This is a beautiful post from Brainpickings on The Importance of Being Scared and what that means in children’s literature. To sum up: we cannot shelter children from frightening topics nor should we. As Wislawa Szymborska says [emphasis is mine]:
Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions […] Hans Christian Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.
And that sums it up brilliantly. We cannot allow ourselves (or our children) to become intellectually and emotionally stunted by avoiding certain topics simply because they are frightening. We see this so often in kidlit where, under the guise of sheltering them, children are not allowed to explore themes that are (unfortunately) very relevant to them at a very young age (e.g. drugs, sex, abuse, guns, suicide, etc).
Creating literature for children that addresses these topics with empathy, respect and sensitivity gives children a safe haven in which to explore these issues. It also gives them a language and vocabulary they can use to properly express their emotions and thoughts on these troubling issues. Perhaps most importantly, however, it enables them to become educated and education is the best form of empowerment in the face of most any challenge.
Neil Gaiman puts it another, equally compelling, way:
If you are protected from dark things, then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.
And they inevitably do…