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HindustanTimes Thu,18 Sep 2014

Beyond Books

Understanding child's fascination with the bizarre
mycity4kids.com
July 19, 2012
First Published: 14:45 IST(19/7/2012)
Last Updated: 14:09 IST(21/7/2012)
Kids
Dinosaurs, fanged robots, icky slime, movies about vampires and zombies, morbid blood-oozing stories or the gross toilet humour - why can't children fancy the more simple, pleasant stuff around us?

Irrespective of gender, children go through phases where they are drawn to the spine chilling and stomach churning. What is worrying is there's plenty more where that came from, what with store shelves stocked up high with bizarre toys, books and movies.

When you think about it, dinosaurs are perhaps the most normal of the list. In fact, maybe they are not extinct after all. At least not in the extensive fantasy world that has been created around us - lifelike toys, realistic movies, and even books where dinosaurs brush their teeth! It certainly makes it difficult to convince a 4 year old that these giant reptiles do not really exist.

Dinosaurs fascinate children to such an extent that they can spend long phases where they eat, sleep and breathe dinosaurs.A child will read tiger stories with interest, see a lion in the zoo with wonder, but will treat his dinosaur collection with utmost reverence. What is so compelling about T Rex and party that has kids worshipping their webbed claws?Is it the glamour and safety of the extinct?

Maybe because these creatures do not exist any longer, children get full creative license to imagine dinosaurs in any situation they please and yet allow them the happy reassurance that those situations cannot possibly come true.Or simply put, children probably like dinos just because they are big, powerful and noisy.

The fascination for giant reptiles may have a rationale but parents give up trying to justify toilet humour. Almost all children go through a toilet humour stage, with just the word "poop" sending them into hysterics.

For toddlers and young children, what is surprising and ridiculous is the funniest, and why should gross bodily functions be left out? In today's times, all things gross, revolting, disgusting seem to be finding themselves in books, on screen and even on your child's toy shelf.

Take for example, Pee and Poo - plush, appropriately yellow and brown characters that were created to help children deal with toilet training(http://www.peeandpoo.com/). Toilet training we can understand, but can plush toys representing bowel waste be any child's idea of a cuddle companion?It seems many adults have not outgrown toilet humour either.

Today, commercialisation has taken the bizarre to a whole different level, with manufacturers creating inexplicable toys for impressionable children. After all, can you sleep under the same roof as a Dexter action figure complete with blood and a butcher's knife? Some may be on the fence about a pregnant Barbie with explicitly described childbirth, but surely there's no debate on the breastfeeding doll that allows kids to fake suckle!

Are the seeds of attraction to the twisted and creepy sown in early childhood, when we are introduced to the wicked witch all set to eat up cherubic Hansel or the evil step mother trying to kill pretty Snow White just to regain her beauty crown?

Violence even dominates nursery rhymes that leave behind victims like poor Jack with the broken crown and the irreparably shattered Humpty Dumpty? Much as we hail Roald Dahl's writing, there has always been something extremely disturbing about his stories.

Take Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and the poverty-stricken house where the Buckets sleep together in one bed like animals, or the gruesome deaths and mutilations suffered by the winners of the contest.

Disturbingly, most fairy tales in their original form were actually quite morbid and frightening. The Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella for instance, had the step sisters mutilating their feet to fit into the famous glass shoe. Thankfully the popular version wipes out the gory bits and leaves us with an image of a cheery and singing Cinderella.

While in the past, stories may have been toned down to meet the sensibilities of a young audience, lately however, the opposite seems to be true. Who can miss the big streak of the supernatural running through a lot of children's fiction these days - ghosts, vampires and skeletons et al.

J K Rowling brought magic back into fashion with her wildly successful Harry Potter series. Though each book in the series got darker and brought in more death, evil and horrifying creatures such as the Dementors, the popularity never waned.

Children's fiction has historically had young characters that are left alone to fend for themselves in somewhat dangerous circumstances (strangely enough, parents tend to get knocked off in the first few pages itself).

Young readers enjoy those stories because to escape danger, their heroes have to break many rules, act reckless yet brave and teach the baddies a lesson in clever and funny ways. That is still the backbone of current children's fiction, the difference being the addition of the sinister or the macabre.Have we decided that children don't need to be protected from the evils of the world any longer?

The key question here is whether this fascination for the bizarre necessarily a bad thing?  Perhaps not, as long as we make sure that it remains just a fascination and not an obsession. At the end of the day, it is just a matter of individual choice- one child's favourite horror story or headless doll may be another child's reason for nightmares.

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