By Megan Creasey
Violence has often played an involved role in children’s literature, but in recent years questions have been raised about whether violence should have a place in children’s literature. This is evidenced by modern storytellers’ decisions to modify the gruesome parts of classic fairy tales to make them more palatable for modern readers. Does omitting violence really make for higher quality children’s literature? Many scholars argue that violence, if used appropriately, has its place in some children’s books. They point out violent literature is often not to blame for violent behavior in children; rather, the inclusion of violence in quality literature can create positive influences in children’s lives. Children are often naturally drawn to stories with violence in them. Many can relate to violent situations portrayed in children’s stories, and, when used effectively, these situations can be used to teach children how to avoid violent resolutions in their own lives.
Contrary to what critics believe, violence in children’s stories is not a recent phenomenon, but stretches back to the very first children’s stories, when violence was used as a didactic element. Violence has played a part in children’s literature throughout the ages, but as Maureen Nimon (1993) points out in her essay about violence in children’s literature, “It is only in recent decades that the place of violence in children’s books has been so vigorously questioned” (p. 31). Nimon (1993) explains violence has appeared for centuries in didactic stories in which the wicked are punished, often with physical violence, and the virtuous are rewarded (p. 29). Dianne Koehnecke (2001), who reviewed two recent children’s books, Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night and The House That Crack Built by Clark Taylor, discussed the books’ controversial themes of violence and drugs respectively, as well as their didactic format. She points out, “the didactic nature of these two books is clearly not a revolutionary concept in children’s literature,” then goes on to give a brief history of didactic literature which often includes violent content or undertones (Koehnecke, 2001, p. 18). Victorian books, Koehnecke (2001) mentions, were especially “preachy” and often contained dark, violent subject matter, which many adults would find inappropriate for children today (p. 19).
However, children are often fascinated by the violence and fear adults try hard to shelter them from, and this comes through in children’s creations, regardless of whether or not they have been exposed to violent literature. In an analysis of violence in fairy tales and children’s reaction to such violence, Christina Moustakis (1982) cites studies by L.B. Ames and E.G. Pitchers, which found that when children create stories, themes of aggression are predominant (¶12). Moustakis (1982) believes this is because aggression is a fundamental piece of human nature and children cope with it by creating stories with violent elements (¶13). Since aggression is a naturally occurring feeling in all humans, it seems ridiculous to expect that barring violence from children’s books would cease this urge.
Moustakis (1982) suggests that sheltering children from violence for the sake of keeping them from being frightened is a poor tactic. She writes, “Those who trust that the elimination of tales of ogres and monsters will make bedtime easier … will be dismayed when, in the absence of a literary culprit, [the monsters] nevertheless take shape in their children’s perfervid imaginations” (¶9). While some maintain frightening and often violent elements will traumatize children, these unsavory elements appear time and again because they are the sorts of things children dream up on their own. Bronwyn T. Williams (2004) mentions the power of a child’s imagination to create violent situations, even when parents and teachers try hard to steer children from any material that would inspire such behavior. She uses an example to illustrate her point, saying, “There is the story of the boys whose parents scrupulously avoided buying them toy guns only to look out the kitchen window and see the boys pointing sticks at each other while making appropriately explosive sounds” (Williams, 2004, p. 511). It is clear that books are not the culprit in the case of children displaying violent preferences when playing or creating stories.
This trend in children appreciating violent stories is especially prevalent in boys, and there are worries that with the general condemnation of literature containing violence by teachers, young males with the potential to become great readers and writers may lose interest. Williams (2004) pinpoints why teachers and parents have become so squeamish about violent children’s literature in recent years: “Violent reading and writing brings with it the fear that such violence might erupt beyond the page into the classroom” (p. 512). Williams (2004) goes on to state such fears have intensified since recent school shootings, and that this fear and panic rests on the assumption that boys cannot tell the difference between violence in a story and the violence in real life (p. 512). However, this assumption is primarily false; most boys can differentiate between violence in stories and real life. Using the example of her young son, Williams portrays a boy who writes vividly violent stories but is a perfectly mild-mannered and peaceful boy in real life. Many boys enjoy the kinds of violent stories that are often considered inappropriate for school, but when teachers bar these stories from the classrooms, it can do more harm than good. Williams (2004) worries about her son, “who is being told, explicitly and implicitly, that the reading and writing he is drawn to not only has no value but is also potentially dangerous” (p. 513). When teachers do not allow young boys to read or create the kinds of fiction that most interest them, they could be squelching potential literary lovers’ interests in fiction of any kind, thus failing to reach the primary goal in teaching children about literature.
In a world wrought with violence, many argue violence should be included in children’s stories, since children’s books should accurately portray the world to a certain extent. Kenneth B. Kidd (2005) discusses a shift in recent years, which has moved away from the idea that young people should be sheltered against violence and evil in literature. Kidd contrasts the slow process of weaving Holocaust stories into children’s literature with the nearly immediate publication of children’s books about the September 11, 2001 tragedy. He cites over twenty books for children on 9/11, most of them published in 2002 (Kidd, 2005, ¶8). “Presumably the exposure model became necessary because we no longer have the luxury of denying the existence of or postponing the child’s confrontation of evil,” Kidd (2005) says (¶1). While violence has always been a component in children’s literature in some way, it is only in recent years that hard topics like violence as globally affecting and widespread as the Holocaust have been seen for their value in teaching young people about the dark side of human nature and the important history of such abominable phenomena. Even Whitehead, a woman committed to non-violent literature for children, is quoted in Nimon’s (1993) article as saying, “’There is a need for books which help young people face reality, however distasteful that reality may be” (p. 31). Whitehead’s assertion shows violence does have its place in children’s literature because it truthfully reflects aspects of the world that children should be aware of, no matter how much adults wish to protect children from it.
Additionally, many children already experience violence in their own lives, or will in the future, and having literature that reflects this violence and shows them how to successfully cope in violent scenarios can be invaluable. In her review of Smoky Night, Koehnicke (2001) mentions how a teacher on a children’s literature discussion listserv talked about the benefits of the book, which is about the violent riots and fires in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Koehnecke (2001) describes how the teacher’s students, a diverse mix of children, liked the book “and could recite incidents of fire in their own neighborhoods where the same sorts of interactions had occurred” (p. 22). For many children, it seems, violence is not something alien that children are “exposed” to through literature. Rather, good literature incorporates violence in a way children can relate to. As Koehnicke (2001) mentions, readers identify with the young boy in Smoky Night because although he is frightened by the violence, he is still able to realize why the violent riots happened and act as a good model for children (p. 20). When violence is a reality in life for children it is important that they have literary examples involving similar scenarios so they can learn to discuss the acts of violence they witness and how to make sense of them.
Many argue children’s literature that includes violence can be particularly useful when it teaches children how to cope with conflicts in their own lives. Jennifer Armstrong (2003) mentions a problem she often sees among young boys in the writing workshops she leads. When the young students need to come up with a resolution for their stories, they often cannot imagine an outcome. She explains, “the only way to get the story over with is to bring on destruction and chaos” (Armstrong, 2003, ¶5). Armstrong emphasized that the students who could not think about possible consequences and created endings such as these were often the students with the least amount of reading experience. She goes on to address the worry that students such as these will find difficulty in coping with conflicts later in life because they never had a context in literature to compare their situation to. She speculates, “When older, these same students may be faced with real obstacles in their lives that they can’t see resolutions for, and bring real guns to school” (Armstrong, 2003, ¶14).
`It seems children need to read literature that includes violence and ways to overcome obstacles while avoiding violent solutions in order to apply conflict solution tactics in real life. Moustakis (1982) agrees, believing that in fairy tales, “a child meets his inner monsters … and vicariously masters them, over and over again with each tale” (¶10). Although fairy tales often involve violent and dangerous situations, it is clear that stories such as these can have immeasurable value in a child’s life. Along with fairy tales, war fiction can also teach children about dealing with conflict in a healthy way, Kristine Miller (2009) attests. She admits that it is true many children’s books skirt around the traumatic aspects of war, but argues that the books are not an escape from violence. Rather, such books “reestablish the place of embattled individuals within the unstable social and political circumstances of a nation at war” (Miller, 2009, ¶11). Since war is always happening somewhere in the world, it is a topic that never ceases to be relevant, so it is important that children begin learning at a young age how maintain both “a personal and a social identity in an unstable and war-torn world” (Miller 2009). This emphasis on constructive thinking can play an enormous role when violence is incorporated in literature.
While it is impossible to deny that children are drawn in some way to violence, often the violent tales contain violence to emphasize points of moral value. Research indicates that young boys do not read about violence simply for the aspect of violence; often young boys are more drawn to suspense and a good storyline, which typically involves violence (Williams, 2004, 513). In most cases, stories containing violence contains other elements worth talking about in class. Often the violence serves a purpose, as Moustakis (1982) points out when she asks, “Can we not agree that Hamlet (its last scene a carnage of corpses), or the often ghastly tales of the Brothers Grimm has redeeming social value for the young?” (¶2). Regarding the recently-published books she reviews, Koehnecke (2001) mentions, “Both books deal with violence, yet nevertheless establish a moral tone that can be used effectively as a tool for discussion” (p. 17).
The notion of violence serving a purpose in the story should be upheld no matter what era the story was written in, for often folklore, even the grimmest kinds, contain violence that serves a purpose. Moustakis (1982) argues that violence is often used as a form of justice for evildoers in fairy tales. “Fairy tales handle justice and retribution in a manner that young children understand,” Moustakis attests (1982, ¶6). Violence in such tales acts as a clear, understandable consequence for evil figures, an effective strategy when paired with the clear-cut black and white characters portrayed in such stories. There is also very little information regarding gory details in violent passages in quality children’s literature, including fairy tales. Moustakis (1982) emphasizes that “the justice and retribution in fairy tales is always swiftly effected; there are no screams of pain, no agony, and no gore” (¶7). The de-emphasis on gore in literature for children shows that violence is not inserted in stories simply because children like violence; rather, violence usually works to emphasize a point.
This idea ties in with a condition that many hold when evaluating children’s literature that includes violence. Should violence be a part of a children’s story, the violence should emphasize consequences and alternatives to violence. According to Nimon (1993), many take the position that children’s books containing violence and conflict are often worthwhile, but that when they showcase violence “it is essential that they do so in ways that show the suffering caused” (p. 31). If teachers and parents share stories that show that violence often has unpleasant consequences for the inflictor and the victim, children will be less likely to turn to violence as a resolution when conflicts enter their own lives. Even advocates for nonviolent children’s books, such as Whitehead and the South Australian Branch of Psychologists for the Prevention of War see benefits to including violence in children’s literature when the literature also presents “constructive alternatives” to violence (Nimon, 1993, p. 31). Therefore, it seems that in order for a book to be deemed appropriate by critical teachers and parents, the book must display certain moral characteristics that justify the use of violence.
Violence is an important, if unpleasant, aspect of the world that has endured for centuries and continues today. Therefore, it is a relevant and worthwhile topic to focus on in children’s literature, since children should be aware of the realities of the world, both good and bad. When used in an effective and careful manner, violence can serve important purposes in literature. It does not seem to correlate with violent tendencies in children, it sparks interest in reading, and it can enhance a child’s understanding of ways to cope when conflict or violence arises in their own lives. While violence in literature can have many benefits for young readers, certain criteria must be taken into account before one can deem a book “worthwhile” for the classroom, as the above arguments show. Those choosing literature with violent aspects should carefully assess the material to check that the violence portrayed serves a purpose, such as showing the consequences of violence or alternatives to violent actions. Unfortunately, violence is not likely a part of human nature that can be entirely eradicated, although if children are familiar with relevant and useful literature that teaches them about violence, they have a better chance of facing a world of violence and conflict responsibly.
Armstrong, J. (2003). Narrative and violence. The Horn Book Magazine. Retrieved November 18, 2009 from http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2003/mar03_armstrong.asp.
Bunting, E. (1994). Smoky night, D. Diaz, illustrator. Harcourt Brace.
Kidd, K. (2005). “A” is for Auschwitz: Psychoanalysis, Trauma Theory, and the Children’s Literature of Atrocity. Children’s Literature (33), 120 – 149.
Koehnecke, D. (2001). Smoky night and crack: controversial subjects in current children’s stories. Children’s Literature in Education (32), 1, 17 – 30.
Miller, K. (2009). Ghosts, gremlins, anåd “the war on terror” in children’s blitz fiction. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, (34)3, 272-284.
Moustakis, C. (1982). A plea for heads: Illustrating violence in fairy tales. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (7)2, 26 – 30.
Nimon, M.. ( 1993). Violence in Children’s Literature Today [microform] / Maureen Nimon Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse, [Washington, D.C.] http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=ED399935
Taylor, C. (1992). The house that crack built, J. T. Dicks, illustrator. Chronicle Books.
Williams, B.T. (2004, March). Boys may be boys, but do they have to write that way? [Literacy & Identity department]. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(6). http://www.readingonline.org/newliteracies/lit_index.asp?HREF=/newliteracies/jaal/3-04_column/index.html
Armstrong, J. (2003). Narrative and violence. The Horn Book Magazine. Retrieved November 18, 2009 from http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2003/mar03_armstrong.asp.