in the story wanted to. In YA, John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars annoyed The Daily Mail by telling people that cancer was real and terrible. Heck, Harry Potter was complicated and detailed and faced death and loss head-on. I just finished Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane (not a children’s book, by the way) and one of the main conflicts in that story is that a protagonist, a seven year old, knows exactly what’s going on, and none of the adults believe him.

In my books, before story and plot and dialogue and words, I have one focus – one bull’s-eye to aim for. Will children read this story and think ‘Yes. That’s right, isn't it?’ I never want to patronize or lie, but that isn't the same as cutting out all the goodness and joy from a tale. Maybe The Daily Mail was worried that books can only come in extremes – everything’s nice, or we’re all going to die. That’s not life though, is it? Life is messy and mixed up. Children’s books can do that, and I think they should.

As a writer, I want to work hard to realize exactly when - because it will happen, again and again - I'm making a decision on behalf of children because of my own assumptions or fears or worries. Yes, some things should be kept out of books for young children - sex scene is a pretty good example - but keeping out content still isn't the same as condescending. Do adults dismiss kids too quickly? It's likely. Things can be too complicated for kids, we say. It's too wordy. It's hard to follow. 

Is it, though? Really? Or is it just making our job harder, so we can't be bothered?

Anyway - those are my thoughts. Kids deserve good books - let's make sure they have 'em.


  1. Well said sir. Also, children are all different. Some won't be able to handle stories that involve death or sickness or serious topics, whereas others will. We need to be aware that throwing all children into one category is ridiculous.

    1. A good point I should have mentioned, that some kids don't want / need an escape from darkness. I have no qualms with parents or guardians suggesting children don't read certain books, but those books still need writing, and in a thoughtful way