Thursday, September 29, 2011

Let's Talk Writing MG: When is it too dark?

There's been a bunch of media coverage on whether YA has become too dark for its audience. Is Middle Grade following this trend? I don't think so, but after a couple of middle grade books I've read recently, I find my inner-11-year-old at odds with the-mother-of-four-girls.

So what is too dark for middle grade? Is there a line? Should there be a line?

We live in a time where old Sesame Street episodes are considered bad for our children because they show children riding a bike without a helmet. This cracks me up but it is a commentary on how we raise our kids now.

Still, it surprises me that the middle grade genre, that doesn't want you to use the word butt nugget, is okay with large body counts, murder (did you say murder?), dark magic, and the likes.

Exhibit A
For example, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, which won the Newberry Medal, opens with the murder of Nobody's family and Nobody only escapes the mass killing by waddling into a graveyard.

The inner 11 yr old: thinks sweet.

The mother of 4: thinks WHAT? I don't want my 9-year-old reading this yet. Even though the story isn't really scary, the themes are really mature.

Exhibit B
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Voldemort is brought back to life, that's some dark voodoo. (Not to mention the dead bodies that stack up in this and the following books.)

The inner 11 year old: thinks hells yes that's scary but sweet. Must read more.

The mother of 4: thinks hells no my daughters aren't reading this book till they are at least 12.

Yet scores of 7, 8, 9 year-olds have read this book. Lauren read the first 2 Harry Potter books when she was eight but stopped because the second was too scary for her. I figure she'll pick up the others when she's ready, and I'm glad because I'd prefer her to be older when she gets to book 4 and beyond.

Exhibit C
My last example comes from the book A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz. For the record, I first have to say that I LOVE this book. LOVE. It's my MMGM for next week. Seriously, LOVE. But I feel it needs to come with a warning to parents because I feel parents should know what's in the book before they hand it to their kids.

The book has lots of blood, guts, gore, and a staggering body count--it's a fabulous retelling/reimagining of the Grimm fairytales. I have the complete works of Grimm in my library: good and dark. So I expected this from the book. And for the most part, actually the whole part but one chapter is done well for all middle grade kids (8-12). But it's that one chapter, or really just one page that inspired this whole blog post.

So here it is, read and then respond. Is this too dark for middle grade?

"He threw the girl on the oaken table, and from a nearby cupboard produced a filthy iron cage. Then he reached his hand into the girl's mouth until his arm was buried deep in her throat. Slowly, painfully, and with great struggle from the girl, he pulled forth a beautiful white dove. The dove fought the young man as he shoved it in the filthy cage and slammed the door shut.

The girl's body was still.

Now you might want to close your eyes.

He lifted an ax that hung on the wall, and Gretel, peering through a gap between a filthy pot and a filthier pan, watched her handsome, wonderful, funny friend hack the girl's body into bits and toss each piece into the boiling cauldron. His blunt butcher's knife rose and fell, rose and fell. He licked the blood from his hands and sent piece after piece sailing into the pot." (A Tale Dark and Grimm, page 102.)

What the butt nugget? This is middle grade? I can't let my girls read this. The dove was the girl's soul and when Gretel defeats the warlock, hundreds of doves (girls that he killed) become girls again. Horray, see no one was really chopped and eaten...Oh but wait they were.

The inner 11 year old: thinks um that's messed up but what happen's next? Still I'm sleeping with my light on.

The mother of 4: thinks we're done, my girls aren't reading this for a while.

Of course, I finished the book because I'm an adult and the book is well done. So then I struggle, because like the author points out in the beginning of the book, this is a big kid book about Grimm fairytales that are bloody and disturbing BUT AWESOME.

The first line of the book is: "Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome."

Which is true. Everything now seems to be bubble gum and safety helmets.

I'm actually okay with my 9-year-old reading all of the book but that page. Which frustrates me because I love the book... but I still want her to be at least 12 before she reads it. Serial killers is not something I need my daughter to think about right now in her life. BUT THE BOOK IS AMAZING. Love the story, love the Grimm woven in, love the moral.

Do you feel the conflict within me? I'm like Luke Skywalker trying to pick a side.

My compromise: I'll be doing a heads up to parents about said page in my MMGM on Monday and only recommending it to older MGers.

What do you think?

[Random sidebar: I'm making those bookmarks with my kids this weekend. Love.]


  1. My daughter, who turns twelve next month, would have such difficulty with that page. It would haunt her. As her mom, I know this and would steer her away from this book (even if the rest of it is awesome). My son, hmmmm, he's thirteen, but that explicit of description may not sit well with him either.

    Parents know their kids, know what they can and cannot handle, and should take an active role in what their kids read. Of course, that doesn't always happen. Is some MG too dark? In my opinion, yes. Some is. For some kids. And parents need to be in the loop.

    And if your kid reads a book that kinda freaks them out (not just scary stuff but things they don't understand or are affected by), it's a teaching time. Books are awesome that way.

  2. I have the same feelings--I can't understand it when people are always bragging "My 6 year old read all the Harry Potter books!" I think, You LET her read all the HP books at SIX???
    My younger daughter did the same thing yours did--read 1-2 (or maybe 3) then came back to 4 when she was 11 and not having nightmares about them anymore.
    I also have a 12.5 year old and I'm not sure I want her reading about a girl getting chopped up...(I haven't read that book-guess I should).

  3. I'd be concerned if the young reader couldn't read the stuff without becoming anxious, e.g., nightmares, excessive irritability, worrying, etc. Also, I'd worry if reading blood and guts became obsessive, i.e., that's all they wanted to read. Sorry...I can't keep the psychologist in me down. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  4. I have the same internal struggle. My son is an advanced reader so it has always been a challenge to find books that match his speed and comprehension without being more than he could handle emotionally for his age. My almost 9-year-old daughter is better able to handle scary stuff but I've still only read the first two Harry Potter's with her. Of course, then we have the problem of other people telling her the ending...

  5. I think it depends on the kid. Certainly that would not be for an 8 year old. But some mature 11-12 year olds are already reading YA. I know my daughter and her friends were at that age. I think there is a huge difference in development between 8 and 12 and that's why there should be those upper middle grade books for the older group.

  6. I think it does depend on the kid...and some would not want to pick up books too dark and scary-I know in my book club I would tell kids what they could expect. There were some who would no way pick TALES DARK AND GRIMM and others who would. Now, when my girls were that age I know it would be a book that was too dark for them. Going further back to me-I would have read, been fine until I went to bed!

  7. Tried numerous times to comment yesterday, but to Blogger I'm not even anonymous!

    Just wanted to say how much I appreciated this post, and all the subsequent comments.

    Hope the bookmark making was fun!