ABATE: It’s funny—“The Hunger Games” gets so much bad press for promoting violence. But actually the books are doing the exact opposite. The entire first book is a cautionary tale about the horrors of violence and the senselessness of killing. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it with very little ambiguity. When you have a parent or a school board complaining about these books, in many cases they haven’t read the books themselves, or they’re picking out a chapter, a page, a scene.
IDEAS: Has violence in children’s books always generated this sort of outcry?
ABATE: I read many reviews and critical assessments, past and present. There simply wasn’t the kind of anxiety and worry we now see with “The Hunger Games.” That’s in part because of changes in American parenting practices and in our conception of childhood—what it means to be a child, what childhood is for. But American culture a hundred years ago was very different than it is now. Murder was still a crime, of course, but there was a sense, to stick with the Tarzan example, that it was good for young boys to read about bloodshed and violence. There wasn’t a sense that this could be harmful to them. There was a sense that this would make them men.
IDEAS: That gets at a point that scholars of children’s literature are always making—that since these books weren’t written by kids, they can also give us some insight into adults.
ABATE: Right. And it’s not just the writing. Children’s books are edited by, purchased by, taught by, selected and shelved at the library by adults.…So this tremendous tradition of homicide in children’s lit is part of the ongoing conversation about our culture’s fixation on violence. There’s been so much written about violent video games and TV shows and movies. But the story about violence and books for young readers hadn’t been told before. When you pay attention, these books end up being a one-stop shop for every facet of American’s long obsession with violence. This is going to sound really grim, but for that reason “Bloody Murder” was actually a very fun book to write.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.