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In a comment to my post here, Cyn mentions wishing to avoid implying that the characters might all die, because she's writing for a mid-grade audience.

Which made me wonder.

I remember reading The Hobbit when I was nine or ten - in the mid-grade range. There's danger there - the orcs, the dragon, the more orcs - they would gladly kill the whole party. And I cried when Thorin died. But I also loved the book, in part because it touched me and made me cry.

At the same time, there's a difference between a character dying (a single confined event) and a persisting sense of danger maintained throughout a story.

Then again, would a child even sense the danger? I remember being very confident that whatever the characters faced, whatever the odds against them, of course they'll make it and everything would be fine. (Thorin dying was quite a shock.)

What level of threat is appropriate for mid-grade literature? Danger of what, how much danger, how can it be expressed?

(While the idea for the question came from a specific comment, I do not mean to imply that any particular writer should necessarily write things one way or another. I'm trying to understand the whole issue.)

  • I guess some comment is needed. I do not know if it has been specifically studied for mid-grade literature but "violence in fairy tales" has been studied so you can just google that and read. The above was the first hit and seemed legit when I glanced at it. – Ville Niemi Mar 19 at 9:07
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    Can mid-graders read Grimm's brothers' fairy tales? They are full of mortal danger and death or even graphic violence. – Vladimir F Mar 19 at 12:54
  • If you're looking for modern examples, the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games, and countless other popular YA series all feature plenty of mortal danger, including the deaths of children. Doesn't seem to be a problem... – Darrel Hoffman Mar 19 at 15:51
  • @DarrelHoffman But they are YA, not mid-grade. I specifically asked about mid-grade. – Galastel Mar 19 at 15:53
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Double U mentioned fairy tales - some of the most violent tales out there. Earlier versions were very dark and had been altered to make them child appropriate. I think that was a mistake.

Bambi (the novel) is full of pain, danger and death.

Danger is a part of life, as is death. How characters meet their challenges can be illuminating. Not wanting to frighten young children is fine, but this story already has elements of danger and stripping them away to leave a safe story might remove the heart of the story.

I was a weird kid - I read Titus Andronicus and had no issue with the violence.

I never liked the movie Titanic for the simple reason that the sinking of the doomed liner and the death of so many became a subplot and setting for a romance. Irrelevant, I know, but had they just stayed true to the story they would have had a compelling tale. Night to Remember was about the ship and passengers - and powerful.

Shielding children from the whiff of danger in stories has a danger of its own. It need not be graphic or gory, certainly not gratuitous, but danger should not be eschewed completely.

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    My daughter, aged 9, laughed when Bambi's mother got shot. I asked her why and she said "They made it so goofy". – Michael Harvey Mar 19 at 18:39
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    "Had been altered to make them child appropriate" - sadly, this usually caters to the lowest common denominator in terms of what is considered "child appropriate"... – corsiKa Mar 19 at 21:19
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    @MichaelHarvey - I speak of the book, which is nothing like that disneyfied movie. It made me wish people were more human. The life of a deer, from fawn to young stag, is what is told in the book. He is shot, learns terrible lessons of survival and manages - just barely - to become his father’s worthy successor. When mature, he is magnificent. Nothing like that farce of a flick that people think of when they hear ‘Bambi’. Felix Salten wrote a beautiful work that has been supplanted by a kiddie flick. – Rasdashan Mar 19 at 21:26
  • Downvoting because this is ultimately not an answer. It's an opinion with some allusions tossed in. This vote is not a value judgement of your opinion. I just don't think it's ultimately helpful. – Kirk Mar 20 at 17:13
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I had a similar experience with The Hobbit. But I don't think that's because of the target age of the audience. I think it is because of the style of story that it was. Plucky adventurer full of pluck and mirth bounds off on their adventure, unaware of the true trials and tribulations about to befall them, armed only with, you guessed it, pluck. Even at 10 I knew how this story always turned out. And when I read The Lord of the Rings years later, even though it was slightly darker, I knew that the plucky underdog was still going to come out on top at the end.

I did not feel that way with The Bridge to Teribithia or Where the Red Fern Grows. They were different books. They were different stories. It was a different style. I also think the Everything Will Be Okay At The End vibe has a bit of a negating effect on the impendingness of the danger. Sure we know that Bilbo and Frodo are going to survive, partly because there are simply too many pages left, but their danger is real to them. So we get to watch them experience horrifying mortal danger from the safety of our homes with the tranquility that comes with knowing that the happy outcome will come to be.

I'm also reminded of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, when one of the children is very much in mortal danger. I don't believe danger, or even tragedy and death, are off-limits in middle-grade books. What makes them middle-grade is the language used, the relatability of the characters, and the relatability of the themes.

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Link: https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult

What is Middle-Grade Literature?

Age of readers: 8–12.

Length: Generally 30,000–50,000 words (although fantasy can run longer to allow for more complex world-building).

Content restrictions: No profanity, graphic violence or sexuality (romance, if any, is limited to a crush or a first kiss).

Age of protagonist: Typically age 10 for a younger MG novel, and up to age 13 for older, more complex books.

Mind-set: Focus on friends, family and the character’s immediate world and relationship to it; characters react to what happens to them, with minimal self-reflection.

Voice: Often third person.

Keep that in mind. If you don't, then the manuscript will just get tossed in the waste bin.

Currently, I am writing... uh, "fiction". I put that in quotes, because it's the best way to describe it. The truth is, the fictional work is written in Chinese, and it is called a 小说.

长篇小说 = novel

中篇小说 = novella

短篇小说 = short story

小说 = often translated as "novel" but this term is actually a general term for all three, so I'm going to go with "fiction"

The story is written on my mobile phone. It is about a little rabbit and his adventures. Rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain. They are hunted by different predators: foxes, snakes, cats, wolves, etc. There are all kinds of life-threatening dangers. Basically, I just write a scene on my phone, based on my outline in my notebook, and publish/share the story on WeChat, a social media service that most Chinese people have. So far, I think I have found a target audience among my cousin's children. The older girl is school-aged, and she seems to enjoy it. The younger girl is a baby; she can't talk yet, let alone express her feelings with words. The story is as violent as a traditional fairy-tale or folktale, and those stories are read to children. If little kids can handle this kind of fairy-tale/folktale about a wolf and the sheep/goats (羊 can be translated as "goat" or "sheep" in English, and judging by the video, I think they are sheep? On the other hand, some stories may use 山羊, which would imply goat), then my own story would be appropriate for middle-grade readers as well.

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    I like that your answer takes it beyond opinion and brings in evidence from WritersDigest! – April Mar 19 at 17:17
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Certainly it's okay to have people (or animals) die in middle-grade fiction. I mean, Bambi (the movie) is rated G and young Bambi sees his mother murdered before his eyes. Ditto with dad in The Lion King. Actually, one or more parents dying (near the beginning, as a catalyst for the MC, or before the story begins) is a very common trope in children's literature, especially middle-grade, from A Little Princess to every Disney movie ever made (okay, maybe not every one).

It is, however, less common for children to die. When you do, it's usually not very detailed. Look at the Little House series. Laura Ingles Wilder lost both a baby brother and her own infant son in real life. The first loss she left out of the books entirely and the second one is there but it's so fleeting you blink and you miss it.

Certainly you can kill off a child if it's vital to the story. Little Women is an example. But generally children aren't the targets. Look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Every child but Charlie gets mangled in some delicious way and is presumed dead, but somehow ends up okay (though sometimes altered).

Your suggestion on my question went a few steps further:

You've said it yourself: 18 = life. It follows that had there only been 17 travellers, they would not have come home alive.

Imagine the stress: "You can only find 17? Well, you're all dead then." It's the sort of pressure I can see in Young Adult, but not really in Middle Grade, unless it's from an over-the-top villain (the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz comes to mind, and even then the only child in danger is Dorothy).

When you're talking about real death of a dozen and a half children, starting at age 2, for a 12 year old's pretty simple failure to complete a task, a task she didn't even know had such dire consequences, well that's not really a Middle Grade topic anymore. There are ways to make it work, if you must, but since the comment was about my story, I can tell you for sure it would be too much for it. And probably for most Middle Grade.

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    You're right - I haven't considered children's death vs. adults' death, nor danger to the protagonist vs. danger to some secondary character. – Galastel Mar 19 at 9:49
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In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker murders an estimated 250,000 civilian employees aboard the Death Star. The same source says there were over 1.5 million troops aboard who we learn from the sequels are not all evil – many have a moral compass, disagree with the Empire, and can be turned to the "good" side.

But despite this instantaneous mass-murder, there is apparently no "disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced." Maybe those people's "souls" did cry out but Luke is so hopped up on shooting the ball through the hoop as the timer ran out that he didn't notice…? Maybe Luke's Force powers don't include empathy, just target accuracy?

Compare to Buffy The Vampire Slayer where enemies conveniently dissolve into sand when killed, and Star Trek: TOS where phasers cause people to disappear along with their clothing and accessories, but do not dissolve walls or leave even a scorch mark on the floor.

The story ignores it and moves on.

There are no consequences and young people are not so critical as long as they are entertained. There is a "safe zone", like the game of tag. When you are off-base the monsters can chase you, and that is the fun part, but when you get back to home-base you are safe. The peril can be terrifying, but in the safe place it cannot touch you. There is a clear distinction between un-safe and safe.

In contrast, I still vividly remember watching "Star Blazers" (actually Space Battleship Yamato, dumbed down for American syndication) and feeling shocked by the death of a main character. It broke the rules of cartoons, it broke the rules of kid's shows – I was pretty sure it broke the rules of every adult American TV show I had ever seen. It felt edgy. Real. Different! I had been suddenly thrown out of my comfort zone and – I recall vividly – my expectations for storytelling changed on that day forever.

I thought about that death for weeks – not because "boo hoo, I am sad he died", but because it felt like a revelation in what could happen. I became obsessed with anime (imports were still rare then), and found out the show I was watching wasn't even the real story…. 40 years later, this is still something I remember as a life-changing event. A total eye-opener. Bad things can happen that cross into the safe zone. Stories that pretend otherwise are for "babies". Star Wars was demoted to a puppet show. Star Trek became campy space women. I couldn't take them seriously anymore (I kept watching, but wishing they had more substance).

You can probably play it both ways.

Your characters can be terrorized, screaming and running from horrible monsters, but so long as they make it back to "home base" the tension is released. Mass-murder on incomprehensible scales can be committed by the "hero", but as long as there are no bodies lying on the ground: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But this is also an age where a meaningful death can actually start to have some consequences. Kids know the pattern by this age. They've seen plenty of shows about a group of kids who go on adventures and save the universe. They are expecting easy villains and hollow triumphs that are about "shooting the ball through the hoop as the timer runs out". Be willing to break the cliché, and you might open their minds to a lifetime of better possibilities.

  • Insightful, and of course in essence we are talking about "story telling", so the fact that all the examples are video/cinema rather than "words on paper/ e-reader" make the points no less relevant. – mickeyf Mar 20 at 11:25
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I think it is often cloaked. Bambi is an animal. Hobbits don't actually exist. Look at Narnia--real kids and heavy themes, but they're in a wardrobe so it's all imaginary. Even the memory of Narnia fades for Susan.

Bridge to Terebithia (etc) are dealing with real, human kids. So those are different. Harder.

I personally believe it's important to explore 'real life' issues in fiction, but I also strongly believe that death is used as 'entertainment' far more often than not--and if it's on the first page (which is often the case) I don't purchase it. So many individuals try to gin up the salacious and dangerous at any cost, and for me, walls go up between me and the page. Less intimate, not more, to go graphic.

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    Within the books of the Chronicles of Narnia, the land of Narnia is not imaginary. – Dinopolis Mar 19 at 15:35
  • Well, talking animals, etc, the point stands. – DPT Mar 19 at 15:51
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I recall reading Animorphs as a kid, which featured kids describing in detail such gruesome things as losing limbs, bashing bad guys over the head with said severed limbs, and being completely bisected (all in one book no less... the bisection was actually the cause of the major conflict of the book) and in first person detail.

Now, it helps that he central problem of the series was that the kids were able to change into biological clones of individual animals, and a lot of the maiming happens while they are morphed in animals... leaving the morph regrows the lost appendages... the bisection occurred while the character was a starfish and was able to regenerate into two starfish... both morphing back for a unique clone of the same person... but they still felt pain from the injuries and were very traumatized by the series end.

But even then, some books were way more gruesome than this. The main bad guy in the series was am alien race of brain slugs, and when the hero comes in contact with two of the aliens the slugs have escaped that claim they escaped the brain slugs and are free of their control. Our hero is suspicious of a possible trap that they are still under control of the slugs... until one of the pair takes his claws and opens his own skull to show that there is definitely no brain slug... and the hero never brings up the possibility again.

The series was a huge hit among late elementary school (I recall reading books in the 4th grade) and was the best selling book for boys in that age range until Harry Potter came out (My Fifth grade teacher introduced me to that, but I recall reading it before it was published in the U.S. My copy was still the Philosopher's Stone.). As early as book two, another character is propositioned by two older men (she's about 13 at the time.). While they never said anything overt, it's clear to an adult reader that it's pedophiles trying to kidnap a teenager.

You'd be surprised what children of that age can cope with in terms of violence... Adult me was shocked with the amount of carnage kid me read from those books.

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I wouldn't worry about it, I read "the secret of ji" when I was in mid-grade, it was a fantasy story where the protagonist party was under constant thread of dying from some assasins or evil mages persuing them, and they offen fought them (with the risk of dying) and that's what made the story interesting.

I'm pretty sure someone from the main party even died in the third book, but I understood it was a fictional character and that no real person did die. Learning the difference between fact and fiction is import part of development, and fictional stories with fictional danger can be great for that.

I would be more concerned with horror movies than finctional books, I am still frighten of spiders after watching "arachnophobia" (s spider horror movie) when I was a kid.

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