London - They may have enchanted generations of young readers, but it seems some of our greatest children’s classics would be better off ranked in the library’s horror section instead.
A new list of the scariest kids’ books of all time celebrates tales such as Mary Poppins and Black Beauty for their spine-tingling qualities rather than their ability to warm young hearts.
According to writer and presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell, who compiled it for the Radio Times, the well-known stories appeal to children precisely because they hint at the world’s hidden darkness.
She said: “There is something I have never forgotten about children: that they sense darkness. However much you protect them (and I had a pretty protected childhood), they know the world is jagged and shadowy.
“Seeing this reflected in stories, transformed into magical versions through which they glimpse an underlying truth, they are captivated.”
Coren Mitchell topped her list with the original Mary Poppins series, the first of which was written by PL Travers in 1934.
She contrasted the darker tone of the books with the 1964 film adaptation, starring Julie Andrews.
She said: “Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins is a beautiful, smiling, singing-and-dancing miracle of a person; starchy, but essentially sweet-natured. The Mary Poppins of the books is a far darker character.
“She is prim, vain, chilly and full of unpredictable anger. She snaps and threatens; she uses her magic to create wondrous scenes, but also to mete out bleak and sinister punishments.”
Coren Mitchell singled out one Mary Poppins tale – in which one of the children is transported into the picture on a china bowl and told she can never escape – for particular praise.
She said: “In the 25 years since I first read that story, I have never read or seen another that has chilled me as much…Walt Disney clearly felt that this darkness, sadness and horror would not play well to a cinema audience. For the screen version it is wiped clean, replaced with flying kites and cartoon penguins.”
Suggesting children are secretly fascinated with death, Coren Mitchell added: “Her dark punishments are about danger and injustice: things that children sense deeply, even before they understand them.”
Perhaps a more obvious candidate for her list, her second choice was Grimm’s Fairy Tales, first published by the German Grimm brothers in 1812.
She said the classic stories – which include versions of the Pied Piper and Cindarella – depicted “the sadness and inevitability of growing up”, adding: “Filled with lonely children and wicked stepmothers (thought by psychoanalytic critics to represent little girls’ fears of alienation from their mothers), these are shockingly dark for anyone familiar with the happy-ending Disney versions”.
The final three books on the list were 1904 classic The Phoenix and The Carpet by E Nesbit, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.
Black Beauty – which recounts the tale of a horse that is cruelly mistreated by a series of owner – is one of the best-selling books of all time, with over 50 million copies sold.
Coren Mitchell said: “This is probably the most heartbreakingly nostalgic novel ever written, for children or adults.”
Although none of the children’s books in her list were published before 1950, she singled out the bestselling Harry Potter series, by JK Rowling, as a modern-day scary classic.
She said: “It was…about a small, unhappy, lonely boy who suffered from the cruelty of fate (and adults). Alongside a fantastical world of midnight flights and talking creatures, the books told of loss, fear, threat and death.”
FIVE SCARIEST CHILDREN'S BOOKS
1. Mary Poppins by PL Travers.
‘The Mary Poppins series of novels, by PL Travers, is filled with such sinister imagery. There is the character of Mrs Corry, for example, who mentally abuses her troubled daughters and eats her own fingers.’
2. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, by the Brothers Grimm.
‘These are shockingly dark for anyone familiar with the happy-ending Disney versions.’
3. The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E Nesbit
‘E Nesbit’s stories (also including The Railway Children and Five Children and It) always involve children separated from their parents, never quite understanding why.’
4. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
‘Probably the most heartbreakingly nostalgic novel ever written, for children or adults.’
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
‘A religious allegory, the death of Jesus is told in a country of snow, lions, English children and poisoned Turkish delight.’ - Daily Mail