Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It's a Dark, Dark World: Violence in Middle Grade by Dawn Lairamore

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.”

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?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: notanyron via photopin cc


  1. One of my teachers, Jane Resh Thomas, (who was Kate DiCamillo's mentor (so cool)) states that it's a sin to lie to children. So you can't pretend that everything is happy and rosy all the time, but you also can't pretend that everything is dark and horrible, because there are good things in life too.
    I think she's pretty much right.

  2. I always come back to Katerine Paterson's "stubborn seed of hope" quote. I posted about it here once before. It's much like Sarah mentions above:

  3. I write upper MG fiction and have debated this myself. One of my finished WIP's doesn't have any deaths, but it is scary/suspenseful. In my latest WIP, the father has died before the book begins. I've struggled to keep violence and death out of the novel as much as possible. But it does make for a great debate!

  4. Excellent post--much food for thought. I'll look out for THE HUMMING ROOM.

  5. I should probably jump into this conversation since the #1 criticism I've received to date for Frenzy is that it's too violent. And I have to confess, it's pretty violent for MG, but that's mainly due to the premise. I just couldn't imagine the scenario taking place in the real world without major casualties. I worked closely with my agent and editor to make sure I wasn't crossing the line into YA territory too often, although I can understand why some people think of it as YA even though you'll find it in the MG section of bookstores. I made some strategic choices when writing violent scenes, the most important of these was having the majority of the deaths take place "off-screen". Still, I recognize that Frenzy pushed the limits and might not be everyone's cup of tea. My next book isn't nearly as violent as the first, and I was deliberate about that. I don't want to get a reputation.

  6. I tend to skip more violent premises, not so much because violence bothers me (desensitization is wonderful, ain't it?) but because books with a certain amount of violence tend to fall into the cynic side of the scale.

    I'm on a certain site for aspiring writers, and it makes me wince whenever someone says dark and violent = realistic. Sure people die every day. And some of those are violent deaths. But that doesn't erase the birthday parties and anniversaries and holidays and things that make life worth living. Just because the main character lives a mostly in traumatized life doesn't mean it's unrealistic., hahaha. Sorry for the rant. My point is that violence doesn't automatically make a scene realistic or deep. If it works for the premise then it should be there, but don't add it in for shock value.

  7. Thanks for the great comments, everyone! I agree with so much of what you have to say. I was pretty sensitive and scared easily as a child, so I tend to be a little tentative (maybe too much so) about violence in middle grade. But I think I often forget that not all kids are as sensitive as I was and that some kids even enjoy being shocked/scared. It's an interesting debate on so many different levels!

  8. I think there are only a couple Disney films in 80+ years where there isn't a dead or missing or evil parent. Death and nightmare has been a part of children's literature since before there even was children's literature! Think of Grimms' or some stories from Italo Calvino's collection (including The Cloven Youth where a boy is cut in half by a witch and he seeks revenge on a king who tried to kill him) There is something about too sweet and tame about children's stories being less compelling. I have heard that it is good for kids to be challenged safely in a book so that, in life, they can cope with what comes.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!