Today’s Shelf Awareness includes a post by Sheryl Cotleur from the fantastic bookstore Book Passage about the uneasiness she felt when reading the final installment in the incredibly popular Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. From the post:
I am an adult book buyer, but our children’s buyer convinced me to read the three Suzanne Collins books. I have just finished Hunger Games series, Mockingjay. I admit they are compelling and one reads steadily to learn what happens next. They are even inventive and the characters are fascinating people, yet the more I read, the more uneasy I became until I could barely get through to the end of the third book. Why, I wonder, is no one (that I am aware of) talking about how violent these books are? [Ed: emphasis mine. The post goes on to describe some of the violent scenes in Mockingjay, which I won’t quote out of spoiler concerns, but which you should click through to read if you’re curious.]
Well, let’s talk about it.
Some of my absolute favorite children’s books of all time are violent — beloved characters dying, murder committed, danger around every corner. And certainly going all the way back to Aesop’s Fables and the Brothers Grimm, instilling morality in children by way of scaring the bejeezus out of them is a very old tradition.
But is there a line? If so, where’s it at? How much is too much?
Speaking personally, ever since a high school classmate of mine was murdered I’ve tended to be more squeamish about violence in books and movies than the average American, but that’s not to say I don’t ever enjoy violent stories provided the violence is true to the story and not gratuitous. It’s all case-by-case for me.
What about you?
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First off, parental (and child) judgment has to of course be taken into account. If you have a kid that's torturing small animals, probably best not to feed his appetite with torture porn. If you have a very sensitive kid, probably best not to give them A Clockwork Orange. It always depends on the kid, and the material.
I don't understand why it's so surprising, Nathan, that people will say violence is a part of life. First of all, some children who endure violence could take serious comfort in realizing there are other children (characters) dealing with what they are dealing with – that they are not alone, they are not abnormal, they are not doomed. I know that was true for me (and guess what, I wrote about more violence too). (Other children with violence in their lives may take comfort in non-violent books, and that is also fine.) And quite frankly, children who have never witnessed any violence ought not to be spared depictions of violence, mostly so that they realize that not everyone is as privileged as they are, and that violence does happen in the world.
Also agree with Laura and Horserider. If you as an American don't think you live in a violent world, that is something you are actively choosing to believe despite clear evidence to the contrary. The U.S. has been at war for the past 9 years, people. Without getting too political here (hopefully), young Americans need to learn that violence has consequences, that real people can be hurt by other real people's actions, and that those wounds can last.
It's not about "inoculating you against violence." It's actually about sensitizing yourself to the fact that violence affects a lot of people around the world, and probably even people in your neighborhood, and that violence can be hurtful.
Again, it's a judgment call. But if somebody gets punched in your story, you know, you'd better show the blood. In real life, people are not cartoons that can just be "redrawn."
Nathan Bransford says
Do you believe people need to be sensitized to violence? I don't know, it seems the other way around – that we occasionally need to be shown the real life consequences of violence because stories have so thoroughly skewed our perspectives of violence.
And honestly, I bristle at this idea that I don't recognize how violent the world is. I've never lived in a war torn region or a horrifically violent neighborhood (though my hometown was plenty violent), and yeah, thank goodness for that. But in modern America, the extent to which we have to deal with violence on a day in day out basis… I mean, we should be thankful we can walk down the street everyday, not acting as if violence is a constant part of our everyday existence. For most of us it's not.
Nathan Bransford says
Oh – but yeah, I completely agree with you that we should be aware that we're in a country at war. I'm just not sure how violence in stories dovetails with that.
"that we occasionally need to be shown the real life consequences of violence because stories have so thoroughly skewed our perspectives of violence."
I totally and completely agree with this (although I would probably take out the "occasionally"). I fear that the alternative to what might be considered "torture porn" (gratuitous violence) is too often "no violence." That kind of absolutism isn't helpful, I think. I must admit that I come down on the side of showing violence and all its nasty consequences. And the reason I say it's necessary is because I have known people whose parents tried to protect them from all depictions of violence, believe it or not. And that didn't work out too well. And of course, all the people who have only seen consequence-less cartoon violence.
Yes, for most of "us" (as Americans?) it's not. But we might still vote for policies that promote violence, we might still work within the defense industry… and I am concerned about the awareness that Americans have of the reality of violence both in America and beyond it. Not saying that you think this way, but I think too often people dismiss victims of violence as yet another inevitable statistic, or something that happens elsewhere to other people, or something they just don't want to think about, etc. That's not an attitude that encourages change or compassion.
Maybe there is a difference between irresponsible/cartoon violence and responsible/realistic violence. Do gruesomely-written books about serial killers really inform anyone about the reality of violence? I don't know, but I doubt most of them do. If I were a parent, anyway, those are the lines along which I would make a judgment call.
Nathan Bransford says
Very interesting points.
Disgruntled Bear says
I have a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, so I know what the literature says about exposure to violence for kids.
Basically, cartoonish stuff (e.g., Road Runner) doesn't have much of an impact. The more realistic the violence is, the more it affects kids. If the violence has consequences (for example, the violent person ends up in prison for life), it's actually not harmful. However, gratuitous violence, in which characters can kill or hurt others with impunity, can both increase childrens' fears of the world as well as make them more violent themselves. The Hunger Games series shows the consequences of violence and war–brutally. If anything, I suspect it could work to increase teenagers' compassion and sense of moral responsibility.
Jeff S Fischer says
This is obviously a great forum post, but I think it might lose it's steam if it's kicked down to forum on your blog, Nathan. So, I gotta write, combining several recent posts from this blog, that I was recently pooped out of a university, and at my age, I'm closer to 50 than 40, I had mixed emotions about the wisdom of smartness. The only thing that is different about me after getting smart is I now have the language to explain. On the flip side of the language to explain is the very real ability to explain reasons for just about anything (again with the Plato Aristotle.) Humans, as far as I can tell, are ever evolving and war as we know it, much bigger than personal dispute, is a complete and total contrivance. There is no reason to train our children for it. Yes, death is a fact of life, but most people, believe it or not, die peacefully. We should, if we are writing about instruction manuals, instill in our children an abhorrence for hate and the violence that rides shotgun with hate. Call it fear – hate is based on fear. But!! more importantly we should instill in our children, if it's the only resource you have, an awe of life, and the knowledge that life is very good, almost all of the time. Literally, almost ALL of the time. Anyway, inherit the wind.
I loved these books as do the adolescent students that I teach. Excellent prose, beautiful dynamic characters. Exciting plot and conflict that speaks to the reader in a modern world torn by war and propaganda.
Why do we want to censor what our kids read? I wonder why people jump on the bandwagon to criticize instead of use it as an opportunity to talk about the truths of humanity, including but not limited to violence.
Which brings a point of irony: Lord of the Flies – a very violent book – is heralded as a classic. Farenheit 451 is violent. The Giver. The list goes on . . .
I totally agree. Lord of the Flies was scary. Some of the children are killed by the other children. But the thing is that it wasn't the violence that scared me.
It was the fact that the author very clearly showed the dark side of the human soul. That some part of me recognised that darkness.
Reading the book and knowing that every person sitting next to me is capable of the same things. That scared me.
Could it be perhaps that it's not really the violence per se that scares us, but rather recognising that dark bit in our sould that makes us just as capable of the same levels of attrocities?
As for the comments about violence not being part of certain people's worlds. I'm glad for you. Really I am.
But saying that we should cut violence out of books because you haven't heard or seen or tasted or felt the fear associated with violence is a tad short sighted.
As I said before, I live in South Africa. I used to live in a part of the country that was scary violent. Aged seventeen I moved to the Western Cape, which, although not perfect seems like heaven in comparison. The only people I know that have been murdered are ones that I left in the Free State.
Fear becomes pervasive. It rules you in ways you can't begin to imagine until one day you are removed for it. It comes in big things lie knowing how to shoot. In small things like always feeling watched, even when you are in your own home.
I don't wish growing up like that on anyone. But guess what. At least half the people committing those attrocities in South Africa are either functionally illiterate due to our pathetic education system, or don't have money to buy books. So…
Still… Books with violence didn't bother me. Books with gratuitous violence did. Violence inspires violence, but has reading about it been proven to do so?
Violence is neither a good or a bad thing in a book. It's a plot devise. You can use it well to stimulate the desired reader reaction to it, or you don't.
Yes. Sometimes violence is market driven. True…. So if it bothers you, decrease the amound of demand one person at a time by not buying the book. Even if the demand doesn't decrease significantly, your child would have gone without reading it.
In all honesty, I think it is grossly unfair that people try to convince writers what they may or may not write.
We function as chroniclers of our times. We're supposed to see what the world would prefer not to look at and make them pay attention.
By placing lines on what a writer is allowed to write is no better that governments throwing journalists in jail for printing something the government didn't want them to.
Who do we think we are to attempt to censor what someone else writes?
Janiel Miller says
I very much feel that I have a responsibility to make my children aware of what they will/may be facing in this world – especially in terms of violence and human sexuality. But I think it is my job to do so without either traumatizing them or desensitizing them – both of which, in my opinion – are distinct possibilities in today's steroidified media world.
The line we are talking about here, I believe, is the one between having violence in your book (movie, what-have-you) in order to be true to your characters, setting, and story, and having so much graphic description of the violence that the reader feels traumatized in some degree by it. Or eventually becomes numb to it. What is the point of creating either of these feelings? What purpose will they serve?
Awareness? Yes. Bludgeoning the reader? No. Parental involvement? Absolutely. Censorship? From me, not the government.
Being aware of the impact of what I write (Assuming, you know, that anyone other than my husband and crit group get to read it)? Paramount.
Susan Kaye Quinn says
This is a question close to my heart, as I'm one of those parents that believes children should be sheltered from inappropriate media violence/sexualization (visual and on the page) when they are young. The images and ideas that children are exposed to helps to form the people they are, and I think parents have a right and responsibility to monitor that media diet and not let all the brutalities of the world come crashing in, before children are capable of dealing with it.
All that being said, I've read all three books and am in awe of the story Suzanne Collins has created. But this is a teen book (especially Mockingjay, where the violence is extreme), marketed to teens, and I think teens (at least 13+) are usually emotionally mature enough to understand the horrors depicted and deal with it. And the book has some tremendous opportunities for discussions about moral decision making.
But it would be a mistake (IMHO) to give this to children younger than that (although each parent has to decide what's best for their kids). I'm going to be carrying those mental images around for a while, and I'm an adult. Little kids don't need to have that in their heads.
Susan Kaye Quinn says
p.s. there's also the issue of what happens when Hunger Games gets translated to the big screen, as Collins alludes to her in acknowledgements.
Cyndy Aleo says
After reading all the comments, I asked my daughter once again if she "got it" when reading the violence in Mockingjay. Without so much as a moment's hesitation, she answered "Violence isn't the answer for the government. And you never get over feeling bad about killing someone; Katniss thought that when talking to Gale."
Dang. And she's 10. I think kids understand way more than we give them credit for. We're so busy trying to bubble wrap them and protect them from all the bad things that I sometimes think that they ARE missing lessons they could (and should) be learning.
As others have already noted, we were reading books like Lord of the Flies, and none of us in the comments (at least I hope) have gone on to become sociopaths, so I have confidence that the generation growing up reading the Hunger Games is learning the same lessons my daughter did.
Should we bar a 12 year old from reading Macbeth? What about Greek mythology? what about the Bible?
We must take into account that psychologically, everything that we take in through reading or seeing effects us. The question is how you were raised to deal with these inputs and do you have an informative adult to help the young mind?
My YA Novel (9th and above) has many historical subjects and I do NOT dilute History. If I want to show the 'bad guy' I will show why he is a bad guy. Did you know that the Mongols used to boil their victims live at times to harvest fat to be used for fuel in their fire cannonballs? Nasty.
My hero overcomes a bad guy and I describe the killing in detail. Sounds, smells, texture, etc. I want the reader to imagine how horrible it is to kill even an evil person. I also describe the horrible feeling that comes along with the triumph. A loss of innocence in humanity, our hero is the winner but also disillusioned.
Personally, my biggest problem is with sexual abuse/torture that is almost always directed at the female population. Its a huge problem in our society as a whole.
I’m now a grandparent and as far as I can see a lot of lines have been crossed already in fiction, the media and especially in TV and the movies. What scared me as a child – The Coral Island, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Quatermass – would not affect most kids of similar age now. Today, violence is more graphic, even in comicbooks. The argument goes if it’s shown to be ‘more real’ it will have greater impact and warn youngsters of the consequences of violence. I don’t know; the jury’s still out on that one. Wounds don’t heal completely, scar tissue remains. I was bullied at school, but I survived and I was lucky, it did me no lasting harm as I fought against it. Books will never be scarier than real life for those unfortunate enough to engage with violence in the real world; for the rest, it’s vicarious and possibly salutary. This subject has been with us at least since comicbooks were brought into the Comics Code and still there are no answers. Parents must do the best they can in the circumstances, as usual.
Heather B. Moore says
Most of the actual violence happens off-stage in the series. Perhaps that's why we can digest it more. The premise of the plot is very morbid, but it's a good warning to us all.
Might I mention that in the young adult section, books often to have a note that says something like "14 and up", or something similar. When I was a young teenager (now I am nearing my twenties), my parents allowed me to choose the books I wanted to read. Some of the books I chose were pretty graphic, but most people I know would describe me as nonviolent. I think that if the parent instills in their children the ideas of what it means to be kind to others, the young teen is smart enough to figure out that fiction is just that, and that just because one of the characters does something violent, doesn't mean they should do it too. Adults give young teenagers far too little credit. Any person I've known who has been violent, has something else in their life that produced them. Unless the book itself promotes violence, I do not see it teaching kids violent behaviors.
Interesting discussion, but I think we have to look at author intent. What is Suzanne Collins doing here? Is she succeeding in doing it? I just blogged about Mockingjay, and more specifically, violence in Mockingjay, but here are my basic thoughts.
The Hunger Games books are not perfect, but they are ambitious and impressive. And the extreme violence is needed, I believe, for her to tell her story. The main characters all fall somewhere on the spectrum of comfort/willingness and discomfort with the violence their world requires. Snow, Coin, Haymitch, Gale, Katniss, Peeta: they each must use violence, but each is damaged by it (either through their own murders or through the psychological harm it inflicts). Peeta is the voice of compassionate reason. He states in Mockingjay, "[killing] costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people? It costs everything you are."
This message, I think, is the soul of the Hunger Games. The violence has real repercussions, even for the survivors, even for the pragmatists. Will I let my children read this when they are older? Absolutely. Will we talk long and hard about the book? You bet.
This is exactly the thing I've been looking for but I think I'm entering the conversation too late. I'm worrying about a novel I'm working on where a child has just been very violent. I don't really know how it happened, she just got away from me and now I feel it's integral to her character. She hasn't killed anyone but she's done some damage. Would it be appropriate to leave this in if her reaction afterwards is suitably horrified? She finds herself struggling to come to terms with what she's done? Or should I take it out and have it be implied?