When evaluating violence in children’s literature, four questions need to be considered:
1. Is the violence necessary to the story? Is it integral to the development of plot, characters, setting, and theme?
If it’s not necessary, then it’s gratuitous—and gratuitous violence is highly detrimental to children and teens. Countless studies show how gratuitous violence desensitizes kids to the plight of the victims, and rather than debasing those who commit the violence, it glorifies them, making the violence seem desirable.
Hollywood filmmakers are the worst offenders at this, piling on gratuitous violence in movies and TV shows, using it to create an adrenaline rush in viewers. Game developers likewise amp up the violence to “hook” players on their games.
Not all violence is created equal, however. Historic violence is not the same as gratuitous violence. History lessons tend to report events, even those filled with violent acts, without endorsing or glorifying the violence. And history lessons often emphasize the impact on the victims in a sympathetic light.
A story set in a violent period needs to be realistic in order to be believable, but there are devices an author can use to lessen the intensity and impact of any violence mentioned in the story.
“Julie Hahnke’s books explore thought-provoking themes in realistic historic settings that are appropriate and valuable for upper elementary and middle grade readers. They’re required reading for my Child and Adolescent Literature course and I encourage teachers to consider them for classroom use.”
– Lynn Chandler, Ed. D., Professor of Elementary Education, Franklin Pierce University, Rindge, NH
2. If violence or death is integral to a story, is it age appropriate?
It’s natural to want to shield younger children from all violence, death, and suffering, but in fact careful exposure is healthy for a child’s development, provided it doesn’t threaten a child’s sense of safety and well-being.
Noted children’s psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote in the 1970’s that the darker violence in many children’s fairytales (for example, Brothers Grimm, Aesop, and Hans Christian Anderson) is important for a child’s psychological growth because of the violence, and not despite it. He argued that even the youngest of children recognize that the violence and death in these tales is symbolic and isn’t seen as a direct threat. These fairytales provide a social context for children who may have to deal with change and loss in their own lives, and they teach that with resourcefulness children can overcome difficult situations.
I led a book club discussion last June with a group of fourth grade boys who’d read The Grey Ghost. I was speaking about some of the book’s themes, one of which is struggling with sudden loss and grief. The boys shifted the conversation and wanted to talk about the unexpected` death of one of their elementary teachers that spring. They told me that they understood how my main character, Angus, struggled with his grief. As we spoke I could see how they had used Angus’ coping with his loss to guide their own struggle to process their grief.
It’s important to protect children from inappropriate violence, but careful exposure to some violence and death is necessary, as well, to prepare them for the realities of the world in which they live.
3. What degree of shocking violence and disturbing detail is in the story?
While filmmakers and game developers may feel, “if a little violence is good, a lot is better!” the opposite is, in fact, true. An author should only include what’s absolutely required, and should soften its shock value where possible. The plot twists and irony should drive a story’s suspense, while minimizing the shock and horror impact of violent or “dark” scenes. There are several ways a story can do this.
Witnessing a violent act is much more intense than hearing about one. A book should use narrative to describe violence that’s happened “off stage” rather than dragging the reader through the violence “on stage” in real time. If violence is necessary, the adage, “tell, don’t show!” is best.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are epic struggles between good and evil and are both outstanding literary works (The Hobbit was written for children while Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings for an adult audience). They’re filled with violence, but an epic struggle between good and evil would have to be. Yet, they’re not overly violent tales, because the worst of the violence is “off stage” and the reader doesn’t know the specifics. This is the next way we can soften the impact of violence.
Implication, rather than a detailed description, makes a scene far less intense and shocking. In The Grey Ghost, Angus watches the Campbell soldier’s burn down his clansmen’s cottages. But the text never states that the houses burn to the ground. Because the book’s illustrations help tell the story, we sometimes see it in a picture (it’s implied, but we don’t read the details.) And in one case we know the soldiers applied their torches, but further specifics of the burning houses are omitted. To add, “Angus heard the shrieks and cries of those within the cottage,” would be an example of disturbing detail that should be avoided. It’s not necessary and doesn’t further the scene. [NOTE – that sentence is not in the story!]
Humor is the best way to lighten a “dark” scene. Famed children’s author, Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, among others) was asked about the violence and dark scenes in his children’s books. He responded, “I do include some violence in my books, but I always undercut it with humor. It’s never straight violence and it’s never meant to horrify. ” He went on to say, “You can have as disgusting an end for children or do something as weird as you like, so long as there’s a whopping great laugh with it.” (Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature. Ed. Mark West, 1988, pp.109-114)
In The Grey Ghost, the animal characters—particularly Tethera, an ever-hungry pine marten—keep humor always near the surface. In the chapter where Angus is upset that the Campbell soldiers hung his Chief’s head from the castle gate, and Angus attempts to recover the head (a head that he only views from a distance, and which is never described), the chapter title is, “Getting a Head.” Humor can keep the violence palatable and disarm its shock value (as long as it doesn’t endorse the violence or laugh at the victims), because it moves the reader along in the story and doesn’t dwell on the nasty details.
4. How do the story’s characters respond to the violence?
While these four questions need to be considered in aggregate, the characters’ responses to any violence is the most important criteria for evaluating violence in a story. If I wrote a story on bullying, for example, my story is neither good nor bad until we know how the characters react to the bullying. If the characters abhor the bully and the reader feels sorry for the victims and their experience, it could be a valuable story for kids. But if, rather, the bully gets off on his power in a heady rush, and is aggrandized for preying on the weak, then the story is horribly inappropriate for kids and teens. The characters’ reactions tell all.
In viewing Angus’ reactions, we have: Angus struggles with the loss of his home and family; he’s shocked when the Campbell soldiers disregard the custom of ransoming prisoners and they kill them outright; he worries for the souls of the victims and he prays for them so they’ll find their way to God; he wishes to protect the survivors who’ve suffered and he’s proud to see them act honorably in the face of the Campbells’ treachery; he mourns the loss of his Chief and wants to properly honor him; he’s appalled that while his Chief and the Chief’s heir—Angus’ cousin—always placed the needs of their clan members above all else, the Campbell Chief has a casual disregard for his men’s lives.
“The context of the soldiers’ actions in The Grey Ghost if far more important than the actions themselves. Author Julie Hahnke juxtaposes Clan Campbell’s unprovoked violence, against young Angus’ reactions to that violence, to deliver the deeper themes of the story. In a historical setting that’s accurate, while understating the violence of the period, she couldn’t deliver the book’s themes without it.
“The story, through Angus’ perspective, consistently condemns the soldiers’ actions, creates empathy for the pain and grief of the survivors, explores Angus’ confusion over how a loving God could allow such terrible things to happen, and questions the difference between justice and revenge.
“The Grey Ghost delivers a far stronger condemnation of violence, than any advocacy for it. I feel it’s age appropriate for use in 4th and 5th grade classrooms.”
– Deb Reinemann, Ed. D., Curriculum Director, Chickering Elementary School, Dover, MA
It’s necessary and responsible to limit children’s and teen’s exposure to gratuitous violence, but not all violence in a story is harmful. If the violence is integral to the story, if it’s age appropriate and presented with minimal shock value, and most importantly, if the story’s characters judge the violence to be wrong and show sympathy for the victims, then the story will not be detrimental to kids.
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