The Boston Globe today carries an interview by Craig Fehrman with an academic — Michelle Ann Abate, professor of literature at Ohio State. Abate has compiled a list of “grisly literary hits for kids,” as Fehrman describes her work. It sounds like a must-read (must have!) for delving into the roots of murder in fiction.
Of course, some of those grisly moments happen in books for the very young: in “Hansel and Gretel,” for instance, when a boy rescues his sister by incinerating a cruel old woman (“the witch”). Others occur in books that might actually be meant, with all their double meanings and political slants, for adult readers: Alice in Wonderland, of course.
But whether it’s the Hunger Games trilogy or the Harry Potter series, many of the big “hot” hits in young adult (YA) fiction have a lot of violence and death in them. Others, like The Romeo and Juliet Code from Phoebe Stone, include long-ago death with mysterious, unexplained causes, but keep the story line gentler and less dangerous. I also like YA mysteries that show just one or two deaths or acts of violence — where the emotions around those moments are more graphic than the violence itself. The years from age 12 to 20 include powerful currents of pain, grief, and fear, as well as courage, hope, and triumph. The very personal descriptions of those emotional reactions are often a major difference between a book that’s YA and one that’s meant for the grown-up reader.
Because the reader of a YA book is (we hope!) less experienced with violence and death than older readers, there’s extra reason to consider the reasons for writing a scene in a particular way. Suzanne Collins has been reported to have told her literary agent directly, when challenged about her Hunger Games series, “This is not a fairy tale. It’s a war.” In the same way, a YA police procedural can’t move too far away from the grief and loss that a law officer meets often. Harlan Coben’s Mickey Bolitar series is most explicit when its characters are balancing the emotions of friendship against those dark ones experienced in pursuing a criminal — confusion, terror, self-blame.
Do you include violence in your YA mysteries (whether writing or reading them)? Why? Why not? I once heard S. J. Rozan reply to a reader who questioned the graphic violence in some of her books by saying something like this: “Violence happens. We’re not paying enough attention to the honest truth, if we don’t say so clearly. That’s why I describe it.”