Each time Suzanne Collins published a book in her blockbuster “Hunger Games” trilogy—now being adapted as even more popular movies—she had to defend them against a public complaint: They were too dark and violent for young adult readers. “This is not a fairy tale,” Collins once told her literary agent. “It’s a war.”
But in a new book, “Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature,” Michelle Ann Abate reveals that violence has always played a central role in children’s books—from actual fairy tales up to high school reading lists today. In short, it’s not just adults, with their true crime books and endless reruns of “Law & Order,” who are hooked on homicide. As Abate writes, “the American obsession with murder also permeates its literature for children.”
Abate, a professor of literature for children and young adults at Ohio State, has compiled an impressive list of grisly literary hits for kids. There are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which contain far more violence and depravity than Disney viewers might imagine. But there’s also J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” where Captain Hook plots the death of Peter (and Tinker Bell mulls the murder of Wendy). Tom Sawyer watches a man drive “the knife to the hilt” in another man’s chest, “flooding him with his blood.” The Lone Ranger spends a whole book fighting “The Menace of Murder Valley.” And entire massively popular series, including Goosebumps and Fear Street, revolve in large part around murders. Indeed, some library catalogs now use “Murder—Juvenile fiction” as a subject heading.
The violence in these books is not mere titillation. Instead, as “Bloody Murder” shows, it’s a mark of how serious and complicated children’s books can be. (When the Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” screams “Off with her head!” it’s not just a punch line, but, Abate argues, an allusion to the real-life queen’s ability to execute her subjects for any one of 200-plus crimes.) The long history of kids’ books addressing our potential for violence can also add perspective to the handwringing over “The Hunger Games.” In fact, the literature children read has changed far less than we think. Their parents—well, that’s another story.
Abate spoke with Ideas by phone. This interview has been edited and condensed.
IDEAS: Readers may be surprised to learn that there’s such a long tradition of homicide in children’s literature. Were you surprised as well?
ABATE: Yeah, I was. The idea for the book came out of course prep. I was teaching an introductory [literature] class with poetry, plays, novels, and children’s literature. For this class I always try to come up with topics that have broad appeal, and one of those topics is murder. So I started making a list on my computer—how many children’s books could I come up with that include murder? The list kept growing and growing and growing.
IDEAS: How did your students react once they discovered their murder syllabus had a bunch of books originally written for kids?
ABATE: They reacted with a sense of initial disbelief—“This can’t be true.” We think of these books as protecting young people from upsetting adult concerns. That’s at least part of the reason we have a whole separate genre for young readers. But by the end of the semester they realized it shouldn’t be that surprising. Adults are fascinated by violence and murder—How did he do it? Why did he do it? What’s his punishment? It’s human nature. And children, after all, are human beings.
IDEAS: You went back and reread children’s books from throughout history for your research. Did those books become more violent and realistic over time?
ABATE: It’s actually the opposite of that. I was also surprised by the level of specificity and by the sensational nature of what I was reading. We tend to think of today’s young adult books as being more realistic. But the earlier books were incredibly graphic and violent. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes,” which was first released as a magazine serial in 1912, is a great example. There are tons of killings—people killing people, people killing animals, animals killing people. All of them are really gruesome and gory. The same thing’s true of “Alice in Wonderland” and a bunch of other classics, books that would never be challenged today. These examples are all conveniently forgotten when there’s a public outcry about a particular book for being so graphic and so violent. It’s almost a kind of literary amnesia.
IDEAS: It sounds like you’re talking about “The Hunger Games.”
ABATE: It’s funny—“The Hunger Games” gets so much bad press for promoting violence. But actually the books are doing the exact opposite. The entire first book is a cautionary tale about the horrors of violence and the senselessness of killing. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it with very little ambiguity. When you have a parent or a school board complaining about these books, in many cases they haven’t read the books themselves, or they’re picking out a chapter, a page, a scene.
IDEAS: Has violence in children’s books always generated this sort of outcry?
ABATE: I read many reviews and critical assessments, past and present. There simply wasn’t the kind of anxiety and worry we now see with “The Hunger Games.” That’s in part because of changes in American parenting practices and in our conception of childhood—what it means to be a child, what childhood is for. But American culture a hundred years ago was very different than it is now. Murder was still a crime, of course, but there was a sense, to stick with the Tarzan example, that it was good for young boys to read about bloodshed and violence. There wasn’t a sense that this could be harmful to them. There was a sense that this would make them men.
IDEAS: That gets at a point that scholars of children’s literature are always making—that since these books weren’t written by kids, they can also give us some insight into adults.
ABATE: Right. And it’s not just the writing. Children’s books are edited by, purchased by, taught by, selected and shelved at the library by adults.…So this tremendous tradition of homicide in children’s lit is part of the ongoing conversation about our culture’s fixation on violence. There’s been so much written about violent video games and TV shows and movies. But the story about violence and books for young readers hadn’t been told before. When you pay attention, these books end up being a one-stop shop for every facet of American’s long obsession with violence. This is going to sound really grim, but for that reason “Bloody Murder” was actually a very fun book to write.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail email@example.com.