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The Danger Narrative in KidLit

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Hello:

I want to hear from others about the trend of the 'danger narrative' in kidlit. I know this has been used since the early fairytales but honestly, is that all we have to offer?  How do people feel about this trend? Why does it continue to be so popular, and how much danger is reasonable for young characters, ie. 12 - 14 year olds? Is it ok to put the character in danger? What if it's the parents doing this? I would like to understand this more thoroughly considering a new novel I'm beginning to write. Thanks!
#1 - March 09, 2021, 08:44 AM
The Bridge of Haunted

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Interesting. What you describe as "danger" I view as "adventure." I even wished to be an orphan at times because it seemed they had the best adventures. If the parents were around, they were mostly there to provide food and shelter, but the kids solved whatever mystery or puzzle they stumbled into. There were kidnappings, smugglers, pirates, and very definitely dangerous situations but I loved how the kids used their wits. Always, at the end, the parents and a local policeman would be present to congratulate the kids on catching the bad guys but admonishing them to come to them first. A lot of MG is about saving the world and the stakes are high--life or death.

My son was 11 when he read Hunger Games (after I read it) and I worried whether he could handle the violence. He was always more mature than his age but still once you read or see something, you cannot unread or unsee it, so we were always careful to read anything that might not be suitable first before letting them have it. I've never had to censor their reading though--they did it themselves. For instance, they would not read a story where the dog dies after reading The Red Fern Grows. They'd flip to the end to make sure.

I've only read a few books where the parents themselves are the problem (alcoholism, drugs, mental problems) and the kids are dealing with it. Nancy Werlin has an amazing book: Rules of Survival.  Your story will dictate how far it wants to go. I wouldn't censor myself at this stage. But yes, I think kids need not just fairytales or fantasies but also realistic portrayals of difficult family situations and how to escape them or find ways to cope. Good luck!   

Here's a discussion on domestic violence in MG: https://www.scbwi.org/boards/index.php?topic=69845.0
on issue books: https://www.scbwi.org/boards/index.php?topic=86335.msg1079197#msg1079197
#2 - March 09, 2021, 11:24 AM
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The world is a dangerous place.

Kids need to know that they can manage, thrive even, no matter what comes at them. I believe these books provide roadmap for that. Many books where there is no physical danger provide roadmaps also. For example, many kids books have the protagonist in the aftermath of the death of a friend, sibling, or parent. There is no physical danger, but  the emotional situation can also be harrowing. I'd argue we need books like this. Stuff really happens to kids.

Also, it's not the theme or topic, it's how you write it. That's what matters in works for middle grade readers.
#3 - March 09, 2021, 06:26 PM
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Hello:

I want to hear from others about the trend of the 'danger narrative' in kidlit. I know this has been used since the early fairytales but honestly, is that all we have to offer?  How do people feel about this trend? Why does it continue to be so popular, and how much danger is reasonable for young characters, ie. 12 - 14 year olds? Is it ok to put the character in danger? What if it's the parents doing this? I would like to understand this more thoroughly considering a new novel I'm beginning to write. Thanks!

I'm not sure I understand where you are coming from on this.... Where did you read that this is a trend?  FWIW I'm not aware of such a trend. As you said, kids have been in danger in stories for a long time. Also, and more importantly, how does this affect what you are beginning to write? Because you are avoiding situations of danger, or because you are including danger, and you don't want to just follow trends?  Or for some other reason? Thanks!
#4 - March 09, 2021, 07:15 PM
« Last Edit: March 09, 2021, 07:17 PM by HaroldU »
Harold Underdown

The Purple Crayon, a children's book editor's site: http://www.underdown.org/
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It certainly is in my writer's group. I'm the only one not using it.
#5 - March 11, 2021, 06:57 AM
The Bridge of Haunted

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It certainly is in my writer's group. I'm the only one not using it.

And your group talks about it as the "danger narrative"? Very interesting. So your concern is that you are not in tune with the market.

For what it's worth, I've been working in publishing for 30 years, and this is the first time I've encountered this specific term, though I understand what it refers to. Since you didn't mention any places where you've read about it, I'm still wondering about the source, and how it became such a dominant theme in your writing group. I'm going to have to do some research!
#6 - March 11, 2021, 07:21 AM
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This probably isn't quite the sort of danger you mean, but when I was growing up the biggest book series here was the "Tomorrow, When the War Began" series. We studied it in primary (elementary) school - I was about eleven.

It's about a group of kids who are away camping when Australia is invaded, and they're left without parents and have to fight back on their own.

I think the MG age group is really ready for danger in their books. It never even occurred to me at the time that these were big, scary themes I was reading about.
#7 - March 11, 2021, 11:27 AM

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An interesting article, though since it's from 2010 and does a good bit of looking back, it doesn't address the question of the "danger narrative" as a recent trend: https://www.luther.edu/oneota-reading-journal/archive/2010/does-violence-have-a-place-in-childrens-literature/

And I found that as I tried different searches, the most common results I got were around either the "stranger-danger" narrative and the white supremacist danger narrative (i.e., not the danger posed by white supremacists but the danger they claim whites are in...).
#8 - March 11, 2021, 11:32 AM
« Last Edit: March 11, 2021, 11:35 AM by HaroldU »
Harold Underdown

The Purple Crayon, a children's book editor's site: http://www.underdown.org/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/HUnderdown

The 'danger narrative' in kidlit[:] is that all we have to offer?
As Tonto says in the punchline of that old joke, "What to you mean 'We,' paleface?"

Now that J.K. Rowling has nicely sidestepped the pitchfork- and torch-bearing Social Media Cancel Mob, one can again concentrate on her works. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone works just as well now as when it was published in 1997. Harry deals with plenty of casual domestic cruelty, suffers a good bit of bullying, at home and at Hogwarts, and faces dire peril from fantastic creatures and evil wizards. Yet no-one can dismiss HP as a "danger narrative," because the dangers--ordinary and extraordinary--are necessarily expositional and transformative.

Without the danger, there is no narrative.

Modern tales no longer show the violent, often fatal consequences of failing to learn what's what and adopting proper adult-ish behavior. But larnin' kids that life ain't all about playing it safe is still vitally important. Harry Potter's major character arc is that of developing courage: facing down one's fears and persisting in the face of mortal peril.

As Tolkien correctly asserts in On Fairy Stories, the unique advantage of fantasy is that the reader can safely learn lessons in fairyland that may then beneficially be applied in the real world. Those who insist that all children's stories must be grounded in (perhaps) grim but danger-free reality miss that important truth, and fail to acknowledge that nobody would really choose to live in fairyland, even if it existed.
#9 - March 13, 2021, 03:07 PM
« Last Edit: March 13, 2021, 03:29 PM by A. S. Templeton »
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Hansel & Gretel anyone? Fairytales involved abuse and danger. There's nothing new here.
#10 - March 13, 2021, 03:41 PM
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I'm having this issue now with the MG that I'm writing. Not to be crass, but how high is too high for a body count? I've killed five adults and I'm about to have three kids devoured by the monster. Not descriptive, just sort of switching scenes. I want my monster to be a real threat.
#11 - March 15, 2021, 08:49 PM

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I'm having this issue now with the MG that I'm writing. Not to be crass, but how high is too high for a body count? I've killed five adults and I'm about to have three kids devoured by the monster. Not descriptive, just sort of switching scenes. I want my monster to be a real threat.

I think genre matters here. There is a difference between a realistic fiction, whether historical or contemporary, and a horror novel or fantasy. Read widely in your genre for the age group. Talk to a librarian to see if they can find middle grade books with murderous monsters. See how those authors handled this. It really is all in how you do it: how attached is the reader to the character who dies? Is the murder or any physical after images (like spots of blood) shown? That sort of thing. I'm afraid it's not a genre I read in but it's in right now.
#12 - March 16, 2021, 06:18 PM
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I think genre matters here. There is a difference between a realistic fiction, whether historical or contemporary, and a horror novel or fantasy. Read widely in your genre for the age group. Talk to a librarian to see if they can find middle grade books with murderous monsters. See how those authors handled this. It really is all in how you do it: how attached is the reader to the character who dies? Is the murder or any physical after images (like spots of blood) shown? That sort of thing. I'm afraid it's not a genre I read in but it's in right now.

Well said...
#13 - March 16, 2021, 07:03 PM
Harold Underdown

The Purple Crayon, a children's book editor's site: http://www.underdown.org/
Twitter: http://twitter.com/HUnderdown

I think genre matters here. There is a difference between a realistic fiction, whether historical or contemporary, and a horror novel or fantasy. Read widely in your genre for the age group. Talk to a librarian to see if they can find middle grade books with murderous monsters. See how those authors handled this. It really is all in how you do it: how attached is the reader to the character who dies? Is the murder or any physical after images (like spots of blood) shown? That sort of thing. I'm afraid it's not a genre I read in but it's in right now.

That's the generally opinion that I'm getting from other places, but I still think I'm skewing high. I'll do some more reading and work it out in rewrites. Thanks.
#14 - March 17, 2021, 05:51 AM

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