Frame of Reference

Introduction – The Dark Side of Children's Literature

David Beagley

"First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs".  (Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland, chapter 1)

The phrase 'The Dark Side' has rapidly assumed a powerful place in pop culture, thanks largely to James Earl Jones' rumbling, rasping voice tempting the innocent Luke Skywalker to evil in the Star Wars movies . As a symbol of threat and wrongness, it has few recent artistic equals.

But like any symbol, 'The Dark Side' is simply a vehicle that carries a meaning. It is not the meaning in itself. An oft-repeated symbol can be a convenient token that is assumed to provide a standard meaning - a rose on St Valentine's Day, an arrow pointing, dark robes flowing around a character. It need not be that, though - the rose has thorns, the arrow can mislead, and the robed character might simply be cold. The dark of Alice's fall down the rabbit-hole is simply an inability to see and understand - gradually surroundings come into view and familiar details appear.

But the ambiguity and misunderstanding of the apparent clues of familiar symbols is the staple of so much story. Hansel and Gretel associate gingerbread with warmth and goodness and are trapped by the witch, Snow White sees the apple as a kind, nutritious gift and is poisoned, and the dark, dour Aragorn turns out to be the true king. A symbol is not the real meaning; it is only a sign that needs reading.

Given the symbol of 'The Dark Side' in children's literature, our contributors this issue have taken these readings into some fascinating possibilities. Firstly, it must be remembered, 'Dark' is simply a visual representation, a colour, a shade. It need not always be a symbol! But when it is, 'Dark' so often is used to symbolise gloomy, threatening and wrong: Darth Vader's head-to-toe costume, Bulwer-Lytton's "it was a dark and stormy night", the black hat of a cowboy villain, film noir, dark days, dark deeds, fear of the dark. But 'Dark Side' also carries the logic that there must be an alternative, a concurrent 'Light Side' in balance, giving us all sorts of binary combinations like Yin and Yang, or Star Wars' The Force. It may be darkest before the dawn, but you cannot have a dawn without the dark preceding it. For there to be Good, there must also be Evil as the contrast.

Even the simple presumption that Light and Dark carry these postive and negative meanings shows how such symbols are used. In Alice's Academy, Naarah Sawer's post-colonial reading of the movie Bend it like Beckham considers the binary that assumes 'Dark' must be wrong and 'Light' right. Within the many binaries that structure that movie - old and young, parent and child, traditional and modern - the reading of Dark and Light in ethnic, cultural and social terms is key. Is the 'Light' entertainment of a teen/romantic/sport comedy able to question 'Dark' issues of power and right or wrong social norms? Is 'Light-ness' the desirable state and 'Dark-ness' to be rejected? Whether, indeed, there even is a 'Right' and a 'Wrong' in this story, represented by 'Dark' and 'Light', questions our assumptions of these symbols.

The Dark Within is the focus of Matthew Prickett's study of Pete Hautman's novel Godless in Emerging Voices. This haunting story of the misuse of religious impulses raises many issues of good and evil, selfish- and selfless-ness, control and trust. Again, binaries such as adult and child, truth and fiction, right and wrong form the framework of Prickett's interpretation of this novel's 'Dark'.

In more traditional terms, the eerie and scary physical darknesses created by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean is the arena for Danya David's analysis of 3 female heroes in her Picture Window article. The distortions and illusions of the sinister worlds of Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and MirrorMask challenge these intrepid characters and David explores their confrontation of the forms taken by 'The Dark'.

Young writer Monika Robbins reports on a very interesting study undertaken as a high school project in her "Perpetrator, Collaborator, Liberator: What Do We Tell the Kids?" in Jabberwocky. Originally a multi-lingual exercise in reading English, French and German children's texts, differences in approach to the Holocaust were traced, which Robbins relates to the three participant identities that could be assigned to the USA, Germany and France.

As always, you are most welcome to respond to any of the articles and interpretations presented by contributors to The Looking Glass. One of our major aims is to offer a forum for discussion of children's and young adult literature across the globe. Simply send your thoughts to

Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth's wonderful picture book Can't you sleep, Little Bear? deals so simply and subtly with a child's fear of the Dark. No matter how many lanterns Big Bear brings, Little Bear still knows that the dark is all around us. Understanding it is the key, as Big Bear finally realises. I hope this issues' offerings help open your eyes to some of the things that are out there, in The Dark!


David Beagley

Volume 12, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2008

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"Frame of Reference - Introduction"
© David Beagley, 2008.
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