Imagine pitching the following story, aimed at the pre-teen market, to a publisher:
A girl and her two brothers, left alone while their parents are at a party, are enticed from their home and taken to a faraway island by an amoral and egocentric stranger. No sooner do they arrive than the stranger’s accomplice attempts to have the girl murdered by enticing another child to shoot her.
The girl survives, and she and her brothers join the community there - a community entirely made up of abandoned children (of whom the stranger is the leader), surviving without adult assistance. After many adventures the girl and her brothers decide to return home, but before they can do so the entire community is captured by a band of criminals.
The criminals attempt to murder the children, but the tables are turned, and the children slaughter the entire gang, stabbing most of them to death one by one. The girl and her brothers return home.
If all this isn’t enough to put the publisher off, add in the descriptions of the parents at home, lamenting the loss of their children, and follow it with the eventual death of the kind and beautiful mother. And, just to confuse them, throw in a fairy or two.
Now: is any publishing house in their right mind, in the present day and age, going to publish such a story?
As you might have gathered, I’ve just finished reading Peter Pan to my kids. My goodness, but it’s dark.
Not unremittingly - far from it. There’s a lot of humour: some of it poignant, some of it merely well-observed. But there are enough threads of darkness running through it to terrify any modern editor looking for a potential best-seller for the young reader.
Not only that, but the language is not always easy. On a single page (263, if you’re interested) we encounter a bountiful selection of words including: industrious, essence, commonplace, pathetic, infinitely, fount, unconscious, bulwarks, miasma, prone, mechanically, unfathomable, tabernacle, bellied, elation, gait, sombre, profoundly, dejected.
What’s my point? I’m not entirely sure; except perhaps to say that it’s easy to set rules for what will and will not do in children’s fiction - and that in doing so, you may miss out on a classic.