My nine-year-old daughter has read and watched Black Beauty about a dozen times, says Myke Bartlett in The Critic. On every occasion, I can tell from three rooms away “when poor Ginger has carked it”; when she recently read me the final line, “her voice cracked”. It reminds me of “how important melancholy is to children’s fiction”. Nowadays the idea of exposing kids to sadness “feels quite counter-cultural”. Popular titles boast endless optimism, like You Are a Champion, penned by footballer and campaigner Marcus Rashford, and Jess Sander’s You Are Enough: A little one’s guide to embracing self-love. But shielding children from any tinge of trauma denies them both the joy of literature and the life lessons it offers.
The books we remember “most acutely” in adulthood are those that “helped us to explore and understand our hurt”. That’s why works like The Velveteen Rabbit and Watership Down stay with us: they prepare us for the fact that life is “never perfect”. Reality doesn’t unfold like Disney films, where some kooky hero overcomes every problem. The outside world is “rife with plague, conflict and famine”, and for the coming generation, an “ability to tolerate melancholy” will be more important than ever. As Black Beauty realises at the end of his tale, “life is at once sad and beautiful”. Children deserve “books that reflect, rather than deny, that reality”.