Be told, as the Scots say: this is going to be one of those think-y sort of blog posts wherein I share something that's swimming through the brainpan. It has no conclusion, and no... um... point, really. Just, some thoughts:
Bit of a weird story: Because I'm a writer, I get asked almost every time I'm in a social situation my two cents on someone's writing. This past week, an acquaintance asked me about doing a picture book series illustrating nursery rhymes, wherein the penultimate drawing would be ...someone being beheaded.
"Do you think that would sell?" she asked, squinching up her nose. "It's part of the song."
"Um, wellll," I stalled, then gave my usual caveats. "I don't write picture books, I don't have a British publisher --"
"Oh, well, I know. But you still know so much more about this stuff than I do!"
I thought a bit. "Well, here's my two cents. If you put together a good enough book dummy, it might sell. Here. Maybe a crossover into Europe. You'd not get a crossover into the American market, especially since it's a British nursery rhyme, one we don't have, and -- well, we don't show beheadings in our children's books."
"Well, all kids like a little gore, really," she said dismissively.
I looked from my childless acquaintance to my childless self, and stuttered, "Oh. Oh, um, right." Even though most of me was not sure I agreed.
And I'm still not.
Thing is, it's not the first time I've heard this, nor, I'll hazard, the first time you've heard it either. Italian illustrator Isabella Labate quotes Nikolaus Heidelbach at a recent Bologna Book Fair Illustrator's Café saying that "children have a natural taste for the wicked" and tailoring his illustrations to that end. A recent Children's Literary Salon in New York City opened a discussion between Betsy Bird and several children's authors, including Adam Gidwitz, teacher and author of A Tale Dark and Grimm, who started researching the horror-filled origins of children's fairy tales as a result of a storytelling curriculum at his school. (He teaches various grades at a school in Brooklyn.)
So, many accept as a foregone conclusion that children like gore and wickedness, and book sales back them up... or, at least back up the idea that ADULTS will buy books with a little gore in them. But, what does " a little gore" mean? What does gore mean, really? It's all so subjective.
And that's what pulled me up short. When people say that "all" children or that children in general do anything, I go on the defensive. All children at one time or another are SHORT. That's about the only "all" I can deal with. So, I disagree with the statement right there, to begin with.
Also, "children" is open to interpretation. What ages are we talking, here? Many adults were leery of The Graveyard Book, though others found odd little Bod charming and precious. Who's to say what most children thought? - In most cases, the gatekeepers are the ones who open things up for discussion - and close the discussion and remove the book when they're closing those gates they keep.
How do these people even know what children like? Are they even asking? And, in their position as gatekeepers, is it their job to care about things like liking/disliking? Or is it to simply keep the young readers ...protected behind the ideological gates?
Same road, but changing lanes for a bit: Last August, there was a PW piece on the violence in Mockingjay. There was a lot of response from the blogosphere - from agent Nathan Bransford's asking his readers what they thought, to agent Susie Townsend's blogged response, part of which was:
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.
That statement kind of traumatized me. If I really and truly believed that the current generation of young adults and children had an inability to be moved by the things which move me, I'd probably find the nearest bridge and jump. Not that I even got the Big Deal about that whiny Caufield boy -- dude, what was his damage??? -- but I believe I see, at least in part, what Ms. Townsend is saying: books have to meet readers where they are. Every book, however, is not going to meet every reader.
(An interesting response from Suzanne Collins herself, to the violence level in Mockingjay was in this past Friday's New York Times. The Hunger Games wasn't a game -- it was a war.)
Every kid does not like a little gore. I think every kid might want to, because other kids are liking it -- but it's not an "everybody" thing. Few things are.
You'd think that was obvious, yes? Well, it is, and it isn't.
I long ago came to the conclusion that the gatekeepers in our society, though they (we? Who gets to be a gatekeeper?) pay lip service to the idea of rejecting violence, gore, or whatnot, are much, much, much, MUCH more concerned about sex in film, music, and children's lit. Violence? Meh. We're a country formed at the roots by religion and revolution, and at present we're holding records for the title of Warmongers of the World. All of us like a bit of gore, and it's no big deal. This is us! This is who we are!
Betsy Bird recently blogged about the Bologna's Ragazzi Award recipient, a beautifully redone collection of Aesop's fables, which are stark, dark, and streaked with, as Betsy puts it, a "thin vein of cruelty." It's such a gorgeous book, with dark colors, beasts in nice suits chasing each other, and a very large knife or two. It's shivery fare -- the stuff of nightmares -- and will no doubt be cherished by all kinds of kids.
I guess I'm good with that. On a purely technical level, we need the dark; without it, we wouldn't be able to appreciate light. I'm just left wondering how much darkness is really necessary for that process, and if we're pre-conditioning ourselves to... something darker.
I'm also sometimes very relieved I don't have to make the decision of "how much is too much?" for anyone else.
My acquaintance the illustrator continues this week with the sketches for her book dummy. You might be relieved to note that I believe I've talked her out of her idea for the beheading, and urged her to substitute an architectural drawing instead (don't worry -- it will make perfect sense within the scope of the book). It's a small victory -- one which will more likely reward her quest for publication, anyway, and overall I think it will make for a book that will more easily cross continents from these damp islands.
She still thinks I'm oversensitive about beheading: amusingly squeamish, silly, and, ultimately, wrong.
And I can only shrug, and say, "Maybe."