April 09, 2011

"Well, all kids like a bit of gore, really."

Behold the humble executioner, with a little entertaining gore...

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.

::crickets chirping::

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!

And yet...

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."


Charlotte said...

My own poor little picture book (Chicken Little told with dinosaurs) ended with the approach of the killer asteroid (the sky really was about to fall, and any kid worth their dino salt would know what was going to happen to the protaganists), and sadly, although my agent did her darndest, no one wanted it. Sigh.

But it might have had other things working against it besides the violence.

Moving away from Me, it seems to me that there are violences
and violences. I have no trouble with my boys reading Edward Gory's Alphabet of ghastly death, because it's so emotionally removed, and therefore untraumatic. But I have no intention of letting my 10 year old read The Hunger Games (he's asked for it)--I don't want that particular brand in his head.

I hadn't come across Susie Townsend's response yet, but I disagree utterly (based on my on limited experience). My boys are moved by the small and the immediate--both have wept over Owly. But probably by "kids" she means "teenagers," and I have no experience with those yet.

For the moment, I'm happy for my oldest to (repeatedly) ask me to tell him the story of To Kill a Mockingbird...and I can only assume that when he reads the book it will knock his socks off.

R.J. Anderson said...

It really depends so much on the way it's told. As a six-year-old I could casually read my way past all sorts of nail-barreled, head-severing grue in the Grimms and other collections of fairy tales and mythology without batting an eyelash. But show me a single picture of a skull or a horror movie poster like this and I'd have screaming nightmares for weeks. It didn't trouble me to have horrific things *mentioned* in a book, but not lovingly described a la Stephen King, and definitely not if there were visuals involved.

And in any case, I didn't read the fairy tales FOR the gore; I read them in spite of it. So yes, I think it's very much a mistake to assume that all children relish buckets of blood & guts. Even my 8 year old son who loves robots, aliens and monsters was shaken and sickened to the point of tears by a book of how to make your own horror makeup that he found at school.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Like you, R.J., I could read fairy-tale/mythological gruesomeness no problem, but was so easily terrified to the point of nightmares by horror TV/movies that I made my parents despair. (Even Twilight Zone was too scary sometimes.) For me, it wasn't so much gore or violence that disturbed me, but the uncanny or freakish. I can't tell you how much sleep I lost around age 11-12 over Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising books--which, incidentally, I LOVED even though they scared the crap out of me.

More to the point, I can't say I gravitated specifically toward or away from violence as a kid. It really depended on the context. I thought Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (and everything else Dahl) was the funniest thing ever. I thought my dad's favorite Chuck Norris movies were stupid. Put the TV series "V" on (the old one) and I was scared s***less. And, since it was the 1980s, put the news on and I was also scared s***less that we might die in a nuclear war. That was NOT violence I wanted to hear about.

Like you, I think it's impossible to make generalizations about what "all kids" want to read. While I agree that not every classic book is going to appeal to every kid (in fact, I'm often unmoved by classics everybody else loves), I don't think you can jump from that statement to assuming that kids today want to read about sex, drugs and violence.

tanita✿davis said...

Thanks for conversing, peeps.
Charlotte:, I agree with the idea of unemotional violence -- the "morals" of the story in the old Folk & Fairy Tales book that I read and reread as a child were what I call Gentled Grimm, so it wasn't until I was older that I read the original -- but I did read Aesop's, and those Moral Tales had all kinds of cause-and-effect types of things happening which ended up with death and being lost forever, etc. etc. And that was ...I don't know, understandable, because it was caused, and was simply the effect. It was far removed from reality for me, because it was a Moral, like a parable, and just a teaching story.

R.J., I think what most bugged me about that statement is the implied idea that children seek out gore. I was like, "Huh. Really?" My students didn't seek it out, and even my older students didn't all care for, say, the Goosebumps books, or to watch Tales from the Crypt reruns. And, some kids are definitely into that. Different strokes, different folks, etc.

A.F., I remember seeing part of Children of the Corn, when I was about five or six -- and I couldn't look at scarecrows, cornfields, or dried corn for a long time without horrific nightmares. Or grain silos, oh my word, the silos. (Can you imagine if I'd lived in Ohio??) For the most part, it was visual stuff that was bad - book covers or illustrations, movie posters or TV shows -- but there were a number of books which were scary. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow -- while merely a bit of Americana for most people was for YEARS to me was a source of terror -- I couldn't stand that story, and even seeing a hunchbacked man freaked me out. And, oddly, Kaa from the Jungle Book was quite scary, because he could hypnotize people -- even his friends.

Weird what gets us, huh? And yet, none of that is truly gory (except for Children of the Corn. ::shudder::) Hmm.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Wow, so many good points here.

I have lost all tolerance for generalizations. In kidlit I think it happens most often with the gender divide, that boys want this kind of book and girls want that kind of book and I'm tired of fighting that battle, since the same points get made over and over. Anyway, that's a tangent here, so--

I'm a pretty peaceful person, in my life and in my artistic tastes. Yet when I was around ten, I developed a taste for some gruesome horror novels, of a kind I could not even stomach now as an adult. Now I think part of it might have been a reaction to the bullying I was undergoing at the time. As a good little girl, I was not allowed to express anger or fight back, and there may have been something very satisfying in the violence I was reading.

I agree that gatekeepers are far more worried about sex than violence. I think the stats kept on book challenges and bans show that very clearly. My personal theory on that: sex makes people feel vulnerable, while violence makes people feel powerful. So most people in society are far more scared of sex.

Which is sad. Sex brings all sorts of consequences that are worth thinking about and talking about; it's not a light subject. But violence is far more damaging to people; it hurts, it kills.

Having said that, do I think books should be censored for violence? I'm not a fan of censorship. Literature may even be a safe place to explore the consequences of violence. I don't choose to read much violent content myself, but I don't know if I should be the arbiter for others (except perhaps my own minor children, if they existed).

Anonymous said...

I thought that was an excellent piece on The Hunger Games in this weekend's magazine. In my work with children, I have observed a lot of kids and teens who have experience trauma of one kind of another. What some of them really seem to need is an escape. They read The Babysitter's Club and the like because they need to feel like somebody's life is normal and calm somewhere, that maybe something like that might be possible for them someday. Sometimes they just want to laugh. Others need to read about the darkest, worst things in the world and characters who triumph over them because they want to feel like they, too, can overcome their trauma and that they are not alone, that other people see the darkness in the world that they see. That isn't what I'd call a "craving." We send so many messages to kids that say the world is a sunny place where everyone shares and is nice to each other. Kids who experience something else are often left with a disconnect and not many resources to deal with the realities of their existence. Books, particularly fantasy, can fill that gap.

There are other kinds of readers, of course, and lots of other reasons for reading. A lot of children who read dark things still have very specific things they avoid that freak them out. They might be able to read the most frightening ghost stories but be completely undone by a spider, for instance. Some are disturbed more by characters with ill intent than the actual harm they do. I've met several who cannot stand to watch protagonists who make terrible decisions. I have talked to kids and teens who were upset over something sexual they read in a book, but it is always something that is violent and sexual.

These are not easy questions. Whenever I have a parent who asks me if something's going to upset their child, unless I know the child, I tell them I have no idea. And I don't run around recommending A Tale Dark and Grimm (which I LOVED) to every kid I meet, although I've recommended it to several who loved The Graveyard Book and Roald Dahl and A Series of Unfortunate Events--and I've had good reports back. One of my favorite readers, a fifth grader who asks me often for recommendations, dubbed A Tale Dark and Grimm "really funny." And he's the calmest, sweetest child you'd ever want to meet. What a person reads and responds to is just so psychologically complex, and when it comes to kids and teens, I think the most important thing is that they have some adults in their lives who are paying attention to what they're reading (and seeing--whether on TV, in movies, or in their day-to-day lives) and talking to them about it. The world can just be so confusing.

Thanks for making me think this morning, Tanita.

tanita✿davis said...

"I agree that gatekeepers are far more worried about sex than violence. I think the stats kept on book challenges and bans show that very clearly. My personal theory on that: sex makes people feel vulnerable, while violence makes people feel powerful. So most people in society are far more scared of sex."

Jen: That. Is. Brilliant. I know I should have thought of that before, but I never have. That opens up a whole 'nother mess of thoughts I'll now be thinking. Thank you.

Adrienne: I agree - I very much see how my reading was, many times during my adolescence, responsive -- Mathilda filled a need to lash out against my parents - but as an adult, seeing it in film form was sort of chilling. As a tween, I hated reading about characters who made bad choices because I knew too much about consequences; now I realize that the poor choices are often necessary. It really is a complex thought - which is why I definitely have no conclusions...

Gail Gauthier said...

Tanita--Your points about gatekeepers are true of all children's books, not just those with violent content. I've been writing about this for years. Adults write children's books, edit them, publish them, review them, sell them, buy them, put them on reading lists, give them awards, and assign them for reading in class. Does any of this have anything to do with children and their interests?

We can only hope so.

In reality, though, we children's writers are probably writing for other adults. They will decide whether or not children like a little gore and how much a little is.