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Kids' books: Grimm tales teach kids to grapple with evil

Kids' books are tame. So what? They're books for kids. But stories that depict evil in all its awful forms shouldn't be barred from story time. They teach valuable lessons.

Mike Brown, The Commercial Appeal/AP Photo
Annabeth Geminm, eight months, is enthralled by the book "Peekaboo Baby" while sitting in her mom Anna Geminm's lap during the Babygarten infant reading class at the Lucius E. and Elsie C. Burch, Jr. Library in Collierville, Tenn., March 6.

Parenting is largely about hauling around massive piles of gear in a timely fashion and making sure that your kids don't run off of a cliff, or fall into a lake. But on a more profound level, it's about giving a fresh and unformed mind a worldview and moral perspective that will serve him or her for a lifetime.

In that respect, literature (broadly including movies, TV, and games) is key, and a profound challenge for every parent.

The BBC recently ran a beautifully written think piece about the legacy of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, those folk tale anthologizers who collected stories that include serious adult themes: violence, betrayal, incest, and murder, among others.

The question is: How does reading about the existence and practice of evil affect children?

Studies have been inconclusive, probably because trying to measure the impact of any given type of art is about as precise as trying to quantify the nature of the human soul or trying to provide a scientifically sound definition of true love.

As a young child I grew up reading – and being profoundly influenced by – books including short World War II histories (including a book about the Holocaust for young readers), the unabridged Grimm's Fairy Tales, and D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, wherein Loki tricks the gods into murdering the good-hearted Baldur and eventually precipitates the end of the world through his traitorous actions. I thought this stuff was amazing – shocking, engaging, confusing, and the first step on a lifetime of avid reading. It was a safe, vicarious way to wrestle with the existence of evil in the world (something that any serious student of the Bible thinks about, as well.)

And despite a literature diet that had a serious dark side, I turned out OK: No criminal convictions (or even charges!), a steady job as a writer, a happy marriage, and an author credit on a number of books – including a short history of the Holocaust for young readers.

Context is the key, of course. I also read a lot of Doctor Seuss and Curious George and light-hearted, modern fairytales. And the rough stuff – World War II, and the Norse myths, for example – always came with a grander "good and evil" context. What the Nazis did was profoundly bad, and good people came together to stop it. What Loki did was bad – really bad, what with the world ending and all – but a new, hopeful world was reborn in the ashes.

This is in contrast to some of the open-world style video games (the now venerable Grand Theft Auto series comes to mind) that not only depict evil, but allow players to embody it without consequence (and, in fact, with in-game rewards.) But whether even that contextually amoral approach to depicting evil has a negative impact is in dispute – some experts have maintained that the rise in video games and drop in the overall crime rate are actually linked, and not merely a coincidence.

Not surprisingly, the X-factor may be talking to your children about what they read, rather than aggressively limiting their diet of literature. As parents, we can help them find topics that they find engaging, and then help them pick out lessons and see a larger context. That's parenting at its most soul-stirring level, and it doesn't even require a minivan full of softball equipment.

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