Newswise — COLUMBUS, Ohio – If you think the Hunger Games novels are too violent for their intended young readers, try re-reading classic children’s books from the past.
From Snow White to Tarzan of the Apes to Harry Potter, literature for children and teens has always been awash in violence and murder, according to a new book by Michelle Ann Abate, associate professor of literature for children and young adults at The Ohio State University.
“There has been a lot of hand-wringing recently about the final installments of the Harry Potter books and the Hunger Games novels because of their violence. But that level of violence is nothing new for children’s books,” said Abate, author of Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).
“We tend to have a selective memory that forgets the detailed and sometimes graphic violence found in some classic books for children.”
Abate said she was inspired to write Bloody Murder when she was doing research for an introductory literature class she was hoping to teach at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. She wanted to talk about instances of murder in children’s literature, which she first assumed would be relatively limited.
But Abate said she was surprised at how long her list grew as she thought about it.
In fact, she soon learned that homicide is so pervasive in children’s books that “Murder – Juvenile Fiction” is its own classification category in one major library database. A search for the word “murder” in that database found more than 3,000 citations for novels, stories, poems and plays meant for young readers.
One need to look no further than the quintessential children’s stories, fairy tales, to find violence and murder, Abate said. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of Snow White, the title character is murdered not once, but multiple times.
Homicide is common in many famous American books for children, particularly boys’ adventure stories. Murder plays a key role in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Buck Wilson’s The Lone Ranger and the Menace of Murder Valley.
Even the relatively mild-mannered Nancy Drew mystery stories that enchanted young girls for decades were filled with at least the potential of fatal violence.
“No one was ever killed in a Nancy Drew story, but every single novel always featured the threat of murder, often multiple times,” Abate said. In one installment, for example, Nancy Drew’s father is captured and nearly starved to death by the book’s villain.
Nowadays, young adult fiction still features plenty of murder and violence. In addition to books like The Hunger Games, young people have recently popularized zombie fiction, such as the 2010 murder mystery My So-Called Death, which Abate discusses in her book.
“The new twist in the portrayal of homicide for young people is that the murderer, along with the victim, is already dead,” Abate said.
While violence in children’s literature is not new, concern about it has seemed to increase in recent years, according to Abate.
Literary violence gets a lot more attention now than in the past, partly because of changing child-rearing practices and the desire to protect children from the evils of the world.
“Real-life events like school shootings, along with the widespread popularity of violence-based video games, make us a lot more sensitive to violence in children’s literature,” she said.
In fact, if anything is different now about how violence is portrayed in books for young people, it is that the violence is usually stigmatized as something that should be avoided if at all possible.
That wasn’t always the case. For example, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, “there is no condemnation of the often graphic and gory violence that is depicted,” she said. “If anything, Burroughs glorified the violence because it made you more manly and tough. It is a very different message than you get today, when violence is usually portrayed as something awful.”
Abate said parents should realize that the books their children are reading today aren’t more – or less – violent than the books children read a hundred or more years ago.
“Don’t try to find some ‘golden age’ when children’s books were all innocent and happy, because there really wasn’t such a time,” she said.
In fact, Abate said parents shouldn’t want their children’s books to be sanitized of all violence.
“Children live in the real world, and they will be exposed to difficulties and adult issues like racism and sexism and violence. You can’t shield them,” she said.
“We don’t want to go too far in the violence we present to children in books, but there should be some middle ground.”