“Let there be wicked kings…”

May 5th, 2010 • Kate

prince_caspian_image_6As I do regularly, I was trolling the blogosphere and came across this review of Matthew Cody‘s Powerless. I can’t argue with her praise, but I do want to especially point out this bit at the end:

This is one of those great debates in children’s literature: should the bad guy be really and truly bad? After all, kids know there is good and evil in the world. Matthew Cody seems to side with C.S. Lewis:

“Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.”

Myself, I sometimes believe this, and other times want fairy stories where no harm is permanent and it’s all a good trick in the end.

I can confirm that Matt definitely believes this — I’ve read his next novel, and the bad guy is one you’ll not soon forget.

For myself, I come down firmly on the side of C.S. Lewis in this. And, in fact, if we’re truly talking about the original fairy tales that the watered down versions of Cinderella and Hansel & Gretel, to name a few, are based on, those tales were all about being frightened.

What do you think? I believe this debate really centers around middle grade fiction, as by the time we reach YA, our eyes have lost whatever shutters society might have put on us, and anything “evil” is pretty much evil, as in reality. And honestly, we don’t have to look any further than Harry Potter for another example of a series where the author doesn’t shield her young readers from the reality of fear and death.

To the comments! I look forward to reading your thoughts.

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14 Responses to ““Let there be wicked kings…””

  1. Becky Mahoney Says:

    Oooooh, this is a favorite topic of mine. It doesn't work for every story, of course, but I know whenever I read adventure stories as a kid, I felt cheated when the author pulled his/her punches and didn't let the story get at least a little scary. (Of course, I tend to love kidlit that takes this to the extreme, like CORALINE, but the point still stands!)

    To pull out another C.S Lewis quote, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."

    Even though those stories may have been frightening, it was always comforting to me at the end because despite going against this terrifying villain, the protagonist won anyway. To me, that element of fear was – and still is – my favorite part of the story, the one that kept me reading all night. And without it, the protagonist's happy ending didn't seem quite as triumphant.

  2. Sandy Shin Says:

    This post comes at such an opportune time! I had just finished writing and submitting a paper about villains in children's literature.

    I whole-heartedly believe that children's stories can be scary–not up to par with the horror genre, but certainly scary. I think children expect it when reading. In fact, for my paper, I read an article that puts forth the opinion that, in certain tales, especially fairy tales, where the storyteller attempts to "nicefy" the ending, children can come away feeling both cheated and filled with more dread–for there's the idea that the bad guys weren't punished enough and they were still out there.

  3. Catherine Says:

    This topic hits home for a couple of reasons. As a mom of two young boys (9,11), I frequently worry about some of the books they read. Take the 39 Clues – great series, solid writing by different authors, engaging story. But it starts with the death of the family matriarch, and in each story people get hurt in some way or another (shot, burned, etc.). While the true villians in the books are usually other clan members, I think it still applies. With books such as those in this series, my husband and I either read first – or read out loud to our boys in case things get too intense or they have questions.

    The books don't get into the details when someone gets hurt (no describing someone getting shot, for example), but still – I wonder if this is too much for them. Yes, they know such things happen in real life but a part of me believes the stories they read (at this age) should be more light or something. Less scary, less intense. But what do I know – I read Nancy Drew growing up, and then "borrowed" the Stephen King books my Dad hid in his briefcase. Now, talk about scary!

    As a writer, I want to engage my intended audience….and know that some readers like the scary factor (I did growing up, still do), but that mom part of me is always there. Will some kid get too scared? Just because I know kids are aware of such things, does that make it okay to write about them?

    Honestly, I'm not sure how I feel about it in terms of what I write. My one completed novel is an adult urban fantasy, so no worries there. With the YA WIP, I feel I'm on track with how I'm covering the topics.

    But MG – those kids are young and I hate to contribute to the end of their innocence as it were. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Amanda Says:

    Interesting topic. Yes, children can handle fear, death, and evil if they are presented correctly.

    Even as a small child, I loved the ending of Anderson's "Little Mermaid." To this day, I always think of mermaid souls when I see sea foam at the beach. (The movie had nothing to do with real story.)

    I just decided yesterday that the villain of my MG WIP must be thisclose to actually killing one of the two twin heroines (as in sword to neck). Without dire consequences, what's the motive? Just my humble opinion.

  5. Becky Mahoney Says:

    Awww. You're a good mom, Catherine!

    And that does bring up another point – parents have to know their children well enough to know what they can handle. You see this with movies a lot more often, true. To go back to CORALINE for a minute, I went to see the movie adaptation when it came out, and I ran into my mom's coworker with her small child. The coworker said, "Oh, yeah, we're here to see the kids' movie," and then… well, her daughter had nightmares.

    While there are certainly parents like Catherine who put a lot of thought into the intensity of the books they give to their kids, some parents will just give their kids anything just because it was written for the kids' market.

  6. Heidi Says:

    I have always thought that a good villain can really make a book, and this is especially true for MG novels. Usually, one of the main themes in a MG novel (or series), is the growth of the main characters, and part of that growth is losing some of their innocence and learning that there is evil in the world. While it can be scary for young readers, I think it's an important lesson, almost as important as the lesson that this evil can be defeated (usually at the end of the book, when the character has finally come into his or her own).

    I know I always felt cheated when the ending was too easy, and everything was all nice and fluffy, or suddenly put right. Even as a child, I knew the world didn't work that way, and I didn't buy it in the books I read, either. I think MG authors who try to shield their readers by creating a bright, shiny ending where no harm is permanent are essentially talking down to kids, who can usually tell.

    That being said, I think the most interesting villains in books for any age are the ones that the reader can sympathize with, at least a little. Honestly, these villains are much scarier than the pure evil villains because it's usually not too hard to see how they became evil, and to imagine yourself in similar circumstances going down the same dark path.

  7. Peter Dudley Says:

    I agree with the Lewis quotes, but I would add that what's important is not the distinction between scary versus non-scary, but the clarity versus ambiguity of badness.

    The younger the child, the more black-and-white the story needs to be. The ability to absorb, process, and deal with ambiguity is something that is learned over time. A villain like Voldemort or the Wicked Witch is easy for everyone to identify as evil. Not only is the evil complete and pervasive, but the character is physically repulsive. Up through MG, most kids still see parents, teachers, the President, etc. as heroic, infallible figures. They don't yet have the sophistication to appreciate ambiguity or duality.

    Then there are stories like Beauty and the Beast, where the whole point of the story is to introduce the idea of broken stereotypes and deceptive appearances. There is no ambiguity–the good are clearly good and the bad are clearly bad–but children learn through these stories that not all good is beautiful and not all bad is ugly.

    In YA, you can start having ambiguously good/bad characters. YA is where kids start realizing their parents are flawed, start seeing that the world is not clear-cut. Alcoholic parents that are abusive in one scene but would die to save their kids in another. Heroes like Robin Hood that do illegal things for the greater good.

    So, yeah, I think there should be dragons and evil wizards and hideous trolls. The younger the audience, the more clearly evil the villains should be. The evil is farther away and easier to identify. As kids get older, the evil can come closer and become less clear until you get to the sophistication of something like Hamlet, where the real villain is actually the hero himself.

  8. Kate Says:

    Oh, wow, Peter, I think you just opened up a whole 'nother fabulous topic for discussion (although perhaps not for this blog). But I can see English majors such as ourselves feverishly debating the idea of Hamlet as villain.

  9. Katie Says:

    Hmmm yes, a rather bold statement to make about Hamlet…

    Anyway, other than your Hamlet comment Peter, I have to say I rather agree with your above statement. The question is not so much is the 'bad guy' scary or mild (there isn't much point to a bad guy that isn't in someway threatening!!) but rather at what point is acceptable to show that evil can come in shades of gray.

    I think Harry Potter is an excellent example of the way evil because more ambiguous as the children age- as the series moves from mg to ya. Voldermort I think, rather unarguably, remains 'purely evil'– he is not an ambiguous character. But, as the protagonists get older the politicians in the HP world in particular become interesting figures of good gone bad, or good making bad decisions. Cornelius Fudge and Rufus Scrigmore are both interesting examples of 'good guys' who are still effectively enemies to the hero of the books. Similarly, Dumbledore who has always been a character of undeniable good becomes blurry in the seventh book.

    I think black and white distinctions are somewhat necessary for children who have a developing sense of morality and societal ethics. In any situation, until one has a foundation upon which to build it is difficult to introduce ambiguity. Rather ironically, children must understand the basics of right and wrong before they can be told that actually right and wrong aren't very clear cut.

    (Ps- I hate that as a culture we feel the need to physically manifest evil in characters… its a trope that's been around since the 16th century, but the villain is always ugly or has some kind of physical malformation. It is a disappointing reflection of our society's obsession with superficial appearance.)

  10. Peter Dudley Says:

    Yeah, sorry about the Hamlet thing. I was tired and had to get to bed while writing that comment. ๐Ÿ™‚ It was the first thing that came to mind of a story that raises some really complex questions that young readers simply can't grasp, no matter how much explaining they get from grownups. Anyway, as an Engineering major I didn't get to study Hamlet in college, only through my own reading of it. And it's been a few years since my last reading.

  11. Becky Mahoney Says:

    Not at all, Peter! Shakespeare loved that kind of thing. I mean, you could make an argument that Merchant of Venice is not a comedy at all, but actually the tragedy of Shylock… but that's for another discussion.

  12. AudryT Says:

    It's impossible for us to decide what every child in the world needs to read and when they need to read it. There's a kind of blindness in the on-going Euro/North American discussion of whether or not children can handle evil, violence, and so on in their books. It tends to ignore the fact that millions of children worlwide live through violence and know evil first-hand. If you've watched a man hacked to death with a machete, will an imaginary dragon in a book really bother you? Or will it help you to process the horror you've seen, especially when the hero triumphs in the end — something that often doesn't happen in real life?

    Children are not innocent (a false role we have cast them in since the Victorian era) and many children live through a greater darkness than you'll ever see reflected in MG written primarily from the perspective of a comfortable, fairly safe middle-class world. Books can and need to be written for children in all walks of life and situations. To restrict what's written about for a specific age group is to act as if you know the situation and psychological needs of every ten year old child in the world. But do you really know what a child who lost their parent to starvation, who was born and has grown up with AIDS, or whose whole nation was destroyed by an earthquake, needs to read? Or should we stick only to writing safe villains for kids we think should be sheltered from the existence and reality of all these things?

    Thanks for broaching the topic on your blog! It's a compelling one.

  13. Abby Stevens Says:

    I don't think parents should put their children in a bubble. Obviously, 5-year-olds shouldn't be reading about murder, but once a topic is age-appropriate (and while everyone has their own idea of 'age-appropriateness', there are guidelines created by experts), overprotecting children does more harm than good. There is evil in the world; we do children a disservice by pretending it doesn't exist. Far better to arm children with the knowledge of why this or that is wrong, and what he or she can do about it, than to leave them unprepared and naive. Sadly, that is the nature of life – we must become aware of the way of the world in order to not be swallowed up by it.

  14. Lisa Gail Green Says:

    I love this post! What a great quote from C.S. Lewis. D.J. McHale said that it's the kids with the best imagination who get scared because they can envision exactly what they are most afraid of. (Paraphrasing as I don't recall the exact quote).