In a recent foray into our advance reading copy bookshelves, I came across three or four upcoming middle-grade books featuring murder as a plot line. It’s almost casually mentioned on the back covers, with descriptions like, “When Alice’s friend is murdered, she and her pal Calvin are on the hunt for the killers. But can they stop them from striking again?”
The treatment of murder as a springboard for entertainment aimed at younger and younger children disturbs me. In an age where respect for human life and dignity is already in danger, how have we become so comfortable with the normalization of murder? Our culture’s endless thirst for violent death as entertainment does stymie me. I’m not immune to the effectiveness of high-stakes situations in entertainment; I found “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter” brilliant (with some glitches here and there, but that’s not for this post), and they were extremely violent. I also understand why human beings are obsessed with mortality. But we have so normalized murder in our “entertainment”—especially the murder of young women—that I think there’s been a numbing effect on us all, and it is trickling down to our children.
The Vermont College of Fine Arts master’s degree program in writing for children and young adults once hosted a weekend of science fiction and fantasy writing lectures with such greats as Gregory Maguire, Donna Jo Napoli, Susan Fletcher, and Susan Cooper. Among the many jewels they shared was a comment by Maguire on character deaths in children’s literature, one that I’ve never forgotten. He mentioned a disturbing trend (even back then) of children’s and YA authors to treat killing callously, carelessly. There are consequences to each loss, he said. If you are going to write about a death, you must address its effect on the people it touches. “If death,” he said, “then grief.” To ignore this is to deny or discard our humanity. When we treat murder as something almost as commonplace as shrugging our shoulders, we deny its truth.
In real life, many children are dealing with the effects of murders in their communities and among their families. They need books offering characters who navigate those difficult, irrevocable waters in thoughtful and complex ways.
I’m not saying that all literary murders are created equal. Some murders are so cartoony, or distant from our world—a pharaoh murdered in ancient Egypt, say—that they don’t pack an emotional wallop for readers in the same way that something realistic, or set in a contemporary landscape, does. And of course, children thrill to villains and enjoy the delicious suspense and dread of a cat-and-mouse game. But often those stories are just as good without any murders at all.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I just want to ask, Is it necessary to write Gone Girl for eight- to 12-year-olds? We can give young readers plenty of thrills and chills without taking that last terrible step when it isn’t absolutely necessary. And sometimes it is. The Hunger Games (a YA title often read by older MG kids) was brutal, but it had a moral center. Those losses were integral to the story; they meant something and were deeply felt, both by the characters and the readers. What we value and care about comes through in our writing, and we owe it to children to be aware of what we’re really sharing in the worlds we create for them.