Galastel did a spin off question based on one of mine. Mortal danger in mid-grade literature. And hers has spurred a new one for me.
This is an issue I've been grappling with for a while and I still don't have a solution for it. I had thought to wait until I was closer to writing that scene, but the other question has similar elements and it feels right to ask it now.
In my middle grade novel, kids from 1995 America time travel back to Ancient Egypt to join the Exodus. They arrive between the 9th and 10th Plagues and leave about 3 months later, shortly after Moses returns from the top of Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets.
While my book is fantasy, I'm also viewing it as a historical novel, as if the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) were (more or less) factual. While I'm not claiming a religious history is real history, it's real in the book. Obviously I'm adding a bunch and changing a few things. But there are some events I can't leave out that are violent and problematic for my audience:
- The 10th Plague, the Killing of the Firstborn (Exodus 12).
- The battle with Amalek (Exodus 17).
- The punishment of the people after the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).
I can do a fair bit of handwaving and sheltering of the children, but I can't ignore these events. I can and do ignore several other violent events because they happen after the children return home. I also pick and choose how I talk about the horrors of slavery and plagues 1-9 because they happen before the children arrive.
#1 I can tell, not show. None of the Jewish households lose anyone and they are required to stay inside all night. They can hear about the deaths of people they didn't know in the morning.
#2 happens outside of the camp. A couple of my children are the only POV characters and none of them are part of the battle. They can hear about it briefly when it's happening and/or over. This one I could leave out or reduce to a line or two.
#3 is the one that concerns me. Moses has just returned from the mountaintop with the first set of tablets to discover that some of the people have forced his brother Aaron to create a Golden Calf to worship. The Levites (the tribe that includes Moses and his family and where all the kids are staying) did not participate in this and are not punished. The kids were pivotal in keeping them out of it (this is a large part of why they are here).
Here is the text, with some cuts noted, other words in square brackets are part of the translation (Exodus 32:17-35):
When Joshua heard the voice of the people in their shouting, he said to Moses: "There is a voice of battle in the camp!" But [Moses] said: "[It is] neither a voice shouting victory, nor a voice shouting defeat; a voice of blasphemy I hear."
Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses' anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf they had made, burned it in fire, ground it to fine powder, scattered [it] upon the surface of the water, and gave [it to] the children of Israel to drink.
[Cut: Moses talks to Aaron about what happened.] So Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said: "Whoever is for the Lord, [let him come] to me!" And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them: "So said the Lord, the God of Israel: 'Let every man place his sword upon his thigh and pass back and forth from one gate to the other in the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his friend, every man his kinsman.'"
The sons of Levi did according to Moses' word; on that day some three thousand men fell from among the people.
[Cut: Moses returns to the mountaintop and asks God to forgive the people.] Then the Lord struck the people with a plague, because they had made the calf that Aaron had made.
This is not something I can pretend didn't happen. It's the consequences for the main event in the book. Nor can I dampen it down to, say, Moses yelling at the people who made and worshiped the calf. We have forced drinking of the remains of the Golden Calf and a plague. And in-between is the wholesale murder of 3000 adult men with swords.
This is hardly the first middle grade story to have this issue. Any story about the Holocaust or other genocide must deal with it, as well as the nonfiction Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank). And books set in wartime.
My question is not should I include mass murder and other horrors in my story, but how.