I have a problem when the words KILL, CHILD, ENTERTAINMENT, are uttered in the same sentence. I have a problem with those words uniting to form a story. I particularly have a problem with those words uniting to form a story for children to read. To learn from. To be entertained by.
I read a lot of kids literature, mainly for research purposes because I want to know ‘what’s out there’ while I’m writing my own kids trilogy (but also because it’s also fun to read!). As I’ve been reading through mounds of the gorgeous books I’ve been struck by something that is really beginning to bother me; why is it that so many of these incredible stories are permeated with death and violence? As you know, I have no problem with the ‘death conversation’ but I do have an issue with multiple, repetitive motifs of violence and violent death in children’s books.
I’ll admit it, yeah, it was the “Hunger Games” the made me really start thinking about this, but for the sake of this post, I won’t specifically refer to it, nor to any of the other books I’ve been upset by, because I simply want to focus on the concepts rather than ‘who wrote what’ at this stage. Although at some point it would be helpful to get books and author names out there for discussion.
Just to set the scene, here are some images I’ve randomly grabbed from a YA book I actually finished reading last night.
Over a couple of chapters I read about bullet holes causing a child’s chest to pump blood profusely, causing the dying teenager to make gurgling sounds. A child’s smashed head making the sound of a “dropped pumpkin”. Children trying to execute another child by hanging him. And a badly mangled child’s body that was so gruesome, none of the children could look at it.
-Wait, hang on a sec! None of the children could look at it? This author is planting the picture of a child’s body so destroyed in the minds of his young readers; an image so disgusting that he actually prevents his fictional characters from looking at it yet, by writing it in, deems that it is OK to let the imaginations of his young readers create the picture themselves? Hmmm.
So anyway, back to my point: We know it’s there, we may be reading it, our kids may be reading it or watching on TV, or at the cinema. The question is, what can we do about it? Well, I want to throw something ‘out there’ and I’d be interested to know what you think about it.
Here are the premises of the argument, step by step:
- i. We think it is wrong to harm children, both physically and emotionally.
ii. Children are impressionable and can be harmed not only by what they see, but also by what they read.
iii. Studies show violent video games and movies can impact negatively on children’s mental health and wellbeing.
iv. From this we can infer that reading about violent deaths, particularly when it concerns other children is potentially harmful to children, both in the short and long term.
- i. Authors and writers are in privileged position: They have the ability to alter the perceptions and minds of their readers through introducing concepts in story form. In effect, they hold a position of power.
ii. On the whole, we tend to agree that people who hold a position of power should not abuse it, and should use their power to protect others, not harm them. This is true particularly for the vulnerable, and particularly for children. This sentiment is part of human nature.
iii. Therefore it follows that if an Author writes stories that contain violent deaths – that we predict may impact negatively on their young audience – it is akin to an abuse of power. This is bad thing and should be avoided.
Conclusion: It is an Author’s prerogative to ‘do no harm’ to their young readers by avoiding the excessive depiction of violence and violent deaths in their story telling.
There are no legal obligations here, no issues of censorship. The crux of this argument lies within the moral conscience and perceived ethical duty of the Author.
So, jumbling all the premises together, I am basically arguing that Authors are in a position of power and influence, and this position can be abused by their writing stories that contain images of violence and violent deaths. This is because we can infer from other areas, that children are sensitive, impressionable and can be psychologically damaged by their exposure to violent images. Therefore, Authors have a moral duty to ensure they will do their best not to ‘harm’ their readers by their story telling.
BUT as with all moral arguments this purpose of this post is not to ‘prescribe’ what people should and shouldn’t be writing, instead it aims to get the topic out into the arena for discussion, and I hope, may prompt all kids writers out there (myself very much included) to think carefully about the need for particular scenes of violence and gruesome death in our kiddie writing.
Before you click out, will you brainstorm something with me?
Do you think we as writers have a duty to ‘do no harm’ to our young readers? And the biggest question of all: What counts as “excessive” violence in the context of kids lit?
If Authors have an ethical duty to protect their young readers from images that may be psychologically damaging, what about literary agents and publishing houses? For more on this read: The Problem with Adults choosing what Kids read. Or; The Desensitisation of the Gatekeepers and Time to Write the Violence out of Kid’s Books: Article for Generation Next