How grim can you be? How graphic? Can you kill important characters? Can you kill them in disturbing, gory ways?
As it happens, I’m not personally too keen on authors who slaughter characters left and right for no good reason. Or set out to manipulate you and jerk your tears by introducing a very likable character specifically in order to kill them (I’m thinking of ALL Steven King’s recent books, here).
Or on authors who seem to be out to test your tolerance for gore, again for no special reason — just using gore as an end in itself. And, you know, this isn’t a YA thing as far as I know, but sometimes the torture scenes get so numerous the plot sort of disappears behind them? Which is kind of appalling, imho, because it actually winds up (for me) generating boredom with the torture, which is kind of not the reaction I prefer to have to reading about pain and suffering. I’m thinking of Laurell Hamilton here. But she’s very popular, of course, and fine! If lots of gore and sex and gore and violence and gore are what you like, great!
But I do think that there’s a tremendous difference in the TYPE of violence from book to book, and that this then makes a huge difference to the reading experience, and THIS hasn’t been addressed at all (that I know of) in discussions about violence in YA literature.
Let’s take only stories that include quite a lot of violence. One end of the spectrum, we have stories such as GRACELING which has plenty of violence, but it’s not going to hit too many “WAY TOO DISTURBING” buttons for most readers, I think. The main character, Katsa, is used by her king as a threat and a thug, but she loathes being used that way, rebels, goes off on her own, and winds up facing the REAL thug in the book. GRACELING is not going to give too many readers nightmares, and I think part of the reason for this is that the book’s underlying message are normative, prosocial, and not at all disturbing: It’s wrong to force your will on others, it’s right to go to the limit to protect the helpless. These are not challenging themes (not that there’s anything wrong with that! I *like* prosocial themes!)
DIVERGENT is a little more disturbing, but not much. The conflict between putting others first and putting yourself first sets up an interesting theme, which I expect to unfold through the sequel(s). The main character, Tris, thinks of herself as selfish, and in some ways she even IS selfish — and, as Thea at The Book Smugglers pointed out, that’s actually kind of refreshing. When Tris refuses to forgive that guy for trying to kill her? Well, hey, trying to murder a rival isn’t actually very forgivable, you know? There is quite a bit of cruelty in the story, but in DIVERGENT, I think the quick pace, the excitement, and the fundamental lack of realism offset both the cruelty inflicted on the characters and the cruelty they inflict on each other.
THE HUNGER GAMES is something else again. The slower pace draws you into a far more detailed and far more believable world, the society is just about the most oppressive EVER, and the situation into which Katniss is dumped is way more awful than anything in DIVERGENT or GRACELING. Interestingly, we get a conflict between selfishness / selflessness here as well, but overall we get far more challenging themes in THE HUNGER GAMES. For example, Suzanne Collins slams home (in MOCKINGJAY) the idea that although war is sometimes absolutely necessary, it is still awful and brutalizes everyone involved. I think the greater plausibility of the world and the greater complexity of the themes add a big impact and, to my mind, make the cruelty and violence in the book much more disturbing.
Elizabeth Wein pushes the limits of violence and cruelty on a much smaller scale in THE SUNBIRD, which is not a dystopian novel (it’s an adventure story, more like GRACELING than like DIVERGENT or THE HUNGER GAMES, although not much like any of the three). The setting (the African country of Aksum) is wonderful, and wonderfully detailed. The main character, Telemakos, is a contender for coolest-main-character-in-all-YA-fantasy. The writing is flawless. Oh, this is a great book! But some of the cruelty that Telemakos witnesses, and some he suffers, really push the envelope. It’s bad enough I hesitate to spell it out. But I don’t think this book got the buzz of those above (unfairly!), so probably many fewer people have read it, so here goes:
In one scene, Telemakos witnesses a slave boy, a porter, being whipped for clumsiness and dropping things. This is a boy who was in the wrong place and heard the wrong thing, and just a day or so previously his master cut out his tongue and cut off his hands, so he could neither speak nor write. THEN he was beaten for dropping things.
This is a historical novel (well, historical-ish). Is that level of, I don’t know, indifferent, thoughtless cruelty historical accurate? Probably. Is it okay in a YA novel? Well, I loved the book, and highly recommend it. Would I let my kids read it, if I had kids? Probably. These awful scenes are redeemed, for me, because none of the main characters take them lightly or find them at all acceptable — and also because they are all wrapped up with main plot (they are not gratuitous, they are not there just to shock the reader). Would I expect kids to have nightmares about this scene. Umm . . . wouldn’t be surprised.
Okay, one more: The TOMORROW series by John Marsden, starting with TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN and proceeding through six sequels. These aren’t dystopian, exactly, though people who love dystopias would probably love them. They’re adventure. Not fantasy, not exactly SF, the idea is that some unnamed (nonexistent in our world) country suddenly moved to conquer modern-day Australia, and a group of kids who were camping in the bush and didn’t get swept up with everyone else wind up on their own, doing guerrilla stuff to fight back. This series doesn’t have the horrifically oppressive Capital of THE HUNGER GAMES, run by the extraordinarily evil President Snow, nor does it have any individual scenes of such overwhelming cruelty as THE SUNBIRD (so far; I’ve read the first four). What it does have, in spades, is realism in the emotional reactions and interactions of the main characters. Like when an enemy soldier is going to rape one of the girls and another whaps him on the head with a rock and he dies, slowly, without regaining consciousness — the emotional reactions of the kids as they watch him die is SO VERY BELIEVABLE. This sort of thing happens over and over and it is ALL totally believable and feels totally true to life and just RIGHT. (How does Marsden DO this? I am so jealous!) And it is this quality of total believability on a human level which gives this series such tremendous punch.
And the TOMORROW series also works for me because once again the themes and underlying messages are positive: it may be totally necessary to kill somebody, in fact pacifism might be totally wrong, but it’s not easy, not okay, not something you’re going to recover from instantly. Or even at all. In that sense, the message of the TOMORROW series are an awful lot like like the ones in MOCKINGJAY.
For me, the more believable the setting and the characters, the more powerful the violence. And the themes. And the reading experience.
Appropriate, NON-gratuitous violence is part and parcel of all the books above; it’s inextricable not just from the plots but from the themes. It’s part of what makes them effective; removing it or even toning down the violence and cruelty from these books would make them not just sanitized, but also ineffective or even “unwritable”, as they really could not exist in such a form.
And that’s how it should be, I think, if an author answers the “Should you?” question with a “Yes, I should.”