Several years ago, I participated in a book signing at a Hastings bookstore in some far corner of my state, and while I was waiting for the session to start I found myself chatting with a store janitor cleaning the aisles. When this man found out I was there to autograph copies of my latest fantasy novel, he mentioned the Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling’s stories were then new and wildly popular, and this man was unsure about them. The popularity of the books worried him. He wasn’t sure about their themes of magic and sorcery. He was concerned about children reading the stories and how those stories might influence young minds to turn to the darker side of human nature. Most of all, he feared the villain he’d heard about.
My answer to him was as follows: If you don’t write about evil in a story, how can you dramatize good overcoming it?
It made him think in a new direction. He went back to sweeping and I resumed signing books. My answer was a valid one because fiction needs a villain to test the hero and force the hero to change and/or grow; however, the janitor’s concerns should be taken seriously and not brushed aside. In the years since, they have stayed with me.
This morning I was reading an article called “Why We Need Utopian Fiction Now More Than Ever” by Eleanor Tremeer. It’s about the growing desirability for utopian themes to return to science fiction. As our real world careens through a climate of uncertainty and anarchy, it needs hope.
The author raises a good point; however, science fiction has a long history of reflecting the current times and whatever fears the population has. For example, the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear attack generated numerous stories about mutant monsters such as Godzilla rampaging against a helpless population. Our current glut of dystopian settings mirrors concerns about climate change and societal unrest.
Even so, I confess that I’m ready for some optimism in my fiction. I find myself worrying about the present state of so-called children’s fiction where it seems that anything goes. Do middle-grade children need to read dark, edgy stories that feature violence and disturbing anti-social behavior? If I stand on my answer to the janitor, yes. Books need evil in them, providing it’s overcome.
But if it’s allowed to prevail, what are we doing?
As I pick up book after book in the kids section at my local bookstore, I find myself sharing that janitor’s concerns. In children’s fiction, we need to take care. I’m not recommending that we censor books unilaterally, but shouldn’t we be asking ourselves: What does this story have to say? How will this affect a child reader? Will this provoke a child to ask questions? Will this influence a child to be more sensitive to the feelings of others? Will this inspire a child to be braver, more honest, and emotionally receptive? Will this frighten a child? Will this teach a child that lying is okay? Will this desensitize a child? Or will this make a child think, so that in the future the child can make connections and understand bigger, more challenging themes or issues in part because of having read this book?
Such issues used to be called the responsibility of authors toward child readers. Publishers, librarians, and teachers were gate-keepers that steered young readers to stories they might be ready for and away from stories that were perhaps too intense or confusing for them at their particular age. It went hand-in-glove with broadcasting’s prime-time regulations for television content, stipulating that certain programs could not be aired until 9 p.m. when children were in bed. There was a general agreement that children were to be protected–not just by their parents, but by all adults. At the same time, middle-class American society permitted any adult to reprimand a child for improper behavior anywhere at any time.
Having grown up in that era, I enjoyed a childhood with a bubble around it. I was protected yet given considerable freedom to play and roam just about anywhere in my community. My mother knew that the elderly lady down the street would phone her if I was doing something I shouldn’t. And I knew that if I ran into trouble I couldn’t handle, I could seek help from an adult. The single warning criteria repeatedly stressed was never to get into a car with someone I didn’t know.
That is not our world today. It is not the world that children grow up in now. The bubble has been shattered. Chide a misbehaving child in public, and you run the risk of having her parent attack you like a ferocious she-wolf. Helicopter parents guard and hover over their children, who rarely set foot outdoors and seem managed constantly. Stranger Danger is the lesson kids are taught, and they are so shielded from adults that all grownups are perceived to be a) monsters or b) totally without authority or relevance.
I find it odd that despite so much parental protection, no one seems to be watching the content of children’s books. They are troubling due to their tone, the behavior of the characters, the rudeness and profanity that now sprinkle the pages, the inability of a child protagonist to stand alone, thus gaining self-reliance and independence, and–most alarming of all–their lack of conclusive endings where evil is met, confronted, and defeated.
When stories don’t dramatize the termination of villainy, they are themselves, in their cumulative effect, villainous.
Which brings me back to Tremeer’s point about our current need for hope in fiction. When you do not feature a true villain that can be confronted, outwitted, and defeated, you are serving defeatism.
You are writing a pessimistic story that leaves nowhere for readers to go. You are saying, this is a bad situation and it can’t be fixed. It will go on and on without end, without resolution. Just survive it as best you can.
That’s not the approach to fiction that I know or love or believe in. It’s not the approach to life that I want to have. It’s not what I want to see spoon-fed to children as entertainment.