Young Adult fiction, violence and childhood

I was directed by the author Patrick Ness on Twitter to a critique of his trilogy of books titled ‘Chaos Walking’. I’ve read these books and am a huge fan of their treatment of war and violence as brutal, messy realities of the world. (OK technically it’s folded into a debate about the Carnegie Medal but that’s not the part that interests me).

Unfortunately, the critique falls victim to two cardinal sins in the argument on the relationship between children and literature/the media. I wrote the below in a hurried attempt to churn out a comment for the blog post itself, but decided that I’d like to hold on to the text and post it myself here. It’s not my finest work, but I think it offers some important correctives. After submitting it to the blog as a comment, I realised that some of Ness’s own comments are quite close to mine, but at least this provides some exposition on why that’s the case. I’ve also tweaked it a bit:

To put it bluntly, the critique, whilst passionately argued, commits two fairly fundamental errors.

Firstly, this claim: “Why are we no longer surprised when kids join gangs and shoot each other on the streets? They’re conditioned to it by playing killing games on their consoles and watching endless serial killer stuff on TV. So why not in children’s books too?

This is flawed on various levels. If you wanted to make this argument, you’d have to demonstrate that playing video games/watching violent TV is a CAUSAL factor in increased levels of violence. A correlation isn’t enough, because it could that violent people are attracted to violent media (some have argued that such video games are a good way of getting rid of aggression). Anyway, the link between media and actual violence is thorny and most evidence does not suggest a link (I’ll not get in depth here). But here’s an example from days ago.

So, even if it was true that playing video games/watching violent TV causally increased levels of violence, the claim made here is that reading young adult fiction itself could be a causal factor in increased levels of violence. In that case, you’d have to demonstrate that those committing violent acts are statistically more likely to have read such books and that these two are causally related. The cynic in me wants to ask whether those most likely to be violent gang members are likely to be devout readers of young adult fiction, but I’ll leave that aside for now. Again, the question we have to ask is: are these people MADE more violent by these books? Even if they HAD all read Chaos Walking (or similar books), this would not mean those books CAUSED violence – as with the games/TV, it could be that people pre-disposed to violence enjoy reading violent books. There are a huge number of possible causes for violence (e.g. poverty, drugs, peer pressure). If a substantial proportion of people have read these books and not been violent afterwards, this would indicate that the books themselves are not problematic. Dare I suggest that this is the case?

The second claim: “We seem unable to see children as children anymore and want them to grow up as soon as possible, to witness and learn stuff way beyond their years. The grown ups do their best to stay teenagers, so they are indistinguishable from the young adults. Children are children – always have been and always will be.

The first problem here is that it presents absolutely no evidence for its claims. The second problem is that historical study (for example, the book ‘The Invention of Childhood’), will tell you that the notion of childhood has changed over time. So the 21st century is not the first time that children have been dressed up in adults’ clothing (this was also a Victorian phenomenon). The notion that literature is causing problems for youth social order is not new (the introduction of literature at schools was regarded by some as dislodging the only true form of literary study in schools – the Bible, and the introduction of the telephone was fretted over by many adults as potentially causing social divisions). Yet both of these things have become an almost universally accepted part of Western society. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that recent changes are a good thing, but it does present a much stronger nuance. We cannot simply state that ‘childhood’ is a phenomenon universally constant up to this point, suddenly being transformed. It is simply not the case.

I will agree that Chaos Walking is a brutal series of books. But we still live in a brutal world, and literature reflects this. Lord of the Flies grew out of the two World Wars. It’s pretty brutal, but if anything was a causal product of mass violence, not itself a causation of it. I would encourage young adults to read the trilogy as a brilliantly written series of books.

Ultimately, Shoo Rayner is welcome to dislike Chaos Walking, but I do not think it is appropriate to make grossly overstated claims about the potential connections between the books and actual violence, or the way in which the notion of childhood is being uniquely changed.