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In my last blog, I wondered how people felt about swearing in Young Adult books.  I was thinking this might be the start of an interesting discussion.  Language isn’t the only “adult” behavior that makes its way into adolescent literature.  Death and violence, sex, drug use, racism, and homosexuality are some of the most common themes in books that are challenged and banned.

I thought this might make an interesting series.  Today, I would like to cover the theme of death and violence in young adult literature.

When I construct a plot, one of the first things I try to consider is the stakes.  What will happen if my protagonist fails at whatever she is trying to do?  Will she end orphaned?  Alone?  At military school?  Injured?  Dead?  It has to be something significant, otherwise why would the reader care?  And death certainly is significant.  In fact, so many great stories have a climactic battle scene (HARRY POTTER, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STAR WARS, for example) which is really just opportunity for mass death and violence.

Death is a fairly common theme.  I’m not just talking about older Young Adult, either.  Consider CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White.  Like I mention on my “Favorite Young Adult Books” page, CHARLOTTE’S WEB is one of my favorite books.  By the time I was six, I had already worn out a copy.  This is a book crammed with death.  Wilber the pig is about to be killed on the first page.  Through the whole book the sword of Damocles hangs over his head.  Probably the two saving graces of this book are there actually isn’t any violence at all and that the creature facing death is an animal.

On the other hand, violence, with or without death, is a fairly common reason for book challenges.  HARRY POTTER is one book series challenged for the violence.  While the violence is often cartoonish and healing magically achieved, death is very serious and never reversible.  And in the case of these books, a brilliant marketing ploy.  Who will live?  Who will die?  Once Ms. Rowling killed Cedric Diggory, nobody was safe.  The last book was a veritable bloodbath.  There is one saving grace to the deaths in these books: death is almost never accompanied by violence.  It was a magical spell, the killing curse, which did most of the damage.  The killing curse appeared painless and didn’t leave a mark.

Contrast that with THE HUNGER GAMES, a new favorite of mine.  There’s violence and there’s death.  There’s death by violence.  The main thread of the book is children killing children.  It’s not just minor characters, either.  They are shot with arrows, impaled with lances, poisoned, infected, beaten to death, and eaten by genetically mutated animals.  Theoretically, this book would be for the mid-teen and up crowd but I’m sure younger readers have given this a try, too.  Personally, as much as I enjoyed this series, I might be a little leery to try this book out on a twelve year old.

And then, finally, there’s THE BOOK THIEF.  I’m not entirely sure that this book really belongs on the Young Adult shelf at all.  The New York Times calls it a book “perched on the cusp between grown-up and young-adult fiction”.  This where I make the argument that a teen protagonist doesn’t necessarily make a young adult book.  This is a book about racism and war and literature.  There is explicit, realistic violence.  Death narrates the tale, if that tells you anything about the death toll.  These are adult themes told in an adult way and for the average reader, I think it may be more college level.

But, then again, I’m not a parent.  What do YOU think?  Where do you draw the line with violence in young adult literature?  Is it different from where you draw the line in movies or books?  Let me know what you think.

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