Once upon a time.

24th July 2015 at 01:00
.we asked teachers to tell us which 100 books all children should read before leaving primary school. Kate Townshend finds that tales with dark themes dominate - and they could be the key to living happily ever after

A little boy is abused by his mother and locked away with his baby sister - she dies of malnutrition and he loses consciousness. A headteacher physically and psychologically abuses her pupils. Strange creatures feign affection, then threaten cannibalism. A girl meets morally questionable characters when she becomes lost in a strange land.

Recognise any of these storylines? You might be tempted to head for the horror section of your local bookshop to play spot the plot, yet these tales all appear in the top 10 fiction books every child should read before leaving primary school, as voted for by primary teachers (find the full list of 100 on the pull-out poster in the centre of the magazine).

Nearly 500 teachers voted in the survey conducted over the past month by TESS and the National Association for the Teaching of English. Goodnight Mister Tom, Matilda, Where the Wild Things Are and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland all made the cut. Admittedly, there is a certain amount of spin in my descriptions of these books' plots, but it is notable that many of the top 100 choices have dark and challenging themes, from poverty and abuse to death and abandonment. Given that the current generation of children is widely considered the most overprotected in history, it seems a little odd that the reading matter we recommend to them should be so full of horrors.

So, are we teachers getting our reading lists wrong?

For Rob Biddulph, whose picture book Blown Away won the 2015 Waterstones Children's Book Prize, the answer is no. He believes that plot and pacing are just as important in children's fiction as they are in adult fiction, so the story is the thing - and some darkness can bring necessary contrast.

"A happy ending is even happier when it's cut through with a bit of relief," he says. "Relief that, despite being led through terrifying situations with the characters in the book, we have survived. We weren't eaten by the dragon. The Child Catcher didn't lock us in his cage."

Biddulph also points out that reading can be the best way for children to begin thinking about scary situations, because they retain control. "The baddies disappear when we close the book," he says.

A safe space for exploration

Fellow author C J Busby, who wrote the Spell series of books, agrees. "I think children can relish dark themes, and sometimes it's important for them to play with the idea of dreadful things happening to them," she says. "They have very little control over their lives and they're not stupid - they can see that bad things are quite possible. Parents tend to want to reassure them and downplay the fears, but books are a safe place where they can imagine the worst happening and think about how they would survive it."

Perhaps this notion of safety, of giving children a chance to explore tricky themes in a way they can control, is why so many adults think young children should give more challenging tales a try.

Alice Edgington is an assistant headteacher and literacy coordinator at St Stephen's Infant School in Canterbury, Kent. She believes literature can be a great way to start conversations with children. "The books in the top 10 cover ideas that it's not always possible to protect children from, so it's important to introduce them in a positive way," she says.

But although we teachers may think this is beneficial, would a psychologist recommend the approach? Yes, as it turns out. Psychologist and former teacher Dr Tim O'Brien agrees that books can be an effective way for parents and teachers to raise tricky subjects.

"Rather than talking to a child about how they feel about the death of their favourite pet, a parent could make a conscious choice to read a book with a relevant plot instead," he says. "In this way, stories with dark themes and contexts can be a tool for mediating thoughts and emotions."

Feel the fear.and do it anyway

There's another angle to this, though: maybe we don't give children enough credit for seeking out books that reflect the real world, rather than those that sugar-coat it. We recommend the books that children enjoy, so perhaps we should not blame the teachers who voted for this list of dark-themed tomes, but rather give credit to the kids for embracing tough subject matter.

Author Giles Paley-Phillips thinks there may be something in this idea. Despite the bright colours and cute illustrations in his popular range of picture books, he doesn't believe in shying away from serious themes. In fact, his most recent book, Little Bell and the Moon, deals with bereavement.

"I think darker books allow children to develop more fully, to be able to see the profound and connect with the human condition," he says.

Experience on the ground backs up this perspective. Jonathan Brunskill, a Year 6 teacher at Keys Meadow Primary School in London, says: "I've always found that children are attracted to dark stories, Roald Dahl being the obvious example.

"I taught Ice Palace by Robert Swindells to seven-year-olds last year. The story involves a village that is always sad because an evil old man comes on his sledge in the middle of the night and steals children. They were gripped and we all really enjoyed discussing how horrible it was. It brings up all sorts of interesting comments from the children that would otherwise be hidden from you. They're thinking about it."

This should not be surprising. The things that draw readers in are the same regardless of their age, says Dr Debby Thacker, who has published extensively on the subject of children's stories and is a member of the International Research Society of Children's Literature. She believes that the darker side of life has a universal appeal in fiction.

"I don't know if it is any different from darker themes in books for adults," she says. "Children and adults have fears and think dark thoughts - to find them in a book, particularly if the outcome is full of hope, can be a comfort."

Yet, although books with darker themes have an appeal, and they clearly bring some benefits in terms of pastoral support, can we be sure that they are positive rather than negative influences on children?

Dr O'Brien argues that challenging literature does seem to have positive effects. "All narratives have psychological power, and the stories with darker themes have a particular type of psychological power relating to vicarious self-discovery - for children and adults," he says. "Stories that deal with the harsher aspects of life - containing characters that a child can identify with or empathise with - can make a psychological contribution to the development and maturation of concepts, beliefs, understandings and meaning-making processes."

Dr Thacker agrees. "Fairy tales, the original `dark' stories we now associate with children, get across the message that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence," she says. "If one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."

The talking cure

Sometimes, though, children can only find this meaning and this ultimate message of hope if they have the chance to communicate beyond the pages of a book.

"Things go wrong if children read in isolation and don't get a chance to talk," Dr Thacker says. "Not just about the book itself but about what fiction is for. Maybe these are books that are best read with a caring adult who can have a conversation about them, if needed."

Another way for teachers to walk the line between darkness and despair is by choosing books set in fantastical or historical worlds (many of these appear in the top 100, too).

"Fantasy settings allow children to have powers, notably magic, that give them the kind of control over events that real life denies them," Busby says. "For this reason, some quite dangerous and troubling sorts of things can happen to the protagonists, but they have more ability to respond and more spectacular ways of overcoming them."

But Kate Pembridge, a Year 6 teacher and literacy coordinator at Elmbridge Junior School in Gloucester, cautions against relying entirely on fantasy. "There are pros and cons to other-worldly settings," she says. "Fantasy books help children to explore the emotions but keep a level of separation. But, equally, real-life settings that children relate to can sometimes be useful in helping them to realise that the things they go through happen to other people in their situation, too."

And this is the point. The issues that the books on the top 100 deal with - from bullying to bereavement, chronic shyness to neglect - do happen, and it really makes no odds whether they're happening to Harry Potter at Hogwarts or to Greg Heffley at Westmore Middle School. What matters is that they could happen to the child doing the reading, too. We all need to learn early on that life continues in spite of and sometimes even because of adversity - that other people go through these things and they survive. In that sense, I think we teachers have got this list absolutely right.

Interestingly, 11-year-old Benji Cartwright, who is nearing the end of his time at primary school and has read nine of the top 10 books on the list, agrees. He sees an even bigger picture, one that we adults sometimes miss. It's not simply that books with challenging themes can help us through tricky times - they might actually make us better people.

"I think some of the books on the list could teach you what other people go through," he says. "They could make you a kinder, more aware person. I like stories where people struggle - it makes you care more about what happens to them."

It's a message that our number one author, Roald Dahl, articulates in Matilda. "Matilda's strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: you are not alone."

Kate Townshend is a primary teacher and journalist

Top 10 fiction books

all children should read before leaving primary school

1 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (pictured)

2 Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

3 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll

4 Matilda by Roald Dahl

5 The Gruffalo

by Julia Donaldson

6 The Chronicles of Narnia

by C S Lewis

7 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

8 We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen

9 Dogger by Shirley Hughes

10 Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Teacher Kate Pembridge's top 5

1 The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

2 Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo

3 The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

4 The BFG by Roald Dahl

5 Peace At Last

by Jill Murphy

Author C J Busby's

top 5

1 Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

2 The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

3 Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

4 The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

5 Five Children and It by E Nesbit

Author Giles Paley-Phillips' top 5

1 Not Now, Bernard by David McKee

2 A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein

3 Courage of the Blue Boy by Robert Neubecker

4 The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin

5 Esio Trot by Roald Dahl

Teacher Alice Edgington's top 5

1 Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper

2 Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

3 Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

4 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

5 Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Author Rob Biddulph's

top 5

1 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

2 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

3 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

4 How The Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss

5 When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Teacher Jonathan Brunskill's top 5

1 We're Going on a Bear

Hunt by Michael Rosen

2 Where the Wild Things Are

by Maurice Sendak

3 Matilda by Roald Dahl

4 The Diary of a Young Girl

by Anne Frank

5 Northern Lights

by Philip Pullman

Dr Debby Thacker's

top 5

1 Charlotte's Web

by E B White

2 Stuart Little by E B White

3 Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

4 Carrie's War by Nina Bawden

5 How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

by Russell Hoban

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