Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Part II: The New Rules on Fear

There are a few contemporary ABC books that engage with fear through disturbing elements in its illustrations, but Edward Gorey’s The Gashleycrumb Tinies (1963) satirizes and plays upon a parent’s anxiety and paranoia about the possibility of their own child's death. Each child character in the story, whose name begins with a letter of the alphabet, meets an untimely and gruesome end. For example, when “T is for Titus who flew into bits,” the reader sees a young boy opening a package at the door. Presumably, the package is a bomb that will explode when the boy opens it. This is one of the more subdued examples in the book, but it emphasizes a clear, satirizing moment in parenthood paranoia because the possibility of receiving an exploding parcel, and an actual child opening are close to zero.

But there are greater social fears Gorey speaks to in his book. “K is for Kate who was struck by an axe,” suggests something more disturbing to the parent, a child’s murder. “K” also underscores the “kill” in this gruesome scene, where Kate’s body is clearly dragged through the white snow from the woods. This cautionary tale hints at the original warnings found in stories like “Little Red Riding Hood:” don’t go off into the woods alone to talk to strangers or this might happen to you. These examples are one of the reasons why Gorey’s audience for his books has been notoriously hard to define. Some have argued that since his books fall squarely in the nonsense genre (like the infamous Dr. Seuss), this demarcation clearly places those works as children’s literature, although few parents might agree.

The elements of terror and fear found in darker cautionary tales, intrinsically creates an obstacle for young readers. Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimly’s The Dangerous Alphabet (2000) use of the carnivalesque removes the hurdle between young reader and genre through language play and accessible grotesque illustrations.  The Dangerous Alphabet takes place in an underground sewer waterway where two young children engage with childhood anxieties caused by real and imaginary monsters. Gaiman’s first half of the beginning rhyming couplet immediately rejects the traditional verse in a classic ABC primer. “A” does not stand for the obligatory “apple,” instead “A is for Always, that’s where we embark.” “Always” or “all ways” suggests how readers must ignore commonplace beliefs found in conventional, “safe” fictions for young readers, because this story intends to subvert those boundaries.

Grimly’s illustration for the sewer waterways in the “A is for” scene operates as a type of funhouse ride, more carnival than carnivalesque in a sense, but the grotesque caricatures allow for an exploration into the grisly underbelly of society from which children are often shielded. The boy, wearing an apprehensive look, places the obligatory apple in a cup as payment for “embark[ing]” on this misadventure. This act serves as a visual cue and departure point for readers to liberate themselves from any notion of the “safe” story.

The nature of the carnivalesque in The Dangerous Alphabet seeks to disrupt notions about the treatment of children’s texts in dominant culture. This mode also serves as a form of escapism for young readers from their parents, allowing them to traverse upon the murky waters with the young girl and boy characters. By navigating through their own fears and anxieties in tandem with the children characters, young readers find they will still come out safely from the funhouse ride without the help of the authoritative parent figure.

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