Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Stories We Tell Children

I write YA. I read YA. YA stories are some of the best stories written--and are increasingly popular among adults.

I can't help but notice, though, that some of the YA stories out there are more brutal and violent than many of the "adult" stories I read. One of my favorite adult authors writes books with quite a bit of blood and death, where the rather amoral heroines easily justify the killing of innocents--in a way that has me nodding along. Sure, sure. They had to die. Horrible, but necessary. (I would not recommend those books to children.) Other adult authors also deal with death, but it hardly ever seems to leave a mark, unless the death was a spouse or a child. (I'm sure I'm forgetting some adult books that mirror what I talk about below, but that's not really the point.)

Then we have Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Harry Potter, and Incarceron, among others. In these stories we not only see brutality and the death of innocents, but it happens to people we know and love. No one is safe. If an adult author were to kill off such beloved characters, it seems there'd be a backlash, and a corresponding fall in readership. Instead, these books are wildly popular.

I'm not getting on a high horse here--my own WIP has a measure of violence and I plan a bit of shocking death, as well, but I just finished Incarceron and had to wonder: what stories are we telling our children? Is it good for them to see the world as uncertain and violent, with betrayal around every corner? More importantly, perhaps: why do they like these stories so much?

I have a theatre background and one thing that is always stressed in the theatre is the beneficial effect of catharsis. So playwrights, directors, and actors will put their characters through horrible experiences, hoping the audience will be able to feel the same emotions... and thus be more capable of dealing with their own mini-dramas in real life. I think, rather sadly, that this is what is happening in YA fiction.

When people die in YA stories, it leaves a mark on the surviving characters. Very few simply pass into death unnoticed, with the MC unscarred. The worlds these characters inhabit are exceptionally uncertain, with immense problems and betrayals lurking around every corner. Our world today is also uncertain, and our children deal with big-bad issues that can literally kill them... but that often are portayed as fun, harmless, and cool. Some are scarred by brushing against these issues, some are killed, but, I think, all are aware of the battle.

One of my favorite quotes lately is “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” — G.K. Chesterton (Thanks again, Shea.) In each of the horribly violent YA series (well, I'm taking a bit on faith, since not all of them are complete), the big-bad is conquered in the end. It is horrible, and there are awful consequences to be borne, but success, of a sort, is possible. Almost inevitable.

There's a lot of hope, hidden in the horror, and I think that our teens prefer to know and accept the truth that they will carry scars--so long as they also get to slay the dragon.

What do you think?


  1. Interesting post and certainly something to think about.
    You may have noticed that I'm reluctant to really torture my characters sometimes. A sprained ankle? Is that the worst I've got? Really?

  2. I so hear you! I planned such awful things for my WIP... then totally chickened out. Almost everyone I was going to kill will survive the book just fine--there aren't even any really good maimings!

  3. Often times a story has a say in what is written. I have a friend who has often told me that in one of his stories he kept trying to kill a character. He tried many different ways and none of them worked. So, the character lived. And in doing further writing for those stories he realized why he couldn't kill that character.

    That being said, books have been and always will be about dramatic events. And dramatic events involve things most of us hope to never experience. A book without such things would not be intersting to read. So in my opinion, the question is not should we tell our children or write for them disturbing things, but how do we write about them.

    And this can be seen in how the author writes. Writers of Adult fiction tend to write what they consider more realistic or gruesome fiction (blood, action, guts, adults situations). But fiction written for younger audiences tends to spare those graphic details.

    I personally prefer the second approach when I read or write because it leaves more for the imagination. Besides, when I read I like to escape from the real world, not be presented a realistic picture of something I don't want to experience.

    All in all, an interesting thing to think about with respect to ones own writing.

  4. Thanks, mortense--good points. I, personally, am hoping that my plan to kill off my MC's best friend was shelved for the good of the story... and not just because I got squeamish. :)

    About graphic details: in the Maze Runner series by James Dashner, teenage boys and girls are run through a series of trials that start to resemble a meat-grinder. Creatures and lightning and crazies and horrible, head-eating metallic blobs. They die screaming and bloody. The Hunger Games, also, didn't seem to spare the gruesome details, though Harry Potter did, to some extent.

    I think most YA authors do haze over the gory details, but I think there's a developing trend toward sharing them, too. I'm not sure which approach is "better," but the popularity of these books seems to suggest that the teens who have made them so popular like their violence vivid, with a side of brutality.

    Is this just overdoing the natural urge to throw off the shelter of adults, or are they so desensitized they don't notice the blood? Is their world so awful that they need this level of catharsis?

  5. It seems like many book authors are trying to keep moving the sensationalism bar farther and farther like the movie industry does. But that leads to the question, are those the only things that sell. And the answer to that is no.

    Look at the popular YA style novels of Septimus Heap, Fablehaven, or the 39 Clues. Those books show that a good story that is not gory will sell because it is a good story, and because parents don't have to worry about what they kids will read when they read such books.

    One can also look at how well those stories that try to push the limits are written, how sophisticated their plots are, and so forth. In the end I personally think that the sensational literature of our time will disappear because that is all it will turn into. Sensation without substance.

  6. For myself, I enjoy all kinds--from the sensationalistic, gory books that rake you over the coals and make you consider the meaning of death to the lighter, even fluffy fare that merely entertains. I think both ends of the spectrum can serve a cathartic purpose.

    I just wonder (in a pop-psych kind of way, I guess) why our teens are getting so much out of the gory books. In my opinion they aren't just gore--Hunger Games was haunting because of how Katniss dealt with death, not because of the deaths she witnessed. So why do kids feel they need to know so much about death?

    Or am I overthinking this? Are they reading them for the blood?

  7. I think they are reading them because their friends are reading them. And for some, that is all that they have been exposed to.

    In fact, I was reading an article yesterday about the next Disney princes movie "Tangled" will be its last princess movie for awhile. There reasons are that they want to attract more boys to see their films and that adults are taking their kids to see more mature content.

    So I guess that brings another reason. They are reading them because it is similar to what they have grown up with.

    I don't think you are over thinking it. But since you did not grow up in that type of environment, it is natural for you not to want to write in that fashion even if you enjoy reading about it.

    And as a writer, I don't want to write about such things because I do not want to have to internalize those things enough to write about them.