I heard about this on my local talk radio station a couple of weeks ago, and many of you might have seen the report in your local news as well: a new study published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal found that children’s animated films contained more death than films aimed at adults, with major characters over two-and-half times more likely to die in an animated film, and close to three times more likely to be murdered. These results led Professor Ian Colman and the other authors of the study to conclude that rather than being “innocuous,” animated films were “rife with on-screen death and murder.”
Here’s the study: http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7184
In a way, the results of this study were kind of surprising to me, but in a way, they’re really not. Violence in stories aimed at children is nothing new. Anyone who has read an original version of a Brothers Grimm tale knows it’s far from being all sweetness and light. Remember one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cutting off her toes so that her foot would fit into the glass slipper, and the other cutting off her heel, blood dripping from their mutilated feet? Yeah, nice family-friendly image there. It’s also quite interesting how much stories like these get rewritten and sanitized in subsequent retellings for more modern and dare we say, more conscientious audiences.
So, I suppose an important question for current writers of children’s stories is where do you draw the line? Violence in children’s stories seems to be a reality, so what’s the best way to handle it? And how much is too much?
One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that while YA books seem to be getting darker and darker, with protagonists even finding themselves in positions where they are forced to kill or be killed (think Hunger Games or Dualed), middle-grade books seem not to have fallen into such violent territory, at least not yet. It seems to me that middle-grade writers are fairly good about keeping plots age-appropriate. In fact, I personally find that most of the middle-grade books I read these days seem no more violent than the middle-grade books I read when I was a kid. And when harsher realities such as death and violence do enter the story, they are usually mentioned rather than shown, with most of the violence occurring off-screen.
Right now, I’m reading The Humming Room by Ellen Potter, in which the twelve-year-old protagonist finds herself orphaned after her drug dealer parents are murdered in a deal gone wrong. It’s actually not as dark a book as that beginning would make it out to be, and I’m enjoying it immensely. What struck me is how tastefully this darker aspect of a violent murder is handled: the violence is described but never seen, the reader enters the story after it has occurred and the brutality of the incident has largely passed, and the main character remembers it only in the vague memory of gunshots, and with more a sense of forlornness rather than terror. It certainly doesn’t ever feel too graphic or traumatic, at least to my sensibilities, and it’s never dwelled on for long.
And, of course, there are those who would argue that violence has its place even in children’s literature. After all, if books sugarcoated everything and presented only a highly sanitized version of the world, this would rob kid readers of opportunities to prepare themselves for the harsher aspects of the real world. If they can see a protagonist in a book coping with negativity or trauma in a healthy way, these folks would argue, isn’t that a good thing?
What do you think of violence in middle grade? Does it have a place in books for tween readers? What’s the best way to handle it?