Violent Death in Kid’s Books: Authors “should” aim to Do No Harm to Young Readers

Violence in Kid's entertainment on screen isn't new...but what about in kids books?

Violence in Kid’s entertainment on screen isn’t new…but what about in kids books?Photo Source

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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 asexcessive” 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

  5 comments for “Violent Death in Kid’s Books: Authors “should” aim to Do No Harm to Young Readers

  1. James
    March 15, 2013 at 12:25 am

    I agree with you completely – it gives children nightmares and can psychogically harm them. But if authors have a moral obligation then surely this must also apply to cartoons and childrens films. Saying that – sometimes reading something and imagining it can be more disturbing than actually seeing it. I agree this should be raised in the public forum.

  2. March 15, 2013 at 1:49 am

    A fascinating topic that deserves discussion. The hardest part will be deciding how much violence is too much. I would hate to see YA and MG literature as sterilized as the cartoons my preschoolers watch, where they even avoid the reality of violence in nature by saying that the prey is “afraid” of the predator and leaving it at that. I would agree, though, that the recent trend of extreme violence in teen literature is disturbing.

  3. March 20, 2013 at 4:31 am

    Hey Naomi. I completely agree that this is a discussion worth having and I’ll try to come at it from a slightly different angle.

    I don’t think we can simply look at individual scenes in isolation and say “that’s too violent” without examining the context of the book and the extent to which the author helps their young readers to develop the tools they need (language, emotional experience and philosophical framework) to learn and gain greater understanding from the violent scenes. I think this is why censorship can be so controversial, because often the best writing, that helps children grow into healthy, well adjusted adults, needs to use violence (or sex or death or racism or other mature themes) to confront young readers with extreme moral issues and invoke real emotional responses.

    I too read a lot of young adult fiction and I think that its popularity stems primarily from its central theme: “The Coming of Age Story”. This is the thread that ties all YA literature together and it typically requires the main characters to be shocked out of childhood naivety and idealistic worldview by a sharp confrontation with the “Real World”. The core question running through many YA novels is whether the protagonist is able to hold onto their ideals in the face of a complex, morally ambiguous, and yes, often violent world. YA novels tackle big moral themes because their target audiences (adolescents and teenagers) are grappling with these exact same questions. YA authors don’t hold their punches either, because they know that these same readers also tend to demand exciting, entertaining stories. This is another reason for the popularity of YA books with adult readers, but it also puts a lot of pressure on authors to escalate the drama and tension, and graphic violence is one of the easiest ways to achieve it.

    Good authors write entertaining books that also help young minds navigate the moral ambiguities the characters are facing. Lazy authors just write entertaining books.

    Yes, violence and death are real life issues that children and young adults need to confront but simply racking up the body count in ever more gruesome and graphic ways is, to my mind, lazy and irresponsible writing. Such writing exploits the market for horror, action and drama but assumes no responsibility for its consequences. Such authors ask children to respond to complex and disturbing images and situations with an adult’s maturity, but neglect to give them the basic tools they need to form a sophisticated understanding of violence and death.

    If an author chooses to write for children and young adults, and if that author chooses to include violent scenes and death, then that author must also take responsibility for these choices by giving children the language and tools they need to cope with associated emotions like grief, anger, denial, depression, loss, etc. A handy rule of thumb is to look at whether the author genuinely attempts to show the characters’ reactions to each death, and whether they respond in a realistic way. Readers will tend to take their emotional cues from the main characters and so violence and death that is quipped over and quickly forgotten will invoke a similarly desensitisation in the reader. However, when a character’s emotions are expressed the reader feels them too and can share the grieving process, for example.

    For writers considering adding violence to their own scenes, can you achieve the same results (emotional response, plot development, dramatic tension) without resorting to graphic violence? And if you do need to add violence you must then ask, what emotions do your characters have to deal with (like fear, grief, anger, denial, depression, loss, etc.) when confronted with violence and death? And how do they cope with them when they have to consider both (or many) sides of a conflict?

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