Many picturebooks deal with what are often considered “adult” themes, but, in fact, are cross-generational topics of interest to readers of all ages. The preceding chapters have already provided a number of noteworthy examples. More mature subject matter is not new to children’s literature. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales, the staples of the children’s nursery, are full of dark and disturbing themes, events, and images. In her paintings for Nursery Rhymes (1990), Paula Rego demonstrates clearly that these beloved works are actually colourful stories about madness, cruelty, and sex. Nursery rhymes commented upon society and politics; they were a means of disseminating important news and messages. Although there is a great deal of debate surrounding the origins and historical meanings of nursery rhymes, “Ring Around the Rosy” (“Ring a Ring o’ Roses”) is claimed to be about the deadly Bubonic Plague, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” has been linked to the slave trade, and “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is purported to be about Bloody Mary and instruments of torture. Even without looking beyond the literal meaning of the words, “Hush-a-Bye, Baby” has a baby and its cradle falling out of a tree. Maurice Sendak borrows two nursery rhymes as the text of We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (1993) to spread an important
message among contemporary readers. The tales of the Brothers Grimm, which for a time were relegated to the children’s library, contain a repertoire of shocking and terrifying stories: Donkeyskin is a victim of incest, Hansel and Gretel of child abandonment and attempted cannibalism, and Snow White of attempted murder, while Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by birds and Snow White’s stepmother dances in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead. The moral of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” makes it clear that the little girl who is eaten, after undressing and climbing into bed with a wolf, is a victim of rape. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales also contain dark themes: an ugly duckling is the victim of discrimination and intolerance, a little girl has to have her red-shoed dancing feet cut off by an axe, and a poor little match girl freezes to death in the street. In Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter, a thumb-sucking boy has his thumbs cut off with giant scissors, a girl is burned to death playing with matches, a child who refuses to eat his soup wastes away and dies, and a boy who ventures out in a storm is carried off presumably to his death. Alice has many terrifying adventures in Wonderland, and both Alice books are overshadowed by repeated references to death, as is Peter Pan. All these stories, with their grim, often gruesome themes, have been deemed appropriate fare for children.