Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Moving from pat answers to real conversations

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{cover design by Jeannie M. Lee, Simon & Schuster}

This is the third blog post in a series about how violence in portrayed in young adult fiction.   I started with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and then Hate List by Jennifer Brown.  This week’s book is technically adult, but it is by Jodi Picoult, who many of my 8th graders read when they are ready to try a harder book.  Nineteen Minutes is a story about when a boy who was mercilessly bullied walks into his New Hampshire high school and starts  shooting.  In Picoult-fashion, it is a highly researched page turner with a surprise ending.

The strength of this story is that Picoult uses multiple narrators and flashback to tell the story so it becomes not just about one character.  We hear from his best friend from childhood who had abandoned him for the popular crowd and her mother who is a superior court judge.  We also hear from his mother who is a midwife and his father who is an economics professor who studies the cost of happiness.  In addition, Picoult includes narration from the defense attorney and the detective, both characters who throw their hearts into the case.

I also read his former best friend sympathetically because I was able to feel the social conflict she tried to bury, which is an extremely relatable emotion for teenagers, and honestly, any adult. The character who I read with the most sympathy, however, was the shooter.  The pain and humiliation he faced was unbearable, and I think for teenagers, the most important voice to hear.   As a teacher, I have sat in on countless assemblies where students hear messages about bullying, and honestly, they aren’t learning anything new.  Kids can recite for themselves the “lessons” presented to them and walking through the halls they mock them–not because they are callous or cold, but I think because they can sense that assemblies don’t make a difference.   What does, though, in my experience, is:

  • Inviting kids into stories that have a beginning, middle, and end in which they can explore motivation, cause and effect, character growth and begin to develop empathy and understanding for what it means to be human.
  • Inviting kids into art that addresses the difficult questions, rather than giving them another pat answer.
  • Inviting kids into conversations about these books and these pieces of artwork and giving them time to think and respond through conversation, writing, and art.
  • Listening to kids, respecting their opinions and experiences, and giving them grace and room to grow in the process of growing up.
  • Creating homes and classrooms where kids are reminded that everyone has a story and most often we don’t know all of it.

There are so many jumping off points for important thought-work and writing and conversations in this story, that my resounding answer to the question of how do we cope with these incredibly difficult issues in young adult literature is that we let kids read about them–we hand them the books–because they represent the complex, uncomfortable, difficult issues in life.   Reading (and responding to reading) is a safe way to explore things that they are going to be exposed to either way.  I’d recommend that parents actively read alongside their children–it will open up doors to conversations you didn’t know could exist with teenagers.

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