Arts Opinion: The perils of teaching children morals with horror books

At a basic moral level, children’s fiction books are rarely creative in their storylines. A clear line is typically drawn between good and bad, with good always defeating evil in the end. Actress Evangeline Lilly, however, is working to shake up the traditional plotline. With her new children’s book, The Squickerwonkers, Lilly explores sinister themes to educate children on the vices common to human nature.

In The Squickerwonkers, Lilly focuses on a group of marionette-like beings that each represent a human vice. These beings are creepily illustrated with button eyes and insect-like features. The one human in the story, a little girl, is also drawn in an eerie, unnatural fashion.

The little girl meets each of the Squickerwonkers before eventually getting turned into one of them herself at the end of the book. Lilly breaks the pattern of happy endings, replacing it with one some have deemed a bit more realistic.

But how realistic is too realistic? Parents and guardians are taught to shield their children from evil. Although it is important to teach children to be in touch with all emotions, including fear, intentionally frightening them may be taking it a step too far. Lilly has written a heavy story with frightening characters, although she does lighten the mood by writing it in the form of limericks. Still, Lilly’s chief purpose in creating this book was to generate deep, meaningful discussion between parents and children about moral character. The problem here is that young children may not really have the ability to understand the more complex moral aspects of the story.

For adults, a book is a temporary escape from reality. For children, however, it can be difficult to separate the real world from a fiction world. There’s a good chance young readers of Lilly’s book and other scary tales will end up having nightmares and crying for their parents in the middle of the night. If the book doesn’t scare them, it might confuse them—that is, if it doesn’t do both.

Lilly is still proud of the eerily upsetting ending of her story, claiming that it is not simple because the world is not simple. According to her philosophy, children are meant to play and get some bruises along the way. They should have the chance to learn about the cruelties of the world while they are still young. Sometimes, realistically disappointing stories are better at teaching real world lessons than fairytale endings.

The question at hand, however, is not whether it is good to accept the often harsh reality of living in the “real” world. That’s a given. The real question is how old a child should be when he or she is exposed to that reality. That answer is ultimately up to their parents to decide.

Even if children’s books take a dark turn, the impact their contents will have on individual children comes down to the way their parents desire to raise them. All parents can and should decide on their own is if the world of the Squickerwonkers is one they want their children to enter at a certain age.