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Sorry I’m a bit late posting this today. I’ve driven from Nashville to Columbia, South Carolina and just got in, got settled, and checked out the exhibit hall at the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. I’m presenting here tomorrow with fellow VC grad Emily Smith Pearce. If you haven’t read her novel Isabel and the Miracle Baby (Front Street, 2007), you have missed a treat.

So back to our topic at hand…

While there are distinct camps concerning the role of violence in young adult literature among educators (those who find it a valuable part of social and cultural discourse, and those who don’t), I find that the most interesting comments in the discussion see the disconnect between reality and fiction.

All it takes is one quick look at the evening news to know we live in a violent world. But for most teens, violence directed at the individual is not a day-to-day part of their lives. Sadly, that’s not true for all teens. But if teen crime rates are down (and they are) and corporal punishment is no longer part of school discipline, is the violence portrayed in young adult fiction relevant?

Do we write about violence because we believe that its part of the teen experience based on what we see in the media? In an article in School Library Journal, Kathleen Isaacs, a faculty member at the Edmund Burke School in Washington DC echoes teens' comments that books, movies and the pop culture produced for teen consumption are more violent than most teens' experiences. If that is true, what’s the purpose of using graphic brutality? To help young adults deal with violence if and when it comes knocking? Or to help them sort out some of the never ending violence portrayed on television and in movies? So for a writer, the litmus test might be asking the question, Does the violence I'm portraying in my novel ring true? And if it doesn’t, Am I then portraying violence or promoting it?

Obviously, in a post-911 world, we can’t just skip the subject and remain silent. In an article for the International Reading Association, Judith Franzak and Elizabeth Noll note that violence in young adult literature isn’t a reflection of reality but “should serve as a lens to help us see how violence functions in our collective imagination.”

If we remember that violence is ultimately about power, as writers, we can feel open to explore the implications of agency, point of view, language, and social marginalization within the context of violent acts. Again, it goes back to does it serve the story? Maybe that's the only question that really needs to be answered.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2008 12:46 pm (UTC)
I'd have to see a list of YAs that contain violence before I can really comment on your topic, Helen. I tend to steer clear of books with flap copy that starts: "In a desperate struggle for survival ..."

I guess I feel about them the way I do about violent movies: what purpose are they serving? About the author, I tend to think, "When's the last time you were in a desperate struggle for survival?" What gives people the authority to write about these things? Why do they write about it? What solace or enlightenment are they hoping to offer to teen readers?

My feelings are tainted by the fact that I live in Chapel Hill, NC, where the 22-year-old president of the student body at UNC was shot and killed last week in what appears to be a random act of violence. I'm not sure a single one of the 22 thousand young people on that campus will need to read a novel about violence to understand its impact. Maybe a book would help them cope with it. I don't know.

In a lecture about historical fiction that Anita Silvey gave at Hamline last summer, she said that many authors set their stories in eras other than that era in which they wrote them, be it WWII or Vietnam. "Johnny Tremain" was one title she cited. If I remember correctly, Silvey said that while the book was set during the Revolutionary War, it was written during the Korean War and was intended to reflect that violence. Maybe stepping back from the ongoing violence/drama while making the same point about what's happening makes it more palatable. We can get all of the modern day violence we want in on a daily basis in a multitude of ways.
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