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The Kids Aren’t All Right

Authors hate kids. I’m convinced.

Okay, maybe “hate” is a strong word. But, many, novelists really enjoy putting their young characters through the literary ringer.

Have you ever thought about how much bad crap happens to kids in famous novels? No wonder they’re all jacked up.

You’d probably be jacked up, too, if awful stuff like this happened to you:

Lord of the Flies: The older of those kids is around 12. One day, they’re dropping water balloons on to cars from trees. Next day, they’re stranded on an island with no food and a few conch shells. Of course, kids like that will be a little screwed up. They’re 12 and left to kill pigs with their bare hands for dinner. Come on.

Never Let Me Go: Oh, man. This is the worst. Those poor kids are like human guinea pigs. They are literally created for the purpose of having their organs harvested. They live to their 20s and they eventually die because, well, all their organs have been taken and given to other more “important” people.

Native Son/American Tragedy: These stories are so similar I put them together. Here’s how Bigger Thomas and Clyde Griffiths solve problems: kill people! When someone gets in the way of their plans, they just kill ’em. As in real life, this an awful solution. Things go from bad to worse for these kids.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter: Mick Kelly never “suffers” like some other young characters. But you feel her sadness as you read this book. And as the novel concludes, you already know Mick’s destiny. Despite her dreams of wishes to do something big, she’ll be stuck in small-town life barely getting by.

The Catcher In The Rye: I’m a rich white kid and my life sucks and I hate everything and no one understand me and everybody just needs to get a life and hand me a cigarette I can’t take it any more and you are a moron would someone turn the music up so I can think and just shut up people.

Beloved: First off, there’s Denver. Poor girl’s mom, Sethe, has lost it. Then there’s Beloved. Sethe kills Beloved when she was a baby in order to keep slave traders away from her. Yeah, that pretty much sucks.

A Clockwork Orange: Few novels have a way of depicting the screwed-up-ness of teenagers like A Clockwork Orange. Rape women. Beat up old guys on the street. Street fights. Drugs. Violence! Violence! Jail. Governmental reprogramming of the brain. Violence!

Blood Meridian: Imagine going on a day hike with friends. But instead of a day hike, it’s years of wondering through the arid, barren southwestern landscape. And instead of friends, it’s a rag-tag group of Indian scalpers led by a psychopath murderer who throws puppies over bridges just for kicks. That’s a tough life for a kid.

And, guys, that’s just the beginning.

I could probably list 20 more novels, off the top of my head, that treat kids like punching bags.

Why is that? I think authors realize that kids, especially younger children, have a way of bringing emotion and a special kind of tension to the reader. All of us either have kids or have been kids, so we know what it feels like. And we know how easily we can become a product of our environment. Great authors can tease our emotions by placing their young characters in messed up world. We feel that.

But what do you think? Why do so many young characters suffer? And can you think of other examples?

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25 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lo-li-ta….ultimate in child abuse.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
    • Of course. How did I forget that one?

      Like

      September 17, 2012
      • I’m still trying to forget the first 20 pages I read before I tossed my copy into the campfire.

        Like

        September 17, 2012
  2. Ryan #

    Not sure if the reasoning would be the same- but The Hunger Games trilogy has teenagers take up the mantel of defenders of civilization. That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.

    Great Expectations is also a good example of the strain on young people- but more in a coming of age kind of way I guess.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  3. Infinite Jest’s not-so-funny treatment of kids playing tennis. Also – the worst at-birth deformity ever put into writing.

    Housekeeping – abandonment followed by neglect of the young girls as they are raised by their aunt.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
    • Housekeeping still to come. Tell me I’ll like it. The title doesn’t make me jump for joy.

      Like

      September 17, 2012
      • Teresa #

        You’ll like it.

        Okay, I lied. Not your type – but it’s not too long a book.

        Like

        September 18, 2012
  4. Very interesting. And you didn’t include the novels written for kids which invariably have them abandoned – usually by their parents. Some of my childhood favourites include Secret Garden, The Lion the witch and the wardrobe and Flambards. Plus there are many absent dads in classics such as Swallows & Amazons, Goodnight Mister Tom, Enid Blyton etc etc. Really it’s a writing lesson in how to keep the reader’s sympathy or make the situation seem slightly more credible. nicola

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  5. Maybe part of it is because kids go through so many messed up things anyway, like with hormones and all, that these books are made to make a normal kid’s life not seem so bad.

    Anyway, “Oliver Twist” is a depressing kid story as well!

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  6. eklektike #

    Bad things happen to kids in novels, but even worse things happen to kids in real life, every day, all around the world.
    So maybe authors don’t hate kids, they just want to describe how difficult is to be young, sometimes.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  7. I can think of examples indeed, but all from Stephen King! [beware of spoilers]
    In “Cujo” a kid (of about 3 or 4 years old) dies from dehydration after battling it for about two days inside a car with his mother, where a savage rabid dog threatened their life outside. In “The Shining”, a kid (also about 4 or maybe 5 years old) has some kind of mental gift, and he has to deal with horrors and ghosts, and he’d had his arm broken earlier by his own father. In “IT”, a kid dies by falling in a gutter then being eaten by the monster in the story. In “The Body” a group of 12-year-olds go on a kinda scary trip to see the dead body of another child. . .

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  8. Well, if nothing bad happens, then there is no story to tell. But I agree … does it have to be THAT bad? Also, in the non literature category, I would like to submit “Flowers in the Attic”.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  9. Siuon #

    By putting children into difficult situations, authors may want to explore how capable the young could be and how much constraint we, as adults, has put upon them.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  10. Sam Philliber #

    Look at Things Fall Apart. Ikemefuna didn’t exactly have a normal childhood, even by his tribes standards. He was traded as a slave, then later executed. All before he was 15.

    Like

    September 17, 2012
  11. Kid’s are interesting characters to draw upon, especially once they reach adolescence, I am an ex-teacher and can certainly see elements of literary characters within any given cohort. Could it perhaps be a reflection of the authors own take on society as a whole, or maybe that inner ability that the majority of adults possess – parenting or caring for a younger being, after all an author is doing a cracking job if we are made to think or be emotional about characters within a book, surely the point of any fiction?

    Like

    September 18, 2012
  12. Reblogged this on On My Stereo.

    Like

    September 18, 2012
  13. lucylovemor #

    In more recent years– Spoiler Alerts.
    Harry Potter series (his mom and dad are killed by a psychopath, his god-father is killed by a sadistic crazy woman, and he’s constantly battling to save the world starting as an 11 year old, but this series is an amazing life lessons teacher and it all turns out okay in the end)

    The Hunger Games series (her father dies in a coal mining accident and her mother looses it so she’s left to raise herself and her sister, she must fight to feed her family in a world that’s strictly oppressed by a corrupt government and to top it all off she gets thrown into a life-or-death match of wits and strength to “prove” that afore mentioned government is still in control. Then she fights in a war, becomes the mouthpiece for a revolution all before her 18th birthday. She also is somewhat coerced into loving a guy but that turns out okay in the end too.)

    The Maze Runner series (Boy thrown into an unknown world without rhyme or reason, has to survive in a camp of other kids who also have no idea why they’re there, at night the maze walls that surround them close to keep out creepy crawly monsters, they have to find their way out, once they do they’re told it’s all been apart of the experiment and that they have to keep going with the experiment in order to save all of humankind. It gets a little far-fetched, well more so, and talks about a plague-like disease that they’re attempting to find a cure for. Also includes corrupt-ish government/establishment.)

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I watched the movie. It was awful. She’s a ward of the state so she counts as a “kid,” right?

    Some others:
    The House of the Scorpion
    Tuck Everlasting (living while everyone else dies?)
    The Series of Unfortunate Events (I got into the first book–two kids and their parents died in like the first chapter)
    The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger (again, really good life lessons, but sad to see what they have to go through to get there…)

    I feel like I could keep going but I wont. Thanks for the brain challenge today, loved reflecting on these!

    Like

    September 18, 2012
  14. I agree about Harry Potter. You can only defend the world against “pure evil” so long before you start getting a little tired. There is a reason why he was a bit of a jerk in the 4th book and it wasn’t just the hormones. Plus, all the other kids. Yes, the battle that marks the defeat of Voldemort is mostly made up of high schoolers. All of those kids would have eventually ended up in therapy. (These are not critisizms, just observations. I love the books.)

    Like

    September 18, 2012
  15. It’s truly unbelievable that so many of the “great fictions” have so much child abuse/misfortune. I never really stopped to think about it…but a few of my favorite books also have characters that are young children who have to endure unbelievable circumstances…

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  16. It really does start to feel like authors hate kids when you put it that way doesn’t it…

    Like

    September 19, 2012
  17. Nel #

    You know, your summary of Catcher in the Rye has removed the need for actually reading the novel. That really sums it up.

    Like

    September 20, 2012
  18. “Go ask Alice,” “The Outsiders,” “Bridge to Terabitha,” and “Oliver Twist,” are the first ones that come to my mind.

    Like

    September 21, 2012
  19. I’ve noticed this as well – all the greatest childrens books have young heros/heroines who have almost all lost at least one parent: Harry Potter, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and almost every fairy tale ever told.

    I wonder if maybe it’s meant to make us feel more deeply for the protagonists, losing a parent is every child’s worst nightmare after all. And if these characters can lose parents and still have great adventures and overcome adversity then that’s kind of sending the message to the children reading that they can do anything they want.

    Like

    September 24, 2012

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