The Grotesque
in Children's Literature

The Grotesque in Children's Literature by Susie Stephens


Dr. Seuss
Roald Dahl
Grimm's Fairy Tales
Susie Stephens
Middle Tennessee State University

The Grotesque in Children’s Literature

The grotesque has always been a part of children’s literature. Parents who voice opposition to today’s rash of Harry Potter books or decry the nightmarish quality of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are have likely forgotten the grotesque literature they enjoyed as children: Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, chronicles the quest of three children as they try to rescue a zombie-like adult from the clutches of a huge, disembodied brain. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit contains grotesqueries in abundance, such as this description of huge, dwarf-eating spiders:

Suddenly he saw, too, that there were spiders huge and horrible sitting in the branches above him, and ring or no ring he trembled with fear lest they should discover him. Standing behind a tree he 
watched a group of them for some time, and then in the silence and stillness of the wood he realized that these loathsome creatures were speaking to one another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves!
"It was a sharp struggle, but worth it," said one. "What nasty thick skins they have to be sure, but I’ll wager there is good juice inside," (Tolkien 146-147).
Frances Hodgson Burnett and Lewis Carroll were writing grotesque children’s literature long before contemporary authors Dav Pilkey and Roald Dahl discovered the art. In actuality, grotesque references have always been a component of this literary genre, which suggests that there may be something important about these usages that transcends simple entertainment. 

Even the earliest children’s literature contained elements of the grotesque. Johan Amos Comenius, a Bishop of the Unity of Czech Brethren (Demers 34), kept his students’ interest by adding grotesque pictures and terminology to Latin lessons in his Orbis Sensualium Pictus in 1659. On a page entitled "Deformed and Monstrous people," Comenius entertained his young audience by drawing illustrations of two-bodied midgets and hunchbacked, deformed dwarfs as well as blubber-lipped giants (Demers 38). Early Puritan hell-fire authors used stories about the gruesome deaths of children to deliberately scare their juvenile readers into living more pious lives. James Janeway chronicled the life of his fictitious character Sarah Howley in A Token ForChildren: Being An ExactAccountofthe Conversion, Holy and ExemplaryLives, andJoyful Deaths of SeveralYoung Children (1672). Dutiful Sarah, religiously seeking salvation, suffered many physical debilitations. Janeway tells his young readers, "When she was about fourteen years old, she brake a Vein in her Lungs (as is supposed), and oft did spit blood, yet did a little recover again, but had several dangerous relapses," (qtd. in Demers 46). 

Traditional fairy tales abound in grotesque references. Hans Christian Andersen’s "Thumbelina" hatched from a fairy’s barleycorn that was planted in a flowerpot. Thumbelina was only half as large as a human thumb and slept in a walnut shell. Andersen’s story "The Tinder-Box" featured an old witch and three monstrous and magical bulging-eyed dogs who guarded a treasure. The Grimm Brothers, who selectively collected folk tales and transcribed them for posterity, chronicled the life of the motherless character, Cinderella. In their version of the story, one step-sister cut off her own big toes in order to fit into Cinderella’s golden slipper; the other step-sister later cut off the heels of her feet so that she might be able to wear Cinderella’s shoe. Both amputations were painful and bloody; both were made more grotesque because they were greed-induced and prompted by the girls’ mother. In the Grimm version of "Little Red Riding Hood," the grandmother was devoured by an evil wolf, which then donned the grandmother’s clothing to wait in disguise for Red Riding Hood to arrive. In the Grimm translation of the tale, Red Riding Hood was also eventually eaten, but was later rescued by a passing hunter who cut open the wolf’s stomach with a scissors. 

Contemporary father and son authors Daniel and David Kamish use a combination of scary text and grotesque, primitive drawings in their book, TheNightthe Scary BeastiesPopped Out ofMy Head. When book character Dan draws a beast, the animal pops out of his head and materializes into his bedroom. The horrible beastie then coughs and projectile-sneezes a slimy Boogieman out of his nose. Using cunning and more of his artistic talents, Dan must triumph over the evil monsters he has created.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argues that children find meaning in literature that deals with grotesque themes, specifically in traditional fairy tales:

True, on an overt level fairy tales teach little about the

specific conditions of life in modern mass society; these tales were created long before it came into being. But more can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child’s 
comprehension. Since the child at every moment of his life is exposed to the society in which he lives, he will certainly learn to cope with its conditions, provided his inner resources permit him to do so. (Bettelheim 5)
Author Alison Lurie calls folktales such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Hansel and Gretel" "among the most subversive texts in children’s literature," (Lurie 16). Bettelheim counters with his belief that a child harbors many unspoken fears. Because the child has not openly shared these bothersome thoughts with others it is often difficult for him to overcome them on his own. Bettelheim contends that fairy tales and stories about enchantment offer the child a chance to see young characters, with whom he relates, dealing with terrible circumstances. Sometimes the problems in fairy tales echo the hidden fears of the child; being eaten by an animal or pursued by witches and giants are common childhood fears that appear as storylines in various forms of children’s literature. When a child sees a concrete depiction of his particular fear in a story, he is validated because he realizes he is not the only person who has those thoughts. The child identifies with the young protagonist of the story, who generally uses superior brainpower, athletic prowess, or clever ingenuity to outsmart the evildoers and live happily ever after. These types of stories actually prepare the young reader to understand more complicated literary themes in the future; they also aid the child in developing useful problem solving techniques. Often a child who has been exposed to such tales has more self-assurance in his ability to take control in certain difficult situations because he has been living vicariously through the lives of fictitious young heroes who have faced adversity and prevailed.

Bettelheim further asserts that these stories do not leave their reader with unrealistic expectations, as even the very young reader knows that the joyous finale is simply a component in a fictional story and not a reflection of real life. "The fairy tale’s extravagant promise of a happy ending would also lead to disenchantment with the child’s real life if it were part of a realistic story, or projected as something that will happen where the real child lives. But the fairy story’s happy ending occurs in fairyland, a country that we can visit only in our minds," (Bettelheim 133). One of the benefits of this type of literature is escapism, a literary convention that is also successfully utilized in literature for adults.

Exhibitionism and scatological humor are common grotesque components in both traditional and contemporary children’s literature. In the traditional fairy tale, "The Emperor’s New Clothes," an adult ruler is manipulated into vainly parading through the streets naked. Contemporary author Dav Pilkey’s serial hero is Captain Underpants, a school principal who changes into an underwear-clad caped crusader and battles the evils of attacking, talking toilets and demonic science Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants. Alison Lurie writes that the child, who has a natural curiosity about the body, actually matures through exposure to such seemingly ridiculous stories, especially when an authority figure is involved. "The conflict between the id and superego, between the wish to see and show off nakedness and the knowledge that this is naughty and forbidden, has been sublimated into art. It is a very low form of art, but art nevertheless," (Lurie 201). 

Jack Prelutsky’s book, The Gargoyle onthe Roof is a marriage of grotesque poetic text and chilling macabre artwork by Peter Sis. There are poems about goblins, werewolves, trolls and vampires, providing a humorous yet twisted look at subjects that are normally fearsome for children. One of the poems in this book is entitled, "Plaint of the Headless Horseman:" 

Beside my steed I sadly stand,
My severed head in my right hand,
Sorrowed that you sped away-
I simply asked the time of day. (Prelutsky 12)
Bruno Bettelheim is convinced of the importance of bringing such monstrous images to the surface in children’s literature, as they have a cathartic effect. "Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it. As a result, the child remains helpless with his worst anxieties- much more so than if he had been told fairy tales which give these anxieties form and body and also show ways to overcome these monsters," (Bettelheim 120).

If Bettelheim’s research is correct in its conclusions, the grotesque in children’s literature is not just a novel entertainment device; it is a necessary and beneficial component that enhances the psychological welfare of the young reader. In spite of parental concerns, it will continue to flourish as children are drawn by its cathartic qualities. This is the real magic in enchantment.

Works Cited Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Demers, Patricia and Gordon Moyles, eds. An Anthology of Children’s Literature to 1850. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Lurie, Alison. The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.
Prelutsky, Jack. The Gargoyle on the Roof. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1999.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.