Violence in Children's Literature

Nathan Bransford recently posted the beginnings of a dialogue about Mockingjay and violence in children’s literature in response to Sheryl Cotleur’s article questioning the violence which appeared in Shelf Awareness.

These are my thoughts.

Yes, Mockingjay is violent - even moreso than its predecessors, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. It’s cringeworthy at times.

Yes it's a kid's book (Young Adult, 12 and up).

But I wouldn't want it any other way.

There are two issues here: the violence and the reading age.

For one thing, the violence isn’t gratuitous. Mockingjay takes place in the center of a revolution. In a society more violent than our own (let's hope).

I'm sure anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan remembers the horrific and graphic violence portrayed when the soldiers storm Omaha beach at Normandy. I can still visualize the moment when one soldier is standing and looking for something. He seems almost dazed and aimless - until you realize he's looking for his arm.  

As much as Suzanne Collins’ dystopian society in The Hunger Games trilogy is obviously fiction - and not real, there are obvious parallels we can draw here.  War is real.  And it is violent.  And horrific.  When you read about it, you’re supposed to cringe.
In Mockingjay (or any of the books in the trilogy), Suzanne Collins isn’t glorifying war or violence. In fact she weaves the emotional and psychological effects of the violence seamlessly into the lives of every character.

(Highlight the text to read the next paragraph).
You can make the argument that not a single character left alive at the end of Mockingjay has a “happy ending.” Katniss and Peeta are both so psychologically scarred and damaged, that even together, their relationship is a matter of survival - of needing someone there to help keep the nightmares at bay or to answer “real or not real.”  Haymitch has lapsed from sobriety back into alcoholism and a life where he is utterly alone.  Even Gale who’s off with his fancy job in District 2, must live with the fact that he doesn’t know whether he is responsible for Prim’s death.  

There is absolutely nothing romanticized about the violence in Mockingjay, and quite frankly without the graphic descriptions and the way they can - and should - make you cringe, it runs the risk of dulling the emotional impact and the severity of what’s happening, that no matter the outcome, there are no winners in war.

The second issue is of course that unlike Saving Private Ryan, Suzanne Collins’ series is not written for an adult audience (though any adult who hasn’t read the books, should).  It’s written for teens - or “young adults.”

And here we run into the same underlying issues that have been censoring writers like Ellen Hopkins for the past several years.  (And she’s in good company: when I was teaching, each year I fought arguments from parents who wanted to censor Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, JD Salinger, Harper Lee, and Arthur Miller for one reason or another).

The truth of it is, we as adults need to wake up.  The youth of today is living in a different world than we were even just 15, 10, or even 5 years ago.  

Movie franchises like Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, etc are all laden with violence on screen, and kids younger than the majority of those reading Mockingjay are watching them - actually visually seeing the violence played out on screen.  

We’ve all heard the arguments about video games and the possibly desensitizing violence there.  And the swearing and violent undertones in rap music or whatever else.

But the youth of today is growing up with knowledge - about everything - literally at their fingertips.  All they have to do is log onto a computer and the internet can access them anything.  (And don’t delude yourself when it comes to those firewalls.  Smart kids find ways around them and tell everyone else. When I was teaching, the only people the firewalls kept from accessing facebook were the teachers.)

Kids today are just different, and they’re not going to read about Scout and Jem Finch and be moved the same way some of us adults were.  There’s a reason that most of the high school kids don’t actually read.  (Reading cliff notes or asking the one kid in class who does their reading doesn’t count, obviously. I will wage money, that even in my Honors classes, less than 10% of my students actually read all of the required reading in its entirety.)  Even The Catcher in the Rye has a disconnect to the majority of the youth of today.  They think Holden’s whiny, and they don’t get what the Big Deal is.

They want to read about sex, drugs, and violence because that’s the world they live in right now.  Those are the topics that will move them and open up dialogue and allow them to think.  And I for one would rather give them Crank or Beautiful and allow them to realize they’re not alone or experience the contents behind the safety of the written word than send them into the world unprepared.

As for the violence specifically in Mockingjay.  The same reasoning applies.  There’s something to be said for having kids read about Panem’s dystopian society for more than just entertainment - but because hopefully some version of that won’t be our future.  

I have a former student in the front lines of Afghanistan. He’s eighteen years old and two years ago when he was a junior in my classroom, he and his best friend taught me how to play Pokemon during lunch because the two of them played and talked Pokemon all the time.  

That’s reality. (Just read War by Sebastian Junger.  It’s enough to make you feel ancient at twenty-nine.)

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Sajidah said...

I agree.

And, while admitting to be a HG newbie (I've only read the first book), I'd like to add to your point: some of the violence depicted in the book IS part of our world today, and not just part of some far-off dystopian society. Unfortunately, many children do exist in harrowing conditions of survival and dependency on their own skills.

I was grateful to Ms. Collins for being almost merciless in her description of the violence...and hoped as readers, we could make the connect that, sadly, it does exist now as well.

Otherwise, it does become something we "relish" in from afar.

Thanks for this post.

Melissa (i swim for oceans) said...

I couldn't agree more. A coworker of mine actually saw my review for Mockingjay and said they couldn't believe I loved it. Yes, it's violent, and bloody, and quite horrific, but I think it's fitting.

So many people hated how the series played out because it didn't have the sugary-sweet romance or super fluffy ending, but I do think that at times, the violence is necessary to convey the reality of the situation. Not everything ends up all hunky-dory.

Great post :)

veela-valoom said...

I think the violence is necessary in Mockingjay.

Toning violence down does nobody any favors. Violence is dirty and horrific, and if you pretend its not what message are you sending?

Suzanne Collins does not glorify violence. She shows how it destorys Katniss & Peeta and leaves them scarred for life. I think the way Collins uses in violence in books may be the best I've ever read. There is no glory, there is no feeling of being righteous, there is only destruction.

Unknown said...

Well said. And ALL very good books. I did think it was a bit violent, but I don't think the point would have come across had it not been!

Brandi Guthrie said...


Unknown said...

Our media sexualize middle graders and infantalize teens by treating them like babies that can't do anything for themselves. I consider it just one of the dislocations in our social fabric.

Romance, Rumours and Rogues said...

Well said, Suzie.

It's a far different world kids are growing up in these days.

Their knowledge of the world at an early age astounds me.

I'd rather they read violence than watch it on a screen any day because it means they're reading.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

"There’s something to be said for having kids read about Panem’s dystopian society for more than just entertainment - but because hopefully some version of that won’t be our future."
Hear! Hear! I totally agree with this especially, and the rest of your post.

Graphic video games and super- villain movies have made many youth immune to violence. The Hunger Games series can make them more aware of its consequences.

Lindsay said...

I agree. The Hunger Games makes people aware of how destructive violence can be, both to the group and to the individual.

The world isn't a perfect, happy, place. Kids grow up now older than their years, and most see violence, drugs and the millions of other 'unsuitable' things every day.

Well done to the authors who handle these topics in such sensitive, thought provoking ways. :)

Anonymous said...

I read the Hunger Games to my 11 year old son. During the story, he would ask me questions about our society and choices it makes as a whole. Those questions led to more questions about what the individual can do to help society define it's choices. Because of the conversation generated, my 11 year old signed up to be a volunteer at the S.P.C.A.

We both cried together, out loud, when Rue died. Watching him feel the sorrow for someone he had never met, was proof to me that he understood completely WHY the violence was there, or better yet, the result of it, and even better still, how sad it can end.

The Hunger Games trilogy was not about violence or death, but about a disillusioned society trying to correct it's corrupt ways.

When my son asked me, "What would you do to fix something as broken as Panem?" I knew the Hunger Games was going to be a memory we would both have forever. If an 11 year old boy can reason through it and be a better person after, why not the naysayer reviewers?

Lisa Desrochers said...

Well said.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Agreed. Nathalie, thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

"They want to read about sex, drugs, and violence because that’s the world they live in right now. Those are the topics that will move them and open up dialogue and allow them to think."

Let me start off by saying that I'm not opposed to the violence in the Hunger Games series. (It's true, I haven't yet taken the plunge to read the second and third books, but that's only because I enjoyed the first one so much that I'm afraid of being disappointed by what comes after.)

And I do agree that sex, drugs, and violence are part of the world now, and have been, and will be.

I think, though, that there are other conversations that we can have with teenagers as well. I think those can be conversations about gentleness and respect and tenderness and optimism. I don't think we need to race to the bottom to meet with the youth there. With what we write and the stories we tell, we can share other truths about how to interact as people--truths about healthy relationships, not just broken ones.

I'm not trying to say that the two things are exclusive. Both can sit in the same novel, and the novel can be better for it. But there are many stories for many people, and while sex, drugs, and violence speak to some readers, I know there are others who want stories about ways things can be different.

There are many ways to inspire people to think.

Kaitlin Ward said...

Awesome post! I've seen a lot of comments around the internet about the violence in Mockingjay perhaps being a little over the top, and I disagree, for pretty much the exact reasons you state in this post.

Ellen Hopkins said...

Illustrating relationships for kids is important (re: sex and love). When I was in high school (admittedly a long time ago), kids were having sex (and yes, that includes me). However, for most of us, it evolved from what we believed was love. I talk to so many kids today who don't seem to understand that sex should evolve from love. I do hope the relationships I build in my books illustrates that love adds a necessary element that "just sex" can never have.

As for the drug use, I would hope every reader, young or older, understands that my books are cautionary tales. However, I must paint an honest picture, or my readers will call me on it. Many readers have said, "They always tell us drugs are bad, but your books have shown me WHY." They're looking for the "why."

Jennifer Hoffine said...

"However, I must paint an honest picture, or my readers will call me on it."
And Bravo, Ellen Hopkins, for doing it so well!

Teens don't listen to lectures, and they're not influenced by stories painted in rose-colored hues, they connect to stories that feel real to them.

suzie townsend said...

Andrew, I didn't mean to imply all books for teens should be about sex, drugs, and violence, nor did I mean to imply that all teens want to read that. I think you're totally right that healthy relationships and optimism and honesty also have a place in children's literature. And I think you're right that the same novel can illustrate healthy and broken relationships - they're not mutually exclusive.

And (I should have more explicitly mentioned this) none of the books I mentioned above are glorifying the sex, drugs, or violence they contain. Often by reading those books, many readers can learn from them as cautionary tales - like what Ellen Hopkins said in her comment her books are showing teens "WHY" drugs are bad rather than just telling them.

Truly I think what's most important for any book for kids and teens is that the book is REAL.

Claire Dawn said...

The thing I don't get is that people seem to be fine with their kids watching Gossip Girl on tv, but complain about sex in books. Some are fine with video games, but are on about violence in books.

Seriously, if people want kids to avoid sex, violence, cursing, etc, they should just home-school them and never let them see the outside world. And then they'll be so fantastically mal-adjusted that they can just hide in the house all their lives!

PS, I'm a teacher. I think if parents had half a clue what goes on in schools, they'd realise that YA is incredibly tame.

Nichole Giles said...

I have to agree with what you've said here. I had a family member ask (after discovering my sixteen-year-old son has read HG and a few other gritty series works) if I knew how violent they are.

*laughs* I was the one who told him to read them because he'd love them. My son is one of the select few students who does read, a lot. He loves it, he learns from it, and he and I discuss what he's read regularly because we share the same interests in books.

I love knowing that he takes something away from what he reads, something bigger than entertainment. He learns more about life and being human and reality. Reading these books reaches him in ways nothing else could.

I can't help but wonder if the parents who create banning movements are readers, and if they've actually read the books they're so against allowing others to read. We cannot hide the world from our children any more than we can hide our children from the world. The best possible thing we can do for them is educate them and give them the ability to think for themselves. Reading is part of that education.

Thanks for voicing these thoughts.