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Violence in children's books

As readers of this blog know, I am an avid reader, but I will stop reading a book if it turns me off. One of my shut-the-book-in-the-middle-of-a-sentence triggers is gratuitous violence. And lately, that has been happening more and more with children’s books.



Here is the irony: I am a lifelong reader of comic books. Anyone who grows up reading comic books is bound to witness a whole lot of violence—that’s how superheros settle arguments, right? But there’s also an understanding: good guys don’t die; injuries eventually heal.* Even the bad guys who blow themselves up, more often than not will escape to be a bad guy in a later issue.

The point of the violence tends to be either comedy—having things backfire, literally, like on poor Wiley Coyote—or to give the bad guy his or her just desserts. When violence occurs to one of the good guys, it’s in defense of good guy things. It’s done by one of the bad guys, and we are there with the good guy when he or she licks the wounds, recovers and goes on to win the day.

But the books that I have been reading lately use violence against children as if this is the way the world works. Some evil dude or governmental organization beats or tortures kids and gets them to do what they want them to. The kids overcome this adversity, beat the crap out of the perpetrators of the violence (or not), and the brave kids win in the end, sort of.

But doesn’t it bother anyone that The Hunger Games is all about children killing children? The violence is so graphic and constant that I couldn’t bring myself to read the follow-up novels. I know that in the end, the government that engineers this horror will lose, but it doesn’t make the story any more palatable.

To be fair to Suzanne Collins, that’s not the only book. Little Brother didactically tells us about the dangers of losing one’s privacy after graphically torturing its main character for some 30 pages. I stopped reading Hacking Timbuktu on page 27 after the death of one kid by suicide in the first chapter, the battering of a young man by a would-be friend/colleague in the second, and after another kid gets sprayed with glass shards by a bad guy in the third.

Child with doll

Look around, you tell me. Kids are beat up all the time. They commit acts of violence. There are child soldiers in this world, for heaven's sakes.

Yes. That's all true. And especially in the case of child soldiers, it's a horror beyond measure. That's why making it normal, or glorifying children in these situations—even if it’s only one or two of them—makes me ill.  The damage to these children and society is so profound, it can take generations to recover. A sock-it-to-the-villains won't solve what's been done.

The books I'm talking about aren't Oliver Twist. Oliver lives in a world cruel to children, but also a world with redemption. Children might be thieves, beaten and manipulated, but they aren’t set upon each other to kill.

I am likely in the minority, of course. The books have a cachet, or they wouldn’t be so popular. And I don't believe that they should be yanked off the shelves--reading about violence is not the same as becoming violent. But is there a line where the violence becomes too much?

I line up with Nathan Bransford on this one--it’s a case-by-case decision. I do read books with violence in them, and even enjoy them if the violence is true to their story. But if the violence is gratuitous, I will snap it shut, even in the middle of a sentence.


* In the world of comic books series, if someone dies, just wait a year or two, and they’ll be brought back. Even Robin, who was killed off, returned in another guise. The exception has been the occasional female superhero or sidekick—but that’s fodder for another post.

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