Why children’s literature should deal with ‘gritty’ content

Why children’s literature should deal with ‘gritty’ content

What are ‘appropriate’ topics for children to read about?

As cultural gatekeepers, do publishers have a moral obligation to inform and educate children about ‘gritty’ topics via published children’s literature, or a moral obligation to protect their innocence?

Should we protect or educate our children about topics we as adults find subversive, problematic or difficult? The importance of gritty topics in children's literature.

While notions of what are and what aren’t appropriate topics for children have varied throughout history, in Western society, we actively promote the concept that children are fragile beings who require protection from real-world, gritty issues.

Animal activist and children’s author, Ruby Roth, however, argues that, ‘Kids are more competent and sturdy than we think. When we sugarcoat, oversimplify, or avoid truths, we hinder what our children are capable of, psychologically, spiritually, and morally’ (Vegan publishers 2014).

It is not that children are too young to learn the why’s and how’s of social change. They are capable of much more than our culture gives them credit for. We leave out the grittier details… because we collectively believe that children should be sheltered from the “adult” world’. This is often a resistance based on adult unwillingness rather than a child’s ability or willingness to learn (Vegan publishers 2014).

Ruby Roth writes children’s books that introduce the child reader to concepts of veganism and animal rights, and while parents have reacted negatively to her two books That’s why we don’t eat animals and Vegan is love, Roth maintains that children seem less concerned with the content of her books than the fact that the concepts in them are based on real life (Vegan publishers 2014). As Roth states,

There’s nothing in my book that you wouldn’t see in a deli case in a market, on cooking shows or on TV on myriad hunting and fishing shows… If it’s too scary to talk about, then it’s definitely too scary to eat (in Pearce 2012).

When put this way, Roth highlights the hypocrisy our society’s cultural traditions, in particular, the way in which we disguise or hide content from children to ‘protect’ them, but continue practicing the things we are ashamed of and don’t want our children to find out about.

Books have always been used as a way for parents to broach potentially controversial topics in a safe, non-threatening way. Click To Tweet

And yet, books have always been used as a way for parents to broach potentially controversial topics in a safe, non-threatening way. For example, it was via a picture book that my mother first broached the ‘birds and the bees’ discussion with me and my sisters when we were younger.

Other topics that have caused contention because they were deemed inappropriate for children’s literature in the past include race, sexuality, rage and drugs. While the content may make us, as adults, uncomfortable, these picture books can play a significant role in shaping the way the next generation think and relate to each other.

While certain content may make adults uncomfortable, picture books can play a significant role in shaping the way the next generation think and relate to each other. Click To Tweet

As cultural gatekeepers, then, it is the responsibility of publishers to balance the usual considerations (including quality, audience, marketability and potential sales revenue) with the responsibility of ensuring children’s literature deal with potentially contentious subjects continue to be published.

While ‘many topics that create debate do not produce the sales numbers to support the costs of production’ (2009, p.2), Lipman argues whether or not these books are successful ‘is not of much importance’ (2009, p 24). Lipman bases this statement on quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who argued that ‘every burned book enlightens the world’, and ‘every enlightened mind leads the world to a brighter and more promising future’ (quoted in Lipman 2009, p. 25).

Roth herself uses this theory to promote her work, arguing that the majority of children’s literature doesn’t take children’s intelligence or abilities seriously enough, and by sugarcoating the grittier issues for children, we ‘hinder our progress as a society’ (Vegan publishers 2014).

By sugarcoating gritty issues in children's books, we hinder our progress as a society. Click To Tweet

What are your thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear from you.


Backes, L 2001, ‘Writing about controversial subjects’, Children’s Book Insider, viewed 20 May 2014, <http://www.writing-world.com/children/controversy.shtml>.

Lipman, Jennifer Hope 2009, ‘Picture books on controversial issues: the opportunity to guide the children’s book publishing industry forward’, paper 13, Pace University, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, Master of Science in Publishing degree, 5 May, viewed 20 May 2014, <http://digitalcommons.pace.edu/dyson_mspublishing/13>.

Pearce, T 2012, ‘Is a new pro-vegan guide ‘the most disturbing children’s book’ ever?’, The Globe and Mail, 26 April, viewed 20 May 2014, <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/is-a-new-pro-vegan-guide-the-most-disturbing-childrens-book-ever/article4103690/>.

Sosa, C 2013, ‘Dr. Casey Taft launches Vegan Publishers, debuts ‘Dave loves chickens”, Huffington Post: The blog, 12 October, viewed 20 May 2014, <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-sosa/dr-casey-taft-launches-ve_b_4410536.html>.

Vegan publishers 2014, ‘Ruby Roth, harming children to protect them’, 7 May, viewed 15 May 2014, <http://www.veganpublishers.com/ruby-roth-harming-children-to-protect-them/>.

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