Why do popular kids’ stories always kill off the parents in Chapter 1? Harry Potter, Alex Rider and Lemony Snicket are popular examples, as are classics like Kim, Tom Sawyer and Kidnapped.
Some kinder, gentler writers let the parents linger into Chapter 2, as in Treasure Island. But we know they’re doomed from the start.
Parents die from car crashes, cancer, toaster electrocutions, laser beams, Russian mobsters, pirates in the South China Sea and so on.
It happens so often, I’m relieved to see the other parents still alive when I drop the kids off at school in the morning.
Many so-called “children’s stories” are really deeply disturbing.
I once rented Oliver at the video store, chortling that I had tricked the kids into watching a classic.
We soon saw Oliver’s encounters with the poorhouse, the workhouse, beatings by foster parents, Fagin’s teenage gang and finally alcoholic villain Bill Sykes bludgeoning Nancy (the only person who ever loved Oliver, as my six-year-old pointed out).
I glanced sidelong at the mothers in the room. Their scowls confirmed it: Oliver was “inappropriate” and I was a very bad parent indeed.
So should parents put dark novels on their blacklists alongside gangsta-style teenage fashion, body piercings and salty snacks?
I say no, for three reasons.
First, many of these stories are ripping yarns. If they get kids to read, then I’m in favour.
Secondly, there’s a reason why teens and pre-teens like these stories. It goes beyond the universal worry that your parents might die. Your kids have seen you drive and know they could be orphaned at any moment. But that’s not really it. It’s that they know that they’ll grow up eventually and that the world has some dark things in it.
In fact, many kids are already living with dark things. Things like drugs, alcohol, poverty and greedy Scottish uncles who want your inheritance so badly they’ll sell you into indentured servitude, whatever that is.
Kids can identify with characters who feel alone, misunderstood and unfairly treated.
That’s how many feel a lot of the time.
Feeling bullied at school or even just angry that your MSN Messenger privileges have been revoked isn’t quite the same as having a band of opium-dealing pirates chasing you. But we old people can forget too easily how difficult it is to be young.
I think that kids like these stories because they talk frankly about the darker side of life, which is interesting after years of Barney’s fake happiness, and show kids taking control of their own destinies as part of growing up.
Harry Potter, Jim from Treasure Island and Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart are pretty good role models. And while most of the characters in these books are boys, there are a growing number of strong girls such as Sally. She has to face a particularly black set of perils in The Ruby in the Smoke, ranging from murderous landladies to opium-addled sailors to a piratical secret society.
The final reason is that you’ll probably enjoy them too.
Many parents join book clubs to read books they hate with adults they don’t really like.
Why not have a book club with your kids?
I can assure you that Sally Lockhart and Treasure Island are way more fun than Salman Rushdie’s latest baffling and depressing doorstop.
So buy a couple copies of something fun from the list below and start reading.
Maybe even set a time after dinner one night a week to sit in the living room and read together.
You’ll be surprised how much the kids enjoy it once the weirdness of reading with mum or dad wears off.
Before long, you’ll find yourself having some great conversations. Why didn’t Harry just tell Dumbledore about the giant snake?
What is the Russian mafia? Why are the Baudelaire orphans so polite?
And then you’ll find yourself having some even deeper conversations.
Why is Malfoy such a bully to “mudbloods” like Hermione?
What does it mean that Kim’s parents died from drug and drink? Why does he pretend to be Indian sometimes and British other times? Why does Huck Finn really want to run away?
Some of these topics are sensitive.
The books I’ve mentioned above touch on drugs, alcohol, crime, racism, colonialism and more. But your kids know these things exist.
These books are a way to talk about them in a real way, sharing your values and some time together.
And anyway, if it doesn’t work the first time you can always go back to shouting at them about their homework.
Dark Winter Reading: a mix of new books and classics, fact and fantasy, male and female characters, enjoyable by readers from age 10 to 100.
Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz. A modern spy story, recently produced in film.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. A fantasy adventure with a remarkable female character, also recently in the theatres.
Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Classics of life on the Mississippi. No kid can resist the scene where Tom whitewashes the fence.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Lots of wicked uncles, shipwrecks, Catholic and Protestant intrigue and some gripping chases.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling. A ripping spy story set on the frontiers of British India.
Ruby in the Smoke (Sally Lockhart series) also by Philip Pullman. A feisty Victorian girl tumbles into a series of alarming adventures in London and abroad.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. A mysterious sailor moves into the neighbourhood, leaving Jim with a real treasure map and some unwanted visitors.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of Aurore of the Yukon and Yukon Secret Agents (in which parents either expire or are blown up in Chapter 1).