My, What Gory Tales They Read


hunger games.JPGAre You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The Catcher in the Rye. Bridge to Terabithia. Such were the scandalous teen fiction titles in the late 20th century. Though I read all of them as an adolescent in the 1980s, it wasn’t without firm counsel and concerned follow-up from adults. Later, when I took a college-level children’s literature course, the darkest book we read was I Am the Cheese, which deals with a teenage boy’s psychiatric visits, amnesia and abusive past.

Obviously, these books can have some tough themes in them. Teens would grapple with issues such as anger, angst, sexual maturity, depression, obsession and death within their pages. By today’s standards, though, these stories seem like kid’s stuff.

In the 21st century, the macabre seems to rule much young adult fiction. It’s as if authors have taken these issues (and many more) and put them on narrative steroids.

Today’s titles include the futuristic, apocalyptic Hunger Games series (in which teens are forced to fight one another to the death), Wintergirls (about the physical and psychological horrors of eating disorders), and Right Behind You (in which a boy sets a 7-year-old neighbor on fire and spends years in a facility for the criminally insane). Graphic, sometimes otherworldly descriptions of pain, torture, hallucinations and delusions, cutting, sex and sexual abuse are now routine reading. And when I read passages of such stories or hear friends who teach high school comment on them, I’m always a little taken aback by how morbid young adult fiction is today. I’m not the only one.

Wall Street Journal columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon says in her recent article Darkness Too Visible:

How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.

Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

Believe it or not, many of these books do have redemptive value. Many are insightful, well-written page-turners. Many can help to lead teens through their own dark years—if they don’t become mired in the plot and they have a wise adult to guide them through snarling themes. And, as Gurdon astutely notes, “Reading about homicide doesn’t turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won’t make a kid break the honor code.”

Still, I can’t help wondering how much any of us—teen, middle-aged or elderly—should consume such stories. How does reading grotesque descriptions of gang rape, drug abuse, cutting and assault in profanity-laden prose help anyone to dwell on what is true, noble, lovely and admirable? How are these accounts truly excellent and praiseworthy, even if many do end on a hopeful note despite the horrors they portray? While even the Bible contains images of brutality and sex, the biblical narrative is as much about what’s left out of the comparatively spare descriptions as what’s left in. Most young adult literature today doesn’t show that restraint (and don’t even get me started on mainstream fiction). I just wonder how many impressionable minds are being negatively affected in the name of literary entertainment.

Who wrote this?

Meredith has had two careers: one as a writer/editor for both Focus on the Family and The Navigators, and one as an English teacher trekking far-flung corners of Europe, Africa and Asia. She now rejoins Focus, but with souvenirs—including new eyes with which to better view American culture.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Julia Fisher More than 1 year ago

--I am an aspiring writer, with a book completed and ready to be sent to a publishing company for consideration. My book is quite violent, but the violence is there for a reason- it is not senseless. Sometimes certain things are needed in order to be shown morals of those who love God. Look at the Left Behind series- that contained much violence. But it is in my interpretation that since it was about Biblical End Times, it was deemed "okay" for Christians.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  David:

That last statement I totally agree with. I'm currently reading the japanese comic book series "Rurouni Kenshin", and that gets fairly bloody. I won't go into all the details, but considering that it's about swordsmen in Meiji era Japan, you can probably use your imaginations. The thing is, not once has the violence bothered me too much. The only reason I would stop reading it is if there was any over-the-top sexual content.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Amanda:

I have read quite a few of the comments on this site, and so far I have not heard anyone talk about the best way to tell what books teens should be reading.  The best way to prevent teens from getting confused about anything in life is to read the bible and ask the Holy Spirit for the wisdom and discipline to decide what to do in any given situation.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Emily :

It's not a Christian website, but a good place for objective reviews written for parents on the stuff their kids read/watch/play:

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Melda :

I agree with Charles here - you may have misled readers by showing the cover of the HUNGER GAMES book while talking about sex and profanity.  While I have only read the first book - (I have three sons, 14,12 and 10 that want to read it)  there is neither sex or bad language in the book.  Additionally, I think Christians can always use these secular books to talk to our children.  (or our children's FRIENDS who are not believers)  As with the Lord of the Rings series and others- there are elements that point us in a direction of what is true, and noble and right.   Much like the "CAPITOL" in the book - we, as Americans, have the power to influence much of the world with how we spend our dollars.  For example:   The coffee industry and the chocolate industry use children to harvest their beans.  These children are treated NO BETTER than the District kids in the book the Hunger Games.  But we find ourselves revolted by the idea of children killing children in the book - but have no problems spending crazy amounts of money on Easter Chocolate Candies that are doing the same thing to children across the world....Something to think about.....

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kate:

I don't see any reason to demonize the authors/filmmakers, they're not forcing anyone to partake in whatever ideas they are trying to promote. The parent is responsible for the child and makes the judgment call on what is okay and what isn't. That said, parents understand they can't protect their children from everything all the time. The aim is to explain to them why certain things cross the boundaries; saying ''because i said so'' doesn't cut it and may encourage them to go behind your back (which never turns out well).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lynn:

My point is that our childrens souls are at stake and some authors don't care about childrens' souls....

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  TheMainMom:

Of course authors hope their books make money. Why wouldn't they? Do you work for free?

I do agree that parents need to parent, however. If they fail to do so it's on them, and not authors or filmmakers.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lynn:

Another thought...granted there are a lot of parents who just leave their kids to do whatever they want to do w/out enforcing descretion and accountability.  It is a parent's God-given resonsibility to train and teach their children.  Each parent knows what is best for their child(ren) if they are paying attention and are actively involved in what is going on in their child's life and what he/she is being exposed to.  A book, movie, or school should not be instructing our children.  WAKE UP!!!!!!  Our children's lives are in our hands.  That is God's order of things..spend time with the blessing the Lord has provided, protect your children, love them, discipline them, laugh with them, cry with them.  They are only borrowed to us for a short period of time.  Appreciate their lives.....

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lynn:

I agree that a book can help someone who is going through the same situation that the character(s) are going through. However, intimate, personal situations such as puberty, sexuality, hormones are better left to the parents discretion on how to inform their teenager.  A lot of young adult books are  published just to make money.  The author knows what will attract the teenagers feelings and thoughts and most of them don't care about how the content may affect a teenager negatively.  They just want to make opinion.....leave the teaching and the training in the parents hands.  They know what's best for their own kids and what they feel is safe to expose them to.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Dale:

I think in Proverbs it warns not to awaken love before it's time. Jesus instructed us that to look at a women with lust is the same as adultry. Most Christian kids will not use violence to solve problems. Most Christian teens are interested in sex, responsible parents make every attempt to protect our children from images of sex.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Gene :

thank you!  dissapointed in the way they misrepresented the book.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Gene :

I appreciate what they are trying to do with this article. But, I am slightly disappointed with their partial reporting. It reminded me of secular reporting when they take the worst sounding description of an item. In this case, I have only read one of the above mentioned books. The Hunger Games. I'm rather disappointed that they would include it in this article, and even give a false premise. It makes me wonder how much research they did. Although its not for all audiences, it is a good book for 15 and up. It has no place being included in this article. 

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  intheknow:

You are seeing the attempts to corrupt the agenda that is in full swing. This is being done by further checking into who owns/controls is all done by design. Unfortunately very few Christians are aware of it and let their children do what everyone else is doing.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Janine:

Heather,Thank you for your comment. I read this article because my 14yo daughter was asking to check The Hunger Games out at the library because the movie is coming out and some of her friends are all abuzz about it.  I really appreciate your perspective because my experience was similar to yours. My parents were just happy that I read as a child, but I learned way too much, way too early, and because I had no one to bounce those ideas off of, it became part of my makeup and helped to form some of my reality.  Sadly, I was drawn to the darker stuff (VC Andrews) but these days, that doesn't compare to what's the norm now. I was reading these reviews and really considering reading it myself and then allowing her to read so we could discuss.  If I allow her to read it, it will only be because I have read it myself and found any value in it for her.  She does not she Rated R movies or Rated PG-13. In fact, we don't support free viewing of anything that does not add value or respectable humor. I'm sure I won't be allowing her to watch the movie, but I will check the book first and see if it's worth it for her.  She's just too important for me to put any trash into.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Anon:

You have made "The Hunger Games" seem like something it is not. In the book, it IS about survival. Kids DO kill kids, but they have to in order to survive and get back home to their families. The main character sacrifices her life to save her little sister after her name is chosen to be thrown into the arena. Teens don't like reading about happy stuff and family morals because teens don't have perfects lives. They're going through the time in their life where they're trying to figure out who they are. They can relate to these characters in more way than one. In The Hunger Games it's not about killing each other for food. They are thrown into a arena and the last one alive wins and returns home. There aren't any sex scenes or bad language. It is gory and bloody, yes, but the book has a bigger message: Stand up for what you believe in.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Reading=Breathing:

First of all, it was was wonderful to read all of these comments. That we all have different opinions shows God created us all different, with unique struggles and strengths! Both the article and the post were very helpful, especially the lists of recommended books.Now to air my opinions. I personally have the "gift" to feel as if I am living the lives described in the books I read and the movies I see. While this is awesome when reading some of my favorite books (DragonKeeper series, Dragons in our Midst, Oracle of Fire and The Binding of the Blade, to name a FEW), it makes me especially vulnerable to negative and ungodly themes, most especially violence (I CANNOT disect anything). This comment is to encourage those here who let me know when I book or movie will contain those themes. It is also to remind those I occasionally sympathize with about how a book or movie is simply realisitic that everyone will be affected differently. A book that helps someone through a rough time might cause someone else to be negatively affected (I speak from personal experience. "House" has given me an abiding fear of demons). Thank you, to those who read my naturally biased comment. Now for the list of books I add to the table:The Binding of the Blade series by L. B. GrahamThe Assignment by Mark Andrew Olsen (the upper limit of violence for me)Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (not Christian, but fun and so far no negative effects have been seen)Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements (a "I need a book, oh look, here's one" book)Note: I would not let my 8 year old brother read any of these, mostly because he is still developing his worldview.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  jakewontbreak:

Plugged In has a great link for book reviews located at the bottom of the home page.

Check it out at:

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  DebbyS.:

Heather - You have REALLY MADE SOME GOOD POINTS!! - I hope you pursue your request for book reviews further, and not just here on this page. I wanted to find out something about The Hunger Games; unless the books have been, or are soon to be, put out as movies, I'm not sure where one would be able to find helpful (informative) reviews (which would include not just a synopsis of the events portrayed in the book, but the nature of how the events are presented within the book.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Emerie:

I've read the Hunger Games, and loved it. Katniss gets into it saving her sister(good morals/family), then she has a friend ship with Rue, and makes alliances based on character and not their skills/appearances(a good lesson), and Katniss truly cares about everyone, and is loyal. And in the other books (SPOILER ALERT) she CHANGES it, so it's better! (good ending)

There is ALOT of violence, but for that I'd be more concerned about the movie then the books.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lori W.:

I echo your concern and agree, but mostly I appreciate that you spoke that truth humbly...and applied it to yourself. Makes me want to listen when spoken with that tone!

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Alicia R:

I agree with this article.  When did we accept that it is ok for our innocent children to be bombarded with such horrors.  I understand that some of these issues being written about are being dealt with all the time but why must we as a society push them into minds of young children.  I dont belive in banning the books because they are in truth issues that  this harsh world is facing today but there are many schools suggesting  this as a book for grade 4-8 as well as high school.

It makes it harder as a parent to show my little kids what isn't acceptable behaviour as a Christian.  When I tell them they needn't watch or read some of the controversial material out there today they come back with "that's just the way life is."  Or "you aren't living in today's world mom."  But God tells us we are not to be a part of this world but are to look forward to what awaits us and that we are here on earth to make a difference and to show the love and compassion that Christ had.  If we are filling our young, impressionable minds with such nasty pictures of "how the world is today" then how are we to build their small spirits and encourage them to be a light in this darkness when we give them a foundation of hopelessness?  It makes it harder to show them the good side of people when all they see now on tv and in lots of books is the negative side of life.

I agree that there is a time for these hard questions and tough realities but why are we not striving to force a foundation of confidence and strength in our 9, 10 and 11 year olds? These are the years where they are building their behavioural traits that they will be taking with them through life.  In a world where we as parents have less and less protective power over the worldly influences, I say we need to stand in the gap for our wee minds wherever we can, not force them into the world faster.

This is my opinion and not a slash at any books or talented authors of these books.  It is not the author who tells us how to raise our children but we as parents who are accountable for how they grow in the Lord.   As a teen I belive you can have that guidance from an adult and perhaps deal with these realities.  Its the ages 8 - 13 that I'm concerned about.  My kids especially.  I hope I haven't offended anyone with my post.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kelly:

TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU!!! thank you for saying what needs to be said... now prayerful that this message is heard by parents and youth... that the parents will stand strong and that the youth will listen to their parents

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Ruthie:

So, I usually don't comment on posts, but I thought i'd add my two-cents this time! When I was a kid, and the Harry Potter books were becoming popular, the Christian community initiated a shutdown movement on the series. My parents did something  a bit different however, that really made an impact on my life.

They let me read them.They made sure that I knew about the hezitations they had surronding the series, but the let me read them. Afterwards, I was able to talk about the books with them and discuss both their weaknesses and strengths. My parents also took the same move with movies...they had me research the movie on plugged-in (shout-out for you guys!) and then we talked about whether the movie had redemptive qualities or was just a piece of junk.Because of my parent's initiaive, I felt more open to discuss issues with them. Instead of being bound to empty rules and regulations, I was able to converse openly and critically with my parents on culture, sin, truth, and other things.  I do think parents need to control what children put in their minds...the mind is so very vulnerable...however, parents have a very short window of time during their teen's years when they can play a part in guiding and shaping their teen. Your teen is being influenced by culture from every direction...baning a few books is not going to be the solution. Why not use this time to engage culture with your teen? They will probably surprise you with how critically and actively they will participate!

I have to say, that I am now a college senior, and my experience with Harry Potter did not plunge me into doubt, bondage, or witchcraft. It did not numb me to the dangers of culture either. If anything, I am a better person from it because of the steps my parents took.

I challenged parents everywhere: be a participant, not a referee.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Mom of teens:

Just noticed a type in my message above:I mentioned two separate series but forgot to hit the enter key:The White Lion Chronicles by Christopher HopperThe Berinfell Prophecies by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper