Themes of Death and Violence: Teaching Children’s and YA Literature

After the Harry Potter phenomenon, but before The Hunger Games was reviewed in The New York Times, I decided to teach a course entitled Death and Violence in Children’s Literature. Catchy right? The goal was not to sensationalize these themes, but address both death and violence as dominant presences in much of modern children’s’ and YA lit. Not that either were missing before, but often a death or a violent event or even a war were what moved the plot along and got the character out of their comfort zone and into the path of self discovery. This could be as profound an odyssey as “the hero’s journey” that leads one to his/her (usually his) rightful place in the world. It could be as simple as the loss causing a new destiny or path to be followed as we observe the failures and accomplishments of a fellow human being.

But what about violence and death as a daily fact of life? This is not to affect the setting. It is the setting. The plot is not moved along within these contexts, it depends upon them. I was not talking about gratuitous violence either or otherworldly (hence, at a safe distance) acts of subversion; this is rural, suburban, urban, today, tomorrow, and who-knows-until-when. There is no assistance from the author in finding comfort or hope when you find that the last page has arrived and your hope for a “psych! it’s all OK,” does not appear. Nor does there appear to be a sequel to offer succor.

So many people have already discussed the desensitization of everyone, not just kids, to violence. It has permeated all aspects of media to the point of being expected. Nonviolent, cerebral works are now sold as innovative and “thoughtful.” Ugh. I am guilty of succumbing to the anesthetization of repeated exposure. When I saw my first episode of Law & Order’s Special Victims’ Unit, I was genuinely traumatized by both the subject matter and that it was presented as entertainment. Who could write such terrible things? Who could let their kids act in these parts? But, as it was going to be on rather often (I was not in charge of the clicker, but that is another story), guess what? Ready for the surprise? I got used to it. NO! Yes I did! No, really you knew that from the beginning right? We are all there. I’m honestly disgusted with myself for becoming so complacent about such subject matter. I won’t watch it anymore. No, I’m not advocating that it be boycotted. The cops care and they save people in it. It’s about salvation, not celebration. But still . . .

When I developed my course, I chose books such as Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, with its theme of childhood survival in a time of war and its characters a band of very eccentric and wholly disturbing youngsters. They are disturbing for their individualism and ability to witness, experience, avoid, and survive many perils that come with a lack of protection from adults of any sort or failed protection by the requisite guardians. There is even incest presented in a symbiotic essential-to-emotional-and-spiritual well being relationship. Try to get that one past the school boards.

I used Dead on Town Line by Leslie Connor, a free-verse poem about a young girl killed by a jealous classmate. Beautiful imagery. Even in its most violent moments. There is a lyrical dreamy passing of the ghost from living experience to simple observation and an empathy for the living that emphasizes the loss of such a being.

I’ll not belabor the texts used. The point is that I see these themes as less about callous or jaded audiences, but more to the point of a need for us all to realize that life dominated by these two is not impossible or as unlikely as we hope. No, it’s not a polemic about global warming or war in general, although it would help. I see these types of texts as excellent experience for the reader and writer in approaches to particular themes and character development. I think of them as serving a kind of purpose that Sinclair’s The Jungle, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or even To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee have. No, these current authors are not necessarily of the caliber that I believe Sinclair or Lee are. You may not feel their work is as as profound and erudite as these worthy members of our canon. But they address certain truths either directly or indirectly that show us human nature and patterns as they are and could be. We observe, like Lee’s Scout, through young eyes and hearts and learn how to survive or perish as is our lot.

Readers really do make the best writers. And maybe you’ll even figure somethings out along the way.

Long title right? Well, I could not decide. I recently read a book that inspired me in more than one way. It held wisdom that I had been long in need of. Say, all my life. It was also just a great read. On the great read side, How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally is quite accessible for any level practitioner of yoga or anyone trying to work on compassion at a realistic level of earthly conundrums.

One of my yoga instructors has read passages from this from time to time and the narrative itself was so beautifully written that it drew me in immediately. Of course, as I read the book for myself, the wisdom also came through so subtly that I felt less like a student and more like a fellow traveler. This is a tale of yogic practice and purpose presented through the experiences of a fictional female character who must live her practice and beliefs (the principles of the yoga sutras) as she is imprisoned in a small impoverished village in dire and unpredictable conditions.

Ok, so why is this important enough to blog about? Good writing is nothing to ignore in this world of mass publishing, Barnes and Noble bargain books, and well, blogs and Facebook posts. It is harder to be “heard” above the visual noise of so much sharing and sausage grinding across genres. As well, as a middle-aged woman who has had much hardship from day one (no violins, I’ve done well for myself considering), I’ve been assaulted with many axioms that were supposed to encourage me and make me feel included in the world. Nothing has stuck. Much of my misfortune has followed upon the heals of happiness or optimism.

When I was a child, I used to think that an evil spirit was watching me. Keeping track of my hopes and attempts to survive with happiness in tact. At the moment of openness, terrible loss or consequence swept in to annihilate all chances of success. Or that is how I saw it. I did not have the fortitude to take the challenge and fight. Perhaps it was the volume and rapacity of the evil and misfortune. Regardless, once I became an adult, the superstition gave way to pessimism. Simply the knowledge that the good did not last as long as the bad or unexpected negatives became the basis for acerbic asides and knitted eyebrows. I’ve got the lines on my face to prove it and the reputation for real New Yorker one liners. Woody Allen might even be concerned for me.

I still would prefer to be happy. Hence the yoga classes, the desire for a challenge without competition or judgement. So, the book being rather poetic and full of kindness (read it to understand it) drew me in. I had my doubts about finishing it with any long-term inspiration in tow, but I was overwhelmed by a brief passage that addressed entirely my life-long confusion about acceptance and optimism followed by pain. Have you seen Bridget Jone’s Diary? Remember when she alludes to the idea that once something in your life is perfect, something else falls “spectacularly to pieces” (attempted quote–not sure of the exact wording). That sort of rang true but only as an irony, not an insight.

Now, in How Yoga Works, the exact relationship of good to evil or positive to negative is fully addressed and accepted as a universal truth. One that is not to be surrendered to, but understood and prepared for: “When Important things are about to happen, bigger problems come to try and stop them. This is a law of yoga and a law of the powers that run our lives” (40).

Maybe not news to you, but news to me in terms of universal truths rather than bum luck in a jinxed life! So, read and read, and read. One day, maybe later, maybe sooner, what you read will directly affect what you write and how your write it and how you understand why you write at all.

As another of my yoga instructors often says, things will come to you when you are ready to receive them or when they are ready for you.

One of my favorite authors, the late Penelope Fitzgerald, did not start writing until she was 58. And she was from a prestigious family of writers. It just was not in her or for her until she was ready. So as far as I see it, “it” is only just ready for me and I, it.

Facing the facts

Even as a writer/editor of some years’ experience, I still face stage fright when pursuing a new avenue and a new contact. It’s so easy to become comfortable in the small niche you create and to become lazy about pushing yourself to think beyond the usual interests. It’s especially hard to think like a journalist when I tend to think like an educator and literary scholar. This is not meant to sound superior or so profoundly separate, but my type of curiosity is not quite the same as one who loves to find the next lead.

And, like many of us, I think I am what has been called a writer with a short attention span. Some topics, no matter how important or timely, just don’t hold me beyond the initial idea. Really, many of us are idea people who prefer to delegate the dirty work to others. That is what makes me a great editor frankly. I can plan, organize, assign, and meet deadlines more happily when I am delegating the minutia to my freelancers and colleagues. Still, I do love to write and if it’s a topic I can relate to, I love to find an angle with which to work on it.

Susan Sontag inspired me once some time ago when I heard her state in an interview that she had an idea for a book (I think it was about a Japanese opera singer) but just did not want to do the research. Wow, if she admits to dreading the work, the rest of us have some hope.

I also remember Neil Gaiman stating that he was overwhelmed at times while writing his upcoming book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and blaming his agent (or editor-I don’t quite remember) for “making” him do this. Writing can be so traumatic and so rewarding. It’s really like an addiction. You can’t do without it but it does not always offer the high you were looking for.

Inspiration over coffee

After the overall theme of the last blogs about finding inspiration and the pressure of repeatedly creating something from nothing, a simple stop for coffee yesterday yielded a chance to step out of my comfort zone and explore options for new subject matter.

I was sitting down with my husband and son in a Starbucks after a fun but cold afternoon of sledding when I noticed that the man sitting next to me was knitting. Now, that might make people pause right there. Not many men are known to knit, at least not in public. He was a large, not fat but large, man. Rather funky in his buzz cut, yellow chamois shirt, cargo pants, and what I can only describe as the typical LL Bean boots for wet weather. You know, the kind with the rubber foot and soles and the leather uppers that lace up. His were unlaced at the moment. He had a monocle attached to his simple wire framed glasses. I suppose he used it for magnifying when he needed to see a stitch more closely.

Anyway, I had only glanced at him as we walked in and had not really taken stock of him or anyone else for that matter. But Aidan saw him knitting and was drop jawed. I told him that that is how our friend, Flo, had made the wool sweater he was wearing at the moment. At that, the many offered to show him more closely what he was doing. Of course we asked him what it was and his story turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

He is an army veteran. He was making helmet liners for his former comrades in arms. Some of them still deployed (he did not say where) and some home like him. These liners were being made from a pattern he had created just for this purpose. They were mostly camouflage colored using variegated wool. The rim was made from a thick grey wool that would offer extra padding around the ears. If this was not enough, he had sewn a small green heart button, this size of a pea, onto the back of each hat. He said that if he ran into any one of them wearing this hat with the heart on it, he would buy them a drink.

So, can you imagine the angles this meeting offers? Army veterans and their connections to those they served with. How some veterans choose to celebrate these ties. Knitting and masculinity. Knitting as a conversation starter or community builder (two other ladies came over to join the conversation and by the time we left he was giving them a lesson in this pattern).

Yes, someone’s appearance is often a clue to who they are or at least what is happening with them at that moment. Let’s face it. He looked interesting. He was interesting. The ladies who finally came to ask about his project looked kind of timid in their dress and posture. They were. They needed me (with a funky hat and silly happy family–husband with ponytail included) to open up the discussion. Journalism is about being judgmental in a way. At least at first. The eye of the writer must look for something to question. If the funky person is not so interesting after all, no problem. If the average looking person turns out to be one of the most dynamic people you’ve met in years, great. But, as my mother used to say “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

So I asked . . .

Comparisons

Just working on blogging can remind you that coming up with new ideas and multiple ways to present them is a daily challenge. No matter what you have accomplished, you have to start all over again. I’ve heard authors and TV writers complain of the same thing.

I wish I could remember who the author was, but he had just had a book published to good reviews and was still getting manuscripts either rejected or sent back for changes from other fronts. I remember an interview with a TV writer who said that the start of every work week was murder because he had to begin creating something from scratch all over again. Much like acting, one success in the field guarantees nothing. You really must love what you do and avoid  wrapping up your ego in the work. Not every work is liked by everyone and its often luck that gets a manuscript on the desk of the editor that likes your idea/style.

Coming up with new ideas is either maddening or inspiring. I’d say that when the ideas pop into my head or jump up from a photo or conversation, I feel energized. When an assignment dictates the parameters, the performance anxiety can pop in or the feeling of disinterest may buck up and stymie the initial process. It’s a whole psychological study isn’t it? Especially since so many stick to the job (hobby or professionally) through it all.

 

Initiation

While this site awaits its physical transformation, there is no need to neglect its content. What I as an educator and editor/writer have wanted to do is to inspire people to write! I offer prompts and opportunities from which my classes and clients can begin their own story–literally and figuratively. No one has to become a famous or even prolific writer. It’s about communication and imagination. That is why I had created The Community Story and continue to post story prompts for people to contribute to. The idea that an international community could come together and create a story together is thrilling. No one person but a continuing stream of creation, feedback, mutual editing, all to be compiled and given its final form by the senior editor–me for now.

This idea of sharing ideas and forming something in unison is kind of like putting up canvas and giving anyone who wants one a paint brush.

Our class, Magazine Editing and Writing is very much in this spirit. We come together to share, not withhold. It’s very important for writers to avoid isolation and jealousy. It’s important for editors to know how the writer thinks and feels about his/her work and how to guide this person to the work’s ultimate and effective completion.