I grew up reading Tintin comics, and so did my husband and probably most of our generation. I was hesitant to buy the books for my children at first, knowing that there was a drunkard sea captain, opium dens, and racism typical of its time. But buy them I did, and they have become a familiar favourite, read and reread multiple times. Of course, we’ve had discussions about the problematic areas and the boys like to point out anywhere they see something that is no longer socially acceptable.
But I recently got to thinking about why the Tintin books, and other classic adventure books like the Hardy Boys series—where children are in danger, making big decisions without an adult, or where adults are the ones going on adventures—continue to be popular. I asked my boys what they thought. And they said that it’s the mixture of danger, adventure and humour that attracts them.
Would these books be published today? I’m not sure. Certainly Tintin wouldn’t be—Tintin himself isn’t a child and publishers strongly adhere to the unwritten rule that children’s books must have a child protagonist.
Children (actually, all of us) read to learn about ourselves. We read to experience danger, falling in love, adventure, mystery in a way that is safe. We read to live in the past while living in the present. If we don’t give children these things in their books, then why will they want to read? We need to give them fictional stories that are beyond the possibility of their real lives. Certainly there are some publishers publishing these types of stories, but are there enough?
Mr 13 is a big fan of law and politics. He can’t read enough about the two topics. So I was excited to find the Theodore Boone books by John Grisham. This is a (upper) middle-grade series about a teenaged boy who knows so much about law and crime that the experts come to him. A stretch of the imagination? Yes! Did Mr 13 enjoy them? Yes! He knew the books were a bit fantastical but that’s what he loved about them. He also loved the Lockwood & Co. series of books (and the show) about teenagers ghost “busters” for want of a better word. The characters in these books have a particular expertise but they’re also still teens, trying to figure out the world, muddling along, making mistakes and learning from them. And, most importantly, facing danger and making life-or-death decisions without the wisdom of an adult.
Tintin has endured for a reason, and I think it’s because they are daring adventures set in the real world. As authors, publishers and booksellers, let’s not over-sanitise children’s books. Let’s give kids danger and adventure and (without the racism, smoking and opium). They can take it. They want it. And they need it.