Contemplating Child Protection 

Through Childrens' Literature

When I read books as a child, I was swept away by the heroic deeds of the main characters, overcoming adversity against the odds. Matilda overcoming the fearless Miss Trunchbull and leaving her witless family behind. James escaping his evil aunties and flying a giant peach across the sea. Harry, once living in a cupboard, now the greatest wizard of all time.

Now with the hawk’s eye of a paediatrician I see not only heroes, but victims of child abuse where somebody really should have intervened earlier. Luckily in children’s books, there is normally a happy ending and the arrival of an ‘on the ball’ social worker may have interfered slightly with Harry’s defeat of Voldermort or Matilda discovering her true abilities. However I think it is important to consider whether Augustus Gloop would have become quite so obese, if somebody had intervened earlier? Or whether James Henry Trotter’s significant experience of abuse would cause him attachment issues in the future?

In fact, there are examples of all forms of child abuse within literature if you look carefully. When James moved in with Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker they ‘started beating poor James for almost no reason at all’. They “never called him by his real name, but always referred to him as ‘you disgusting little beast’ or you filthy nuisance’. Matilda, one of the most industrious four year old of all time, had the increased problem solving skills associated with early childhood neglect. Her parents thought of her as ‘nothing more than a scab” and “would not have noticed had she crawled into the house with a broken leg’.

“Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age”- A very likely case of psychosocial short stature if ever I saw one!

These stories all make fantastic reads but is it right that such atrocities should occur within children’s literature without anybody batting an eyelid? In fact in Matilda, the librarian Mrs Phelps “was concerned about the child’s safety on the the walk through the fairly busy village High Street, but she decided not to interfere”. Later in the same book Matilda and Lavender discuss the behaviour of the abusive Miss Trunchbull and come to the conclusion that their story would sound ‘too ridiculous to be believed”.

Maybe I’m slightly too old and sceptical to read these stories now but surely it’s time for a children’s novel in which the adult characters safeguard children as they should? Should we be using such tales to help children understand that there are people there for them who can help (other than magical beings)?

Jacqueline Wilson makes a slightly more realistic read, if you’re interested. Tackling topics such as foster care, domestic violence and neglect, she wraps up our imperfect world in ways that young readers can understand.  I’ve also come across a website called littleparachutes.com, who specialise in picture books to ‘help children with life’s challenges’. They’ve even tacked the difficult topic of sexual abuse in their book ‘Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept’.

It’s certainly a difficult one as some may argue that the process of reading books is one of escapism, providing a sanctuary for children in difficult circumstances. Should we be letting the big bad world in? Personally I don’t think we should avoid such topics. Stories can be a powerful and non-threatening communication tool and books may reach into the hearts and minds of children where strangers like us may not.

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