By Sean Coughlan
There's rarely room in children's books for scenes of slaughter and pictures of people being impaled, so why does one author want to change this?
There have been many calls to protect the young from violent images, but it's not often the opposite case is argued, that there aren't enough aggressive pictures in children's books.
But award-winning children's author Ted Dewan is conscientiously putting scenes of mayhem and destruction into his latest book, not drawn by an adult but by the children themselves.
Children, particularly boys, often produce violent images in their drawings, he says. But when it comes to children's books, this becomes a taboo. They're often fluffy and fleecy, but there's rarely room in the children's section for the scenes of slaughter that many boys like to draw.
One True Bear is a moral tale about a bear and boy
Mr Dewan wants children's literature to face up to this "hidden art" and to cast some light on the "type of pictures that don't get put up on the fridge".
"I think that boys' exploration of violence is often confused with the commercial products that exploit their interest in violence and that makes parents nervous," he says.
In the anxious, risk-averse, cotton-wool culture of modern parenting, a picture of machine gun massacres isn't going to look good on the wall.
His book, One True Bear, is being claimed as the first picture book of its kind to include the "particular kind of drawing that boys do". Which he says parents of boys "know all about".
These primary school children's line drawings include battlefield scenes, planes dropping bombs, people shooting each other, tanks, someone impaled on a spike, buildings on fire and a clown with limbs pulled off.
It's not some kind of Tarantino for toddlers. It's a moral tale of how a self-sacrificing teddy bear wins the affections of a violent boy. The bear's gruff generosity redeems the angry youngster. And almost all the illustrations are soothingly traditional, with these grittier images kept in the background.
But should there be any place for these violent outpourings from children? Is it a bad influence? Should we be discouraging these pencil-drawn horror shows?
"These pictures are part of boyhood," says Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
His own son is one of the children whose drawings are used in the book. He says as the father of boys, when it comes to boys' artistic self-expression, it's "Armageddon on paper".
Among the children's drawings in Ted Dewan's book, he says his son particularly loved the picture of people being catapulted onto a giant cactus.
But he says children themselves make a clear distinction between such imaginary violence and real conflict and adults exaggerate the susceptibility of the young to be influenced.
"When children watch Peter Pan we don't expect them to jump out of the window. We underestimate their ability to filter," he said.
"We don't trust children to understand the difference between reality and play acting."
Mr Haddon is also scathing about how parents can have double standards about violent games.
"We hate violence with a contemporary feel," he says. "There are Guardian-reading families who would hate to see their children with plastic machine guns, but they're quite happy to give them swords and shields. It's more heritage."
So where is the boundary between allowing children to express themselves and exposing them to unnecessary violence?
US-based psychologist Michael Thompson is the author of the best-selling book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. It examines the contradictory pressures on boys and to help parents understand their behaviour.
Ted Dewan says these pictures don't go up on the fridge
Dr Thompson's book hit a chord - and put him on the Oprah circuit - by expressing the anxieties parents felt around modern boyhood.
Why were boys doing so badly at school compared to girls? Is there anything wrong with boys being boisterous and physical? And if they keep drawing guns, does it mean they want to shoot someone?
"What makes boys violent is being treated with violence, seeing their fathers commit violent acts, watching bigger boys commit violent acts in gangs," he says.
But he concludes there is a major distinction between such exposure to real violence and the imaginary violence that is a natural part of growing up, either in play or in drawings or stories.
"Children, boys in particular, have been play acting at hunting, chasing, killing and dying since the beginning of human history," says Dr Thompson.
"There is no connection between writing violent stories and committing violence. If you write violent stories, you are not going to end up in jail, you are going to end up in Hollywood writing action movies."
One True Bear, By Ted Dewan, published by Orchard Books.
A selection of your comments appears below.
One of the most important aspects in the parental consideration of violence is the encouraged perspective. Violence - especially against another person - should hardly ever be encouraged as redemptive, permissible, or excusable. According to Ted Dewan, violence should be understandable. Avoiding the extremes of encouragement and excessive sheltering, I tend to agree with Ted. Children are going to encounter violence, but the attitude of the parents should be instructive, not permissive.
David Gutsche, Minneapolis, USA
This could pose problems for the Brothers Grimm. And does the level of depression shown by Eeyore set a good example? Won't even go into the suffering of Wiley Coyote...
Al Scott, Puyallup, WA, USA
Dewan should be ashamed of himself and get a day job. Young boys aren't able to fully grasp what death is; that is why child soldiers are recruited by thugs in Africa and Latin America. Then they become desensitised as adults and go on to recruit children themselves. Ask anyone who has dealt with the fallout of these soldiers. I don't agree with Dewan's skewed theory, or the letters above. Agreed, most small boys will enact cowboys and shoot ups, but they soon grow out of it and hopefully in to caring and empathetic adults. Just take a look at British yoof culture in sink estates. A daily diet of bad behaviour is fed to youth via mobile phones, the internet, TV, books - gangs emulate what they see. To say that such things are not contributing to an increase in lawlessness is like saying that global warming is a myth. Wake up! And stop insulting Guardian readers.
Judy Diamond, Canberra, Australia
Stories for children have always been violent (have you checked any Andersen or Grimm?) Fairy tales and the like were warnings couched in terms that were easier for children to understand (it doesn't take a genius to work out what Little Red Riding Hood is really about). So the violence has always been there beneath the surface. The suggestion that images in children's stories should also contain violence is not only a natural one, but it is a long-overdue one. Let's face it, like it or not, young children are often violent, are drawn to violence, and draw violent images. If those images can be put to good use as part of moral tales - and if it also helps those children connect with those tales - then this is surely a good thing, not a bad thing.
Mark Watson, Doncaster, UK
What about girls? They don't always draw pictures of cute little animals. Granted, boys tend to draw these things more, but i think you will find that girls draw some pretty dark things. When i was little, I was obsessed with drawing houses on fire
Sarah, NYC (formerly UK)
I worked with young children both as a nanny and as a preschool assistant for roughly 8 years before moving on, and of all the boys (and girls) who drew violent or "disturbing" pictures, none of them have yet to go and actually blow anything up, shoot anyone, or throw cars off of buildings. I myself, even as a female, still have pictures I drew as a child that depict people with their heads off or blown into little bits. These drawings are not warning signs or showing any intent of the children towards violence, its just normal, active imaginations. When adults make a big deal out of the pictures is when there can be problems because then the children are taught to feel shame for what is natural.
Ruth, Jacksonville, USA
Quote from Dewan - "Boys' exploration of violence is often confused with the commercial products that exploit their interest in violence." What is this book, if not "a commercial product that exploits" this interest?
Christine Gibbs, Gainesville/Florida/USA
It is in our nature to be violent, it's just knowing when violence is useful and when it's not. If parents tell their kids about the kids the effects violence can have (when taken out of a comical sense) then it is less likely that they will hurt someone or something because it looked 'fun'. But, it is pointless to hide violence to kids as it is shown on the news, music videos, the internet etc. It is unfortunate, but child-hood innocence is and always will be ended abruptly.
Danny, Kent, UK
Mark Haddon states "When children watch Peter Pan we don't expect them to jump out of the window" When I was five years old, my best friend pushed me out of a first floor window with Pixie Dust (Talc) sprinkled on my head. It was only due to the very timely intervention of a neighbour that I'm here today. Not all children find it easy to distinguish between the story and reality.
This never used to be a problem, many fairy tales feature plenty of violence. It seems symptomatic of the feminisation of all aspects of child rearing. Boys are not allowed to be boys for some reason as this is not "nice", but that's the whole point for boys. They don't want to be nice all the time.
Michael Barnes, Milton Keynes, UK
Frankly, I'm more concerned that the message of every cartoon and television show aimed at an audience of pre-teen boys seems to be that violence is the solution to every problem and never, ever, results in anyone getting hurt. As a boy growing up in the 70's, our war comics and cowboys and Indians shows told us that violence is a last resort; to be faced with courage when it is necessary and unavoidable, because it will in every case result in injury or death. Perhaps that's why we all carried pocket knives but would have been appalled at the idea of using them in a fight.
R Churchill, West Sussex
I think Ted Dewan and Dr Thompson (not to mention Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake) are onto something with this. I drew vast, sprawling battle scenes of death and destruction throughout my childhood. I read books with pretty gruesome illustrations. I wrote stories that were even more graphic. I played video games where I machine-gunned wave after wave of aliens/monsters/Nazis. I'm now 28 years old, with a university degree, a respectable career, no criminal record, no violent tendencies and no mental health issues.
Richard, Lancaster, UK
Clearly there is nothing wrong with children drawing violent images, they know the difference between real and make believe. I often think that children are better at differentiating make believe and reality than adults are, adults being to wrapped up in the 'real' world with its 'dangers'.
Mark S, Leicester
I think we court disaster when we try to suppress a boys natural tendencies. I played endless commando and cowboy games along with 'dead man's fall' and others when I was a kid. Almost every game we played involved pretend explosions or massive explosive crashes of some sort or another. In Scouts we used knives and axes and didn't think anything of it. As an adult now I tend to hate violence victimization and war. We grow and learn the difference between real life trauma and harmless games.
I think Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake beat him to the pip.
S. Cruickshank, Glasgow
Finally, someone who is talking sense. I have 3 boys and they love to draw war scenes and other fight scenes. This doesn't mean they want to act this out. They enjoy riding their bikes, building dens and getting dirty. They once came home covered head to toe in mud after making mud slides in the woods. They even climb trees too! All a totally normal part of growing up. They have not been exposed to violence as I don't smack them as punishment. I think it is far worse for boys to feel like they have suppress their feelings. Better to act it out on a page than keep it locked in your head.
Wendy, Northamptonshire, UK
My five-year-old son is forever imagining mass scenes of destruction. When we play pirates, cowboys and indians, or an array of different super heroes, violence is key and that's the thrill for him as he knows its just play when he's chopped my head off for the umpteenth time or impaled me with an arrow. It's no coincidence his favourite cartoon is Tom and Jerry. I look forward to One True Bear we will love it.
Paul Price, Carmarthen Wales
Boys love to draw violent images, as it helps them cope with real-world issues. They like to draw sexually explicit images too. It's all part of growing up. It's adults who often can't cope with them
John Jones, London