A Father and Writer Looks At Violence In His Books

I’ve just returned from a signing tour for Thieftaker.  All told now, I’ve done nine signings in the nearly three weeks since the book’s release.

I get a lot of questions at bookstore events — Where do I get my ideas?  What is my daily writing routine like?  Stuff like that.  But quite often I also get a different question:  “Is this book appropriate for my son (or daughter, or niece, or nephew)?”  And that is a much, much harder question to answer.

First of all, I almost never know the child in question.  I don’t know the level at which he or she reads.  I don’t know how he/she deals with dark themes, violence, sexual content.  As the father of two daughters, seventeen and thirteen, I can tell people how I would handle a request from one of them to read the book.  But really the person asking the question ought to read the book and then decide on their own whether or not it’s appropriate.

But my thinking today is on another aspect of this discussion.  Because the truth is, despite what I just said, I usually do try to answer the question.  With respect to Thieftaker, here is what I would normally say to a question about, say, a thirteen year-old girl reading the book:  “The book is written for adults, but the sexual content is pretty tame — there is an adult relationship, but much of the physical aspect of the affair happens off-screen, as it were.  There’s nothing explicit.  There is also violence, but it’s really nothing more intense than anything she would have read in The Hunger Games and its sequels.”

Chances are, upon hearing this, the person will buy the book.  Now, let me be clear:  I am always honest in these appraisals.  While I have not turned many people away from Thieftaker, I have discouraged a few sales.  One person was asking about it for a nine year-old, and I told him to wait a few years.  And I have turned people away from some of my older books, which are darker and more explicit.

Even this, though, is beside the point.  What is bothering me today is the quickness with which I focus my answer, and even my concern as a parent, not on the violence, but on the sex.  Murder, torture, bloody fist fights and knife fights are all part of Thieftaker, and yet I have been telling my thirteen year-old that she can go ahead and read it.  Because she read the Harry Potter books, and the Hunger Games trilogy, and the Maze Runner series, and so she has read stuff that is just as dark and disturbing as Thieftaker, if not more so.

And I’m okay with this?

I remember a line from George Carlin’s routine on the “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” (the routine itself is now pretty dated, though still incredibly funny) in which he says “I would rather have my child watch two people making love than two people trying to kill each other.”  It’s a great sentiment, and yet it’s one that makes me uncomfortable.  I guess ideally, I’d rather my kid didn’t watch either.  But I’m pretty sure that at this point she’s seen both.

And after this weekend’s tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, I find myself reassessing the answer I have been giving about kids reading Thieftaker.  Maybe it would be best if readers were sheltered from that sort of violence for at least a few more years.  Maybe, just maybe, if obvious sexual content is inappropriate for young readers, so is explicit violence.  Or maybe I’m overreacting.  To be honest, I have no answers to give in this post; only questions with which I’m struggling.

These are troubling times.  And as much as I hate to admit it, I feel that in some small way, maybe my work and I are part of the problem.

I do not want this post to devolve into a political fight, or a war of words over the Second Amendment, so let’s not go there.  (Troll-like comments will be de-voweled.)  But I would like to know how my fellow writers answer that question about age-appropriateness.  I would like to know how readers feel about violence and sex in the books they read.  And I would like to hear from other parents who are struggling with the things their kids read and see and hear, just as I am.

David B. Coe
http://www.dbjackson-author.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com

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  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    The first chapter of my first novel ended with a man being shot in the eye with an arrow. I regularly read that chapter at public readings for the book and still had people asking, “Is this OK for my X-year-old good”, for values of X less than 10. I was astonished.

    I regularly answer the way you do: Sex is at a PG level, Violence is at an R level, Language is at a G level (or whatever, for that particular book). I’m unnerved by some of the decisions my parent/readers make…

    (On another note – I finished THIEFTAKER this weekend and loved it!)

  2. 2. Sam Graham

    Depending on how graphic the arrow in the eye is, I can well understand people not being fazed by their ten year old reading it.

    I read Lord of the Rings at age 7, and that’s got plenty of bloodshed, including a nice jolly “let’s keep score and try to out-do each other” competition. Not to mention any number of Brothers Grimm stories at an even earlier age. By age ten I was down the library borrowing whatever books I wanted.

    I don’t feel harmed by the experience, or consider it to have been bad parenting to let me read those books, on the contrary I think it was good and am glad it happened.

  3. 3. Chrystoph

    I feel that shielding our children from things does them no favors.

    I don’t want to desensitize a child to violence, but they will be exposed to it. School fighting still happens, our society still glamourizes combat sports like football. You cannot prevent the exposure without a total rewrite of who we, collectively, are.

    That being the case, I think the better answer is to educate our children on when and why violence is and is not appropriate.

    I feel the same way about sex. A mature attitude displayed is a mature attitude learned.

    Unless you are going to completely isolate your child from outside influences, they will be exposed to these things. Better that you put your influence into the mix than that they “learn” it only from those other sources.

    At least you can trust your motives.

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    Mindy, thanks. Glad you enjoyed THIEFTAKER. I’m with you — I am often pretty surprised by the decisions made by book-buying parents. But again, I also know that I’ve made decisions as a parent based on what I thought my kids could handle, only to realize a bit late that maybe I should have made them wait longer.

    Sam, I would certainly agree that sheltering our children too much can also cause problems. I guess I find myself seeking some sort of balance. I know that if I had read LOTR at age 7, I would have been disturbed by some of the imagery, and I also know that at least one of my children wouldn’t have been ready for the book at that age. The answer, it seems, probably lies in the needs and capacities of the individual, which makes blanket statements problematic. Thanks for the comment.

    Chrystoph, much of what I said to Sam also applies to my response to your comment, including my thanks for sharing your opinions in a thoughtful way. Interesting stuff. Again, I agree that sheltering our kids too much can be harmful, and as a parent I know that my wife and I need to be the ones making these decisions. And that brings me back to part of the problem with the question I’m asked at my signings. I really do want to say “She’s your kid — read the book and then make the decision yourself.” But that would probably be considered rude . . .

  5. 5. LJCohen

    David–as a writer and as a parent, I appreciate you talking about this. I also find it odd how as a society we have become inured to violence in media, to the point where even very young children are being exposed to significantly violent content.

    However, I do think there’s a difference in how our brains process material we read as opposed to material we see. I remember reading the His Dark Materials series after my then 11 y.o. son read them, horrified by the subtext that seemed to echo the church sex abuse scandal that was breaking in the news at the time. My son didn’t see what I saw in the stories. His emotional age protected him from understanding the material at the same level as I did.

    I don’t know what the answer is, other than to read what your children read and be available to discuss the material with them. On the one hand, they will see what they are ready to see. On the other, we live in a media saturated universe that is all to ready to serve up more graphic violence and sex than I am comfortable with as an adult.

  6. 6. Sam Graham

    Oh, the other issue I forgot to mention, is that it’s not a simple matter of choosing when your child is exposed to these themes of violence and sex.

    In reality, you have a balancing act between dealing with the subject early and letting your child be introduced to the topics in an environment that you have control of and while they’re most likely to still be receptive to viewpoints expressed by you.

    Or, you leave it later, and they are introduced to the topics in an environment that you have no control over, where they’re subjected to peer-pressure in their responses and at a time when it’s cool for them to reject things that you say or think.

    Absolutely if things are graphic and so on then probably not great for a kid of 10, but if you’re still avoiding all mention of the themes of death/violence and relationships, you’re not leaving much time for them to accept your viewpoint before they’re 11, 12 or 13 and they stop listening to you and prefer to listen to their friends at school instead. Even with the best parent-child relationship in the world you’re still surrendering a lot of ground there.

    How you express that to a parent asking the question though, probably best just to go with the old staple “I think it’s ok for a mature X-year old” if it’s something likely to be “challenging”. That way the concerned adult can decide if their kid fits into that category or not.

  7. 7. Marta

    I could talk about this subject all day. My first novel is being published this December, and my son wants to read it. I certainly am not going to let him read it. It isn’t meant for 9-year-olds and later I don’t need to disturb him with, “My MOM wrote that?”

    But I agree that it depends on your child. No one monitored what I read when I was a kid. Mostly that was fine. I did make the mistake of reading this magazine my step-mother kept hidden under her side of the bed (not that hidden). I was about 11, and I dare say it ended up ruining dating for me in high school. I couldn’t shake the feeling that all boys were perverts.

    It is hard to figure this out in this day and age. I’m all for not overprotecting and for talking about facts of life and reality, but is my son now afraid to go to a theater? Yes, he is. Where is that space between raising thoughtful, safe, aware children and children who are not terrified of the world–and by world I mean sex and violence–or the dismaying mixing of the two. Although I say that as someone who write a novel about a rape survivor. So…

    Like I said, I could talk about this all day, so I’ll stop now.

  8. 8. Scott Seldon

    I feel it isn’t so much the violence or sexual content or other adult situations that rub off on kids the wrong way, I think it is how they are presented. Take Star Wars for instance. The Original Trilogy that I grew up with starts with a firefight on the blockade runner. Vader chokes the captain to death. The stormtroopers fry Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (off screen but we see their bodies). Ben cuts down two rowdy guys in the Cantina. Regardless of who shoots first, Greedo gets fried. It continues like that through all three movies. Death and mayhem abound. But what is the theme? It’s a life and death struggle and in the end, Luke throws down his saber and tells the Emperor he won’t kill Vader. The overall message is that violence is something the bad guys like to do and the good guys only do when they have to.

    I think it is all in how we writers present the material. If we do it the right way, our books can be filled with violence and the message we want to impart will get through. Kids aren’t stupid, they can see the larger picture and will most likely come away from a book with the impression we want them to and aren’t likely to twist that in some strange way unless they are already twisted. I don’t recall too many people being violent just because they saw something or read something. The context makes a big difference.

    I used to have these huge battles with my old Star Wars action figures. I’d flick the figures with my fingers to represent getting blasted. I had great fun being violent with those figures. I had great fun being play violent with my friends and cousins with toy guns. I haven’t touched a real gun since I was 10 and I won’t. The only gun I will allow in my house is a 30 year old Han Solo blaster toy gun. It takes something else besides the influence of fiction to lead to real violence from play violence. If play violence led to real violence all the these 1st person shooter games would result in a homicidal society. Instead we have live action Zombie role-playing in public.

    I wouldn’t recommend my books to younger readers simply because of the adult situations. I have no worry about the limited violence or hinted at sexual situations. It is my main character’s drug addiction and criminal activity that I would be worried about. Even so, I seriously doubt that would negatively impact a young reader. They are going to be more influenced by people they know in person than my characters. Still, I do worry about that because of how I have portrayed it and the sense of right and wrong doesn’t quite fit with how I want to see kids develop.

    I also don’t believe in judging a reader by their age in years. I think they need to be judged on their maturity level and one way of doing that is to find out what they have already read. If they’ve read similar books already, then they are old enough. I was reading normal adult books at age 11. I’d give my own kids that same opportunity if they were as mature at that age.

  9. 9. David B. Coe

    Lisa said, “…Read what your children read and be available to discuss the material with them.” This. So, this. I do think that different kids process in different ways. My older daughter did as your son does — she processed what she was ready for and kind of missed the rest. The younger one processed enough to allow her imagination to take her to dark places, so we had to be more careful with her. But reading what she did, and being available to talk to her about it all — yeah, that was key. Thanks for the comment.

    Sam, I agree with you entirely. And as you point out at the end, it’s a matter of leaving the decision to the parents’ discretion. But then, they have to USE that discretion…. Thanks for the discussion. Interesting stuff.

    Scott, great points all around. The violence in which my protagonist engages in THIEFTAKER is not what defines him. Indeed, it’s the reluctance with which he takes those violent steps that is most indicative of his character. Katniss in the Hunger Games is much the same — she is a reluctant killer and is deeply conscious of the inhumanity of the Games. That’s part of what makes the series work. I also would echo your point about judging readers by maturity level rather than age-in-years. But that, it seems to me, makes it all the more incumbent on parents to make the decisions they often ask us writers to make for them.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    Marta, first of all, congratulations on your novel coming out. I hope it’s a huge success! Thanks for the comment. As I say, there is a balance between being overly permissive and overly protective, but it seems to be a moving target. Kids are constantly changing, growing, becoming more capable of dealing with mature stuff, and then backsliding for weeks or months at a time. And culture is constantly shifting as well. There is nothing easy about any of this. Oh, and for the record, as one who was once a teenage boy, I can tell you that yes, we were all perverts….

  11. 11. Marta

    Well, yes. But there are perverts and then there are perverts.

  12. 12. Elizabeth Moon

    It’s a difficult question for any writer who feels any responsibility for the contents of his/her work. I was re-reading, over the weekend, a book out of a series of British children’s books published many decades ago (_Pigeon Post_, one of Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons books.) I first came across these books as an adult, and thoroughly enjoy them: well-written, informative, well-developed characters, with plenty of “pull” through the story arc. (I learned to sail a small boat by reading them.)

    And no violence. Is there psychological stress? Yes, at times. But nothing like the graphic violence and psychological anguish we see now. There’s breathing space, not a constant hammering of violent threat, with other kinds of story-tension keeping the story moving and the reader engaged. Yet the books still hold interest. As a writer, I find myself studying them (and other books for kids from a different era that combine good writing, good characterization, well-developed characters and were, in their day (and some still) very popular. How did those writers grip and hold interest without using violence and extreme suffering? One way was by evoking empathy–not soppy sentimentality, but real empathy, as one child tries to understand another (and sometimes fails) and even tries to understand the motives for adult behavior.

    We have, as a culture, come to think of violence (physical and psychological) as necessary in order to grab and hold interest. Writers kid about what to do if a story’s stuck: throw a grenade in the door, drop a team of ninjas through the ceiling. Movie plot has holes? Crash a car, blow something up. All this does get attention, but gradually requires more, as our sensitivities are blunted by constant exposure–the same is true with our kids. One violent movie, one more adult book with graphic violence, when a kid is seeing and reading predominantly non-violent books–the horse, dog, mystery and sports stories so common years ago–is simply a warning that up ahead is a harsher world. But if most books are grim and dark and violent, I don’t think that’s a healthy diet.

    This may sound odd coming from someone who writes books with violence: military SF, military/space opera crossovers in which (for one example) the heroine is in a hand-to-hand zero-G fight and kills her opponent with a knife. The fantasy is just as gritty: warfare, from the POV of the private in a mercenary company, extreme psychological stress at times. It was written for adults, and I’ve discouraged people from buying any of it for kids under fifteen…but not only for the violence. The complexity of the stories, the complexity of the character relationships, will push young readers to read the books shallowly unless they discuss them with an adult (I’ve had parents tell me they’ve read the books to their kids, and that’s OK–those parents know those kids and can answer questions or concerns.) When I read adult-level books as a kid (and I did) I couldn’t grasp the real depth of the stories and did fixate on the most exciting surface elements–often if not always missing the point. I’ve re-read some of those books, too, and been startled to see how far off my interpretation was. Violence grabs the attention and obscures what else is going on…something an adult reader can overcome, but a child cannot.

    It’s not that I think reading books with violence will turn kids into mass murderers. I’m more concerned that reading predominantly dark, bitter, violent books will take up so much reading time that they never find the books with other lessons to teach. Yes, there’s violence in the world. There’s also respect, compassion, empathy, beauty, generosity, courage that doesn’t depend on violence…and those qualities can be shown in books for young people, even quite young people, without being Berenstain Bears books and others for that age level. Adventure doesn’t have to mean battles. “Conflict” doesn’t have to mean fights, battles, torture.

    Having an autistic son has affected how I look at the various issues of children and YA reading. Kids for whom social interaction is difficult–who cannot parse the more complex characterizations at all, because motives are a mystery–can read dark books, violent books only on the most surface level. And all kids start there. All kids start out, as infants, with no social awareness, no understanding of motives, no understanding of the *complexity* of motivation and the ways humans interact for good or ill. When they arrive at enough understanding to handle my books will vary with the child and the upbringing–both.

    So I see no simple answers. If writers market themselves as children’s writers, or YA writers, I think they have more responsibility for their content…and perhaps more responsibility to see if they can tell a compelling story without relying on violence every few pages (and also without being sappy. I hated sappy stories as a kid.) At the least, make opportunities to expose kids to more than violence. If they want to write the “eye-kick” kind of story with extremely graphic violence and nothing but bleakness in every direction–write it for adults. But still…no simple answers.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    This is a beautiful response, Elizabeth, one that I’ve read over several times now. I do think that that kind of book you describe — the quieter stories that address more subtle emotions and forms of conflict — are out there. I know that my daughters have managed to find a few of them. But they are rare, and as you say, so much of my kids’ reading time is taken up with the flashier more violent stuff.

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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