Kids’ Books That Don’t Ignore the Dark Side of Life

Last summer, I lost my heart to a peevish storybook turtle. This turtle — genderless, though for the sake of ease I’ll use “he” pronouns — might be forgiven for his mood. His days are riddled with mortal peril. In the watercolor milieu where he abides, boulders have a habit of plummeting from the sky, and a time-traveling Cyclopian monster roams the land.

And yet, the turtle putters along. He hungers for companionship but is swift to take offense from those who offer: namely, his friend the mole. Altogether, he’s a stubborn fussbudget. I love him. I overidentify with him.

I come by my affinity honestly: through overexposure. This turtle is the main character of one of my toddler’s favorite books, “The Rock From the Sky,” by the author and illustrator Jon Klassen. In the past year, I’ve had ample opportunity to grow attached, both to my tetchy turtle, and to Klassen’s larger oeuvre. Each of his five solo books — the “Hat” trilogy (“I Want My Hat Back,” “This Is Not My Hat” and “We Found a Hat”), “The Rock From the Sky” and “The Skull” — is a beloved mainstay in our household.

I’d wager that my toddler is most compelled by Klassen’s bold brushstrokes and the emotional shifts registered by his characters’ wide eyes. But he also delights in Klassen’s puckish narration, the blunt, matter-of-factness of which is softened by the recurrent murmurs of nursery rhymes (“I am going where the plants grow big and tall and close together,” intones a tiny thieving fish in “This Is Not My Hat”).

Together, these five works comprise a collection of twisty, comically deadpan tales, all of which turn brilliantly on the chasm between text and image. (In “This Is Not My Hat,” the fish thief boasts about the success of his caper while the illustrations depict his imminent doom.) Each story also manages to avoid the tropes so ubiquitous in even the most well meaning children’s literature. There are no tales of glory, no heroes’ journeys. Instead, Klassen cultivates a universe of absurdity, by turns brutal and tender. Although indisputably dark (the titular Skull lives in a vast, abandoned house, complete with dungeon and bottomless pit), Klassen’s stories never entirely succumb to that darkness — rather, they delve into the blackest corners of our souls and, somehow, locate joy.

In the New York Times best-selling “I Want My Hat Back” (2011), a rabbit steals a bear’s hat, and the bear retaliates by eating him. The small, aforementioned fish in “This Is Not My Hat” (2012) commits the same crime against a big fish, and meets an identical fate. In “The Skull,” Klassen’s 2023 retelling of a Tyrolean folk tale, a runaway named Otilla takes refuge with a talking skull in his old, secluded mansion. Otilla is all gentleness and sweetness — that is, until a headless skeleton comes looking for the skull, at which point she turns ruthless. Yet Otilla’s violence springs from loyalty to the skull who has offered her shelter and companionship. In Klassen’s universe, the happiest characters find satisfaction in shared experiences: a dance, a feast of pears, the quiet contemplation of a sunset.

As my child’s relationship to these books grows more nuanced, and he perceives their intrinsic disobedience, I expect he will find them challenging. But that’s the point. I don’t believe that fiction should placate. Survival is rarely elegant; sometimes it’s downright ludicrous, born of dumb luck or privilege. In the last pages of “The Rock From the Sky,” the turtle narrowly escapes death by Cyclopian heat ray, not through any clever feat — he’s unaware that he’s about to get torched — but by a rock that falls from the sky, crushing the monster just as it’s poised to strike.

These falling rocks — there are two that bookend the story — strike me as a serviceable metaphor. Upon impact, they demolish one of the pernicious fictions I expect my son will encounter sooner rather than later: namely, that a safe, long life is a reward for virtue. I hope he will know better. The universe owes us nothing; we, the living, must safeguard one another.

This is a bleak lesson. A suffering world like ours necessitates many such lessons — eventually. For now, I am spared by my son’s youth, and the influence I yield over his narrow orbit. At 2, he still regards his surroundings with the sort of confidence that cannot survive the burden of skepticism. I do not presume to be entirely responsible for my son’s pluck, or even to know his mind. Yet, at this early stage, my husband and I serve as the primary architects of his environment, and thankfully, we are able to foster conditions that reward his trust.

Often, I acknowledge the luxury of this fleeting moment. Parenting a toddler can sometimes feel like partial mythmaking, as if I’m devising a narrative of the world that is true enough to approximate reality, but not so comprehensive that it becomes illegible to him. It would be tempting to banish the darkness a little longer, to allow my son to believe in a world that will never betray him.

I respect him — I love him — too much for that. Instead, we read Klassen, in whose works cruelty and kindness and horror and wonder reside in adamant, exquisite tension. See, I tell him. A brutal world can still be tender.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a freelance critic and the author of “Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today.”

“The Rock From the Sky,” by Jon Klassen, ©2021/Courtesy of Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.

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