Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Do You Feel About Violence in Kids’ Lit?

There has been so much in the news lately about the power of words. Twenty people were shot – killed or injured – in Arizona last Saturday by a young man who may or may not have been goaded into action by words he heard in our current political climate. This tragedy occurred at a political event called “Congress on the Corner” where the local congresswoman was seeking opinions and needs from her constituents. Instead of an animated community discussion, a bloodbath occurred.
Just so you know…I’m not a very politically minded person. I’m not going to go into a rant about inflammatory political pundits or the inappropriateness of graphics used by some politicians, along with hot-button phrases and fishy logic. No… You can come to your own opinions and read many, many other peoples’ opinions online.
But as I heard about the Arizona tragedy, I was sitting in my family room with a book in my hand. (Yep. Book in hand. Go figure.) It is called The Ask and The Answer – the second novel in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series. I’ve read the first two in the series, and I can honestly say they are just about the most violent YA books I’ve come across so far. And when I say violent, I mean bloody, cruel, scary violence. People are shot, stabbed, tortured, branded, and more. The coincidence of watching real life violence unfold in Arizona while reading a violent story has stuck with me this week.
Now…before you squinch up your face and decide to judge the book or the author (not that any Carpe Keyboard readers would judge that quickly, but still…) …I absolutely must tell you these are also some of the absolutely most gripping YA stories I’ve read in a long time. I’m addicted. I white-knuckled my way through hundreds of pages in a single weekend. I ignored my family, left the dog to whine at the back door, and decided a shower was optional when this book was still unfinished in my hands.
But I’m an adult. I’m an adult who was raised with guns in my house. Hunting and guns were part of my family’s culture and still hold prominent places in our family stories and history.  I’ve taken history classes and read newspapers for decades. I’ve studied literature and poetry and religion. So my fascination with these books carries with it a lifetime of experiences and knowledge. My mind dodged around thoughts of Nazi Germany, concentration camps, military conflicts the world over, Henry V, Battlestar Galactica, Stormtroopers (real and fictional), slavery in the early United States, and every wartime movie I’ve ever seen as I gobbled up The Ask and The Answer.
Would a 12 year old kid have this same body of knowledge to pull from when he reads Mr. Ness’s books? I don’t know…
Book One in the Chaos
Walking Series
Here’s the thing you must know: Mr. Ness created a story that absolutely is more powerful and meaningful because of the violence experienced by the main characters. This is a story that will make any reader shiver in fear, not of monsters or vampires or ghosts – but fear of and for humanity. Fear of the universal potential for people to be cruel and seek power over others.
My opinion: Mr. Ness’s story well-written. Fascinating. Gripping. And violent. And I can’t wait to get my hands on the third and last installment of Chaos Walking.
Do I want my 12 year old to read this without talking to someone about it? Probably not yet. But could it give kids an opening to talk about that universal potential for people to be cruel and seek power over others? Could it give kids a platform to think or talk about power and violence and humanity? I think so.
Will books like this – or movies or video games – “teach” kids to act out violently against others? I don’t believe so. I’ve heard convincing arguments on both sides of the fence, though.
Have you ever read a kids book that was more violent than you expected? How did you feel about it? Do you think there is a place for graphic violence in books marketed toward kids? I’d love to hear your opinions on this.
Oh…and keep an eye out for my upcoming Carpe Keyboard interview with Patrick Ness, along with a giveaway of his books in February!


  1. It's a tricky issue right because violence is in the world and should be portrayed in stories if at least to critique it or portray the world accurately (depending on context) but do I want my kid - who doesn't have that historical, political context, or perhaps that wherewithal to distinguish fact from fiction or dreams from reality - to read it? Well, I can at least say that I'd rather have him read it than watch it on TV. But maybe that's a cop out. I think this is a really good reason that parents should know what their kids are reading/watching. Not like we're the CIA and have to comb through everything they are exposed to - but so that we're around, paying attention, there if they need to ask questions, and also setting an example by our own actions and words about what we think is right and not right. Such a tricky issue tho...

  2. Hi Karen. I loved this post. I have been wresting with this issue as well (we probably all have). I have just discovered the world of graphic novels (comics) and have begun advocating for them in the classroom (in addition to classic prose novels). There are some GREAT kids graphic novels but there is often violence. The thing is, they offer so much - especially on issues of social cognition, inference, creative thinking and visual literacy.

    But, you raise some great points and so clearly.

    Thanks, hope to 'chat' again soon.

    All the best,