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The worry about dark themes in children’s and teen literaturÄ™ strikes me as absurdly americacentric. In Europe, minors are expected to be familiar with literary classics, no matter how dark and disturbing can they be. Below are some pieces studied by students aged 13-18 (same age as yound adult literature’s intended readers) in Polish schools.

Shakespeare’s plays: Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, + comedy of choice. Every single one includes graphic violence (Pound. Of. Flesh.) and onscreen deaths, more often than not by murder. Other themes include teen suicide, unapologetic bigotry and mental illness. (Readers’ age: 13-18)

Quo Vadis: graphic violence and death scenes, slavery apologia, graphic animal cruelty, forced double suicide, and unapologetic bigotry. (Readers’ age: 13-14)

The Sorrows of Young Werther: blatant suicide ideation. (Readers’ age: 16)

Crime and Punishment: graphic description of violent murder, sympathy towards the murderer. (Readers’ age: 17)

Master and Margarita: ho boy, where to start? Graphic violence, graphic death, extremely grotesque and disturbing imagery, blasphemous content, antiauthoritarian themes. (Readers’ age: 18)

The Name of The Rose: graphic descriptions of murder and violence, discussion of homosexuality, showing catholic church in bad light. (Readers’ age: 16)

These are stories teenagers are expected to read. You may argue they were not intended for teens. Fine. Here are the most popular writers of children’s and teen literature in Japan.

Osamu Tezuka has written some disturbing stories for mature readers, but even his mangas intended for children include graphic violence, cruelty, and deaths, cannibalism, child abuse, human trafficking, and bad endings, ranging from protagonists failing to achieve their goals to extinction of humanity.

Riyoko Ikeda: LGBT plots in almost every story, violence, on screen deaths, including deaths of children, attempted rape, implied rape, attempted murder, incest, toxic relationships.

Tomino Yoshiyuki: extreme violence, graphic death scenes including child characters and protagonists (with whole casts perishing in many cases), bad endings, usually the most extreme.

Naoko Takeuchi: graphic death scenes including child characters and protagonists, prevailing LGBT plots, incest, implied attempted rape, romances with disturbing implications, out of which relationship between 14-year old girls and 18-year old boys is the LEAST disturbing.

CLAMP. Even when we take into account only the works explicitly stated to be for children, we still encounter incest, homo/bisexuality, adult/minor relationships, multiple deaths, and body mutilation.

A striking example is Voltron. Young teens are getting crazy about the current reboot, but the original 1981 story provided, in its very first episode only:

-WWIII, with graphic scenes of civilian deaths (including a baby) and blatant statement that nuclear warfare killed all the life on the planet

-slaves forced to fight in gladiatorial games for the amusement of wealthy aliens, with extremely graphic violence including dismemberment

-unconsensual body modifications, turning sentient beings into beastly cyborgs

-cannibalism

-corpse vandalism

Highlights of later episodes include teen girls being sexually assaulted by only vaguely humanoid aliens and graphic deaths of characters ranging from the protagonists to pet companions. And, of course, a romance with a whole decade of age difference, but given that both characters are escaped slaves this is the least disturbing thing to happen to them.

It is only America that insists on sugarcoating the narration for children and teenagers. The fact that stories in America were not so dark in the past is only the result of religious groups straight up censoring the published content, using social pressure when censorship laws were abolished. Comics Code Authority prevented development of mature comics, when in Japan more intellectual, darker stories started appearing in the 50s and entered mainstream at the turn of the sixties and seventies. Meanwhile, in the US mature comics as a genre rather than single artists is a question of early 90s.

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