Christmas is a time of jollity. Well, perhaps not entirely. The tradition of telling scary ghost stores round a blazing fire is certainly a familiar one; even pantomime can hint at shadows under all the glitter. And that’s exactly how it should be, says Geraldine McCaughrean.
It is generally held that children are born innocent and that’s how we like them. The world is puddled with evil though, and there’s a risk they will fall in. That’s certainly the thinking behind folk and fairy stories, where only goodness, cleverness and advance-warning can keep you safe. Grandma Chickenlegs will eat you if you don’t look sharp. Wolves lurk in the forest, charming, plausible and full of fell desires. The bears will be home soon.
The advance warning usually comes from a witch, a dying mother, a clever wife… and of course from the story itself. Each tale is an excursion into the dark wood of the wild world, hand-in-hand with a storyteller who will bring you safe home.
At least that’s how it used to be.
The great Bowdler ‘Education’ has decided that most fairy tales aren’t nice in the original, and need sanitising. Then, and only then, will they serve the true purpose for which all stories exist: learning phonemes, punctuation and what an adjective does.
By all means let’s have new stories free of blades, pigs, witches, religion, war, soldiers, guns, sex, the Devil, horror and Death. Just don’t let’s pretend that folk tales – the heritage of 500 generations – will survive political correctness. What’s left after Bowdlerising folklore is worthless. Salt without savour. White dust. The world is full of dark corners, as all children know. Pretending it isn’t, by whitewashing classroom fiction, is a patronising lie.
Luckily, outside the educational market, authors still tell old stories almost as they were meant to be told, publishers publish them …and children enjoy them.
Little Monacello appealed hugely to me, because he had never appeared in a storybook before. Naples holds him in high regard – shouldn’t every city have its own gremlin? – but he’s a superstition rather than a narrative hero He has a back story – abandoned on convent steps as a baby – but no ‘forward’ story. He has simply roamed the city for centuries, dispensing bad luck and granting wishes. Neapolitans blame him for accidents, but think he’s lucky, too; a flicker in the corner of the eye, fearful but worth a second look.
In Iceland, similarly, everyone wants the ‘Yule Lads’ to call, despite what they get up to in the Christmas larder.
Sadly, the cost of publication proved just too expensive for ragged little Monacello. He has had to find his happy ending off the page.
But he would still like to share it.
Penniless himself, he’s not charging. The final part of his trilogy, Monacello – Anything but Perfect – is published free, on line. It comes with love and a splash of the old darkness (as all folktales should). One for the Christmas fireside, perhaps, when the shadows jump about behind us.
Monacello, shaped like a question mark, what are you? An innocent in a naughty world? Mischief in the making? Just like you, me and the rest of us, then!
Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest book The Middle of Nowhere is published by Usborne, 978-1409522003, £9.99 hbk.
Monacello The Little Monk and The Wish-Bringer are published by Phoenix Yard Books.