Naomi Cook is a Registered Nurse, Health Activist and Author of an up and coming children’s Trilogy called “The Pharaoh Prophecies”. Here she shares her thoughts on the rising amount of violence in kids books and how she thinks we are harming the psychological wellbeing of our youth through violent trends in literature.
I recently cut a scene from a kid’s book I’m writing: A crocodile grabbed one of Pharaoh’s Guards and dragged him under the water. ‘Is that all’, do I hear you ask? Yeah, a guard screaming a bit as a crocodile dragged him under water. No really gory bits; no colourful spraying and spurting of arterial blood, no crunching of bones or teeth ripping flesh apart…
That’s all it was. Just a man being eaten by a crocodile. For kids to read and visualise: A man, being…killed.
I read a lot of kids lit, middle grade and young adult in particular. Kids books are great, full of adventure, heart-racing scary bits, the overcoming of personal struggles often combined with saving the whole universe that same time. Brilliant stuff! But, there is an increasing amount of violence creeping into these stories, and I’m not just talking about the odd scene here and there, but whole books permeated with reoccurring motifs of gruesome and violent imagery.
What kind of ‘violence’ am I talking about? There are detailed fights and battles with demons, vampires and ‘otherwordly’ creatures and then there is the human to human violence. Kid to kid violence. Most people are of course, familiar with the Hunger Games Trilogy by now. You know, the whole KID KILLING KID for ENTERTAINMENT thing?
(..Oh, wait! I’m sorry! You mean the entertainment part was supposed to be for people of Panem*…? You mean readers (and later, viewers) weren’t supposed to find kid-killing-kid-entertaining? But…the books were a resounding success. Right? So the concept at least, must have been somewhat entertaining. Or am I wrong?)
Writers and Power
It’s been long documented that kids are affected negatively by exposure to violent images. It follows then that reading stories permeated with violent imagery can also impact negatively on a young person’s psychology.
Writers have the power of the pen. Writers are in a unique position to actually impact upon and change the minds of those who read their words. This puts writers into a position of power.
Power is not be abused.
‘Therefore it could be considered an abuse of power for an author to write potentially harmful, violent images into their stories for kids.’ Shouldn’t the conclusion read thus?
Who decides what amount of violence is “acceptable” or “too much”?
There is a whole chain of people who have the potential to filter the process of a violent idea, becoming a book, becoming represented, becoming published, becoming bought and becoming read: These are the author, literary agents, publishing houses, bookshops and later, the Parents.
Great! There are plenty of ‘stop and check stations’ along the way to make sure that children won’t be exposed to something potentially psychologically damaging! Think again. This may well be the case in theory, but reality however, shows us a different story (quite literally!) and I want to argue that a large part of the problem here lies in Adult Desensitization to Violence.
Adults during their own lives, may have read, seen, been subjected to and participated in violence and as we already know, repeated exposure to violent images results in desensitization.
So now we have desensitised adults, who don’t ‘feel’ the same impact of violent images in the same manner as a very sensitized kid, writing, selecting, editing, adding and ‘umming and ahhing’ over violent scenes in kids books. I realise that we have no choice in this, after all, kids can’t run literary agencies and publishing houses for us, nor can they be (regularly) expected to write the next blockbuster kids series.
The only solution I can see is this: I think it’s time that we as a society, took a step back and looked very carefully at what we are choosing to expose to our young. And we have a chance to do that as authors, literary agents, publishing houses, book shops and as communities and parents.
Stopping the Knock-On Effect
So back to my own book: The crocodile eating the man is long gone. There was no real need for it, no reason for it. All it did was add a touch of horror and gore to the chase and as an author with a sensitive moral conscience, I decided that my readers were better off without the image of a drowning man seized in the jaws of an angry croc.
Is there something in the fact I added that scene at a later date? That I actually added it the week I was reading the Hunger Games as my bedtime story? Was I temporarily desensitized by mental images of kids slaughtering one another? Perhaps. But at least by taking a step back I’ve prevented my readers from that knock-on effect.
And maybe if we all take a step back and look objectively at what we think kids will enjoy and ‘cope with’, plus what we think kids should enjoy and should cope with, we might be able to subdue this knock-on effect. Maybe then we can start to re-sensitise any numbness we may feel when we watch our favourite protagonists act out violent scenes, in our own heads.
Read more of Naomi’s thoughts on Violence in Kids books and other issues of Health and Wellness at www.nursenaomi.wordpress.com
*Panem is the name of the city in the Hunger Games Trilogy that selects children to participate in a yearly ‘fight till the death’ reality TV show.