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.

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Heron Moon Press

I am an adjunct assistant professor of English at Pace University in NY, adjunct faculty in English at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ, an online member of the adjunct faculty at SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education, as well as a freelance editor and writer. For many years, I've taught, guided, and tutored many individuals from those as young as kindergarten age to Grad-school students. I've worked on fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs. What has given me the greatest pleasure, is when I have students get together in a group, and create a story together. I offer the theme (e.g., Create a version of Red Riding Hood) and they run with it. I hope to offer this community collaboration to many more people. The goal is to prove that you don't have to be alone to write, you don't have to offer yourself up alone to the group, you can collaborate and offer the world (yes, the world is the community) a chance to create a narrative together. The results have been amazing.

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