How Essential is Violence in Children’s Literature?
Guest Post by SR Staley
For many novelists, particularly those writing action stories, violence is essential. A highly disruptive event, whether human or natural, creates conflict. Conflict is the essence of story.
But can conflict be created without violence in children’s literature? Probably not. Violence may well be essential to creating an engaging teen or young-adult story, particularly in the most popular genres of action, adventure, fantasy or science fiction.
As the author of action oriented young-adult novels, I step back everytime I draft a storyline to question whether violence or physical aggression is essential. I’ve increasingly realized its use isn’t gratuitous or frivolous. In fact, it may be essential to connect with many teen readers, boys and girls. I realized this when a teacher asked one of her middle-school students what he thought of my most recent novel, an action-oriented story centering on bullying with a martial-arts theme. He had read the book in just 24 hours. His response? “It just seemed really real.”
What’s extraordinary about this young reader’s comment is that he was responding to the events and emotions of the story, not the particulars of his actual life. While he may be one of the 25 percent of US middle school students who have been bullied, it’s highly unlikely he had ever been, like the characters in the book, severely beaten during lunch or trapped in an alley by a gang of thugs at gunpoint. He also was not, like the lead character, a martial artist. I also doubt he had ever faced the extreme test of loyalty that got the characters into that climatic alley confrontation in the first place. Nevertheless, the story was “real” to this eighth grade reader.
Why? I believe the story was “real” because it grappled with dramatic disruptions in the lives of today’s teens and the precarious ethical binds those conflicts create. Particularly in middle school, kids deal with factors that push and pull at their very sense of identity, whether torn loyalties between new kids and old friends, arguments with parents, or the fears of taking on new responsibilities. Sometimes these insecurities and tensions boil over into physical violence and emotional terrorization. Perhaps not surprisingly, bullying becomes much more frequent and widespread in middle school and can rise to the level of an art form in high school.
How do does the average teenager handle these dilemmas and sort through these ethical dramas? They don’t go to Mom and Dad. They rely on peers. They test the waters with their own feet. And surprisingly often they look for Truth in stories—legends, myths, novels, film, and increasingly, role playing video games.
Not surprisingly, heroic figures are prominent in children’s literature, almost all fighting some deep, violence-prone evil. Sometimes they are fantasy heroes like Harry Potter or Lucy (Chronicles of Narnia). Sometimes they are fictionalized heroes from history such as CS Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower. Sometimes, they are everyday heroes: the girl fighting to survive forced slavery, the teenager losing their mother to the ravages of terminal cancer, the boy resisting the pressure to join a gang, the kid dealing with mom who battles depression and drug addiction, or the overcoming a the random violence of nature such as flooding or a hurricane. Sometimes, these stories don’t include heroes at all, but kids trying to do what’s right and keep bad (or evil) things from happening at all, like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
Given the popularity of these books, grappling with highly destructive physical and emotional forces, the very essence of violence, is essential to children’s literature, and young-adult fiction in particular. More importantly, the readers—the kids—respond to them. I believe they respond to these themes because in a fundamental sense (not the details) these stories grapple with the emotional and physical forces that shape their lives on a daily basis. Engaging these destructive forces in story, legend, or myth actually builds the intellectual capacity for our kids to grapple with them more directly as they enter adulthood.
Thus, as authors, we could indeed move our stories to emphasize nonviolence, peace, and cooperation. But this would be a disservice to our readers; it asks them to be somewhere and something they are not. Our children need to take on evil and violence…and win.
Avoiding violence in our stories would deny a fundamental reality of the maturing child’s world and, in the long run, undermine their search for the more fundamental Truth of Peace. The latter world is the one in which the vast majority of adults live and thrive.