Kids in Fiction, Redux

The link I originally put up to this blog post, originally written for the Emily Bryan blog, was bad, so I thought I'd repost here.

As a reader and a writer, I’ve found children in books to be a pretty dicey proposition. Nothing nauseates me like an overly-precious or disgustingly-precocious kiddo sapping up the pages. Seriously. And throw in a lisp or baby-talk, and You Have Now Entered the Wall-Banger Zone.

As both a mom and a former teacher, I appreciate children as they really are, complete with the tendency to pinball from annoying (PING!) to adorable (PING-PING) to hysterical (both the HA-HA and the WAHHH kind!) in an instant. As a result, I work hard to depict them that way, as I did with the heroine’s four-year-old daughter, Zoe, in Beneath Bone Lake.

But I write pretty intense romantic suspense, and the premise of this story, which involves a young widow returning from Iraq only to find her family missing, her house in flames, and her life turned upside down by a caller who claims to be a kidnapper, led me into even more dangerous territory: the child in jeopardy story.

Now as a reader who’s also a mom, nothing gets my heart pounding faster than the thought of a child in danger. If there’s even a whiff of such a thing within the opening pages, I’m instantly riveted, as I have been in great child-in-jeopardy stories such as Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean and Linda Howard’s heartrending Cry No More. In both cases, I could barely sleep until I knew if the child would be safe with the viewpoint character.

In other cases, such as John Grisham’s excellent first novel, A Time to Kill, which opens with a graphic depiction of a horrific act of violence against a little girl, I was literally sickened. (It was a real act of faith in the author that I finished that book, the beginning upset me so much. And quite a few readers couldn’t stomach it.) And I’ve certainly avoided other books and movies where violence against a child is both intense and on-screen, shown happening in real time.

For my taste, the most compelling suspense comes in the parent’s imagination, when his/her child is out of sight and reach. The awful period of not knowing raises our anxiety, whether it’s over one’s toddler who’s wandered away in the grocery store or the sixteen year-old new driver who fails to show up at curfew. (As the mother of a teenager, I can think of no sound more harrowing than that of sirens from the road when my kiddo’s out late at night.)

For this reason, I see no reason to ever depict actual violence against a child, not when the fear of it is so much more powerful.

So what about the rest of you? Do you enjoy reading books containing children in some or all cases? What particularly bother you about some books featuring kids?


mamele said…
i agree with you, colleen -- any explicit depiction of violence against a kid and i'm outta there. can't hack it.

emotional violence is tough too. margaret atwood's cat's eye nearly made me hurl in the way it depicted how brutal little girls can be to each other, and how clueless adults are about it all.

i think kids may have an easier time with harrowing stuff than we do -- the notion of loss just isn't as real to them. right now i'm reading Harriet the Spy with my 7-yr-old, and I loved that book as a kid, and she's loving it now...but I'm finding it absolutely TERRIFYING. harriet and the other kids are all so CRUEL. it's quease-inducing. The notion of my kid either dishing it our OR taking it this way breaks my heart and makes me quake.
I think kids really do live in their own version of a Lord of the Flies social world, no matter what we try to do to protect them from it. As I've explained to move than a few to just hang in there. Grown ups don't spend their whole day trying to figure out ways to make you cry.

Unless you're in politics or the target of those horrible, nasty tabloid assassins. I refuse to dignify them with the name "journalists."
jennymilch said…
This is a great thread because so many people have such visceral responses to child material. So as not to repeat, let me just say I 100% agree with Colleen's and Mamele's takes.

One issue that I have trouble with in kiddie characters is when they couldn't possibly do what the author just made them do. From a two year old who's sent to brush his own teeth to the newborn who isn't heard from in the night--yes, I realize some do these things--but they always jar me out of the story.

I guess this is Colleen's disgustingly precocious point. I think it's an easy trap to fall into. I too find myself forgetting the limitations and foibles of the stages me and my little ones only recently passed through.

How do you make sure kids act like the kids they are without renting one of the approximate age of your character for a week or so ;)
Rhea said…
I'm a creative writing major, and much of my time is spent in crunched rooms for workshops. The first time a class I was in was asked to write a 'scene that could disturb any reader,' our professor gave us a few bits of advice. In the middle of this he paused and said something to the effect of:

"I would like to point out that you should use children sparingly. It will always get a powerful reaction, especially among parents. Cherish this power, and remember that if you wield it, nothing will top it for the rest of the story."

Personally, I don't mind when children are used as a prop for violence so long as the prose is executed well and it makes sense. Though I do hate it when a lazy author thinks 'Well, I need to make this villain REALLY nasty...I'll make it a kid.' It feels like a cop out if there isn't any psychology behind it.
From the standpoint of the reading public, better the writer should depict violence against a carload of girl scouts than a kitten or puppy. At least the former merits less hate mail. ;)
Good question, Jenny. I just try to remember *all* the stuff about each stage of my child's development instead of only waxing nostalgic about the precious moments. For each absolutely adorable thing they do, there's a tantrum in the grocery store or one of grandma's valuables flushed down the toilet. :) And teaching gave me a wealth of experience with lots of kids at lots of ages. You get a better perspective on them when they're not yours.

So watch other people's kiddos at the mall, parks, and restaurants. And watch the way adults interact with them.
Joni Rodgers said…
Interesting post, Colleen.

My least successful book to date involved the death of a child -- a mentally retarded child, making matters worse -- and boy howdy, did I hear about it. Rhea's teacher is wise: "Use the power sparingly." But if you feel it, you gotta write it.

Je ne'regrette rien!

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