I think there's a tendency among adults to want to protect children, and not allow them near anything painful, especially if it's a movie or book that's too big for them. But kids are innately drawn to morbid things. I was about eleven when "Silence of the Lambs" came out, and in the years that followed I begged my mother to let me watch it (she finally let me watch it, and I think it gave her a few gray hairs).
But on the opposite end, kids get really frustrated when things are too simplistic and G-rated for them, as if a group of 45-year-old marketers is sitting in a room, trying to figure out how to get those kids to buy sneakers without actually interviewing any of them. Have you ever seen a kid make fun of a character in a math word problem or foreign language exercise? It's because those exercises are so outdated and written by people out of touch with kids.
Kids are drawn to morbid things, for what reason, I don't know, but they also have more awareness of the world than most adults think. They usually swear and know a lot about the birds and the bees before sex ed.
And they also experience real pain. They are the victims of injustice--parents who may take out their stress on them, parents who may push them into more activities than they want, teachers who consciously or unconsciously play favorites, and a schoolyard like the Wild West, where the friends you have one day may not be your friends the next.
That's why I was thinking about great children's stories. The thing these authors have in common is they trust kids with dangerous or painful scenarios, and they also empower their characters. Think about Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," where a small child sails across an ocean alone and is greeted by savage monsters two or three times bigger than he. And they're scary-looking! Think about "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," the TV special, in which all Charlie Brown gets from adults in his trick-or-treat bag is rocks. It's funny, but it's also a feeling most kids can relate to at some point in their lives.
Finally, the reason I wrote this blog is because I just realized how great J.K. Rowling is. I reread "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" recently, and some of the chapters in that book are scary, even for adults. Harry Potter and his friends nearly get killed several times, and in the beginning of the book, you find out that Harry's parents were murdered when he was a baby. I didn't even know you could talk about death and murder in a children's story, but Rowling has proved that you can.
I think about a scene when Harry and his friends have to play a game of life-sized chess in order to stop an evil sorcerer, and they have to act as three of the pieces. They soon realize that when a piece gets taken, the opposing piece will knock it unconscious. Harry's friend Ron realizes he has to sacrifice himself, so he steps forward, and the white queen whacks him across the head with a stone arm, and he crumples to the ground, unconscious. It's a shocking image, a ten or eleven-year old boy lying unconscious on the ground.
And of course, Rowling greatly empowers her characters. Harry goes from being an unloved orphan, locked in a room under the stairs by his aunt and uncle, to a boy who saves the day at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The tale is so hypnotizing that even adults have read the whole series.