On Violence in Middle-Grade Books by Marianne Hering

I just turned in a middle-school book proposal in which a uniformed guard gets too close to a fire and his bronze helmet melts, burning his face. That happens just before his body incinerates. It’s gruesome. I describe smells and screams and the ferocious fire that is waiting for more victims. (And yes, you guessed it; this is the Bible story of the Fiery Furnace.)

So hear me clearly: I seek out adventure and at times even violence for my children’s stories. I’m no squeamish wimp.

But there’s a limit to what I think is appropriate for children’s books and why I applaud the Christian Booksellers Association market for being a watchdog. In this blog I’ll humbly offer some thoughts on the subject via a book review of Coop Knows the Scoop.

Coop Knows the Murder Scoop

I was introduced to Coop Knows the Scoop at the absolutely wonderful 2021 Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in Ashville, North Carolina. The author, Taryn Souders, was there teaching a class on “Taking the Mystery out of Writing Mysteries,” and everyone was talking up her children’s book published by Source Books (an American Booksellers Association [ABA] book publisher). It was even nominated for an Edgar. So I bought a copy.

This book was a fun read. I finished the book in two sittings. Taryn is a professional writer. But I was surprised when it turned out to be a murder mystery. On the back cover of the book, we find out the main character is Coop, a seventh-grader who lives in a small town in Georgia. We also see that the book is for ages eight and up.

The goals of marketers

The publishing house wanted to draw in young kids—all of them do. They lower the age limits for books to increase the likelihood a parent will buy it. Plus, the marketers are sneaky. The front cover shows kids on bicycles. The back cover says the book is about “a cold case mystery.” My initial take on that phrase was that the book could be about some buried jewelry or missing money from the offering plate. What they don’t tell you is that it’s a murder mystery. The marketers were deliberately cloaking that fact to draw in parents of younger readers. I felt duped when the skeleton showed up. While the back-cover copy lured you to believing you were reading about a modern-day Encyclopedia Brown, you weren’t. Young Mr. Brown solved mysteries such as a team using an illegal baseball pitch, a carnival scam, a dead eagle, and mysterious handprints. Not who buried a young woman in the school playground.

Double Standard?

Why then is it okay for me to write about incineration while a quiet murder mystery puts me off?

Here’s why: I write about historical events that provide excitement in a couple of scenes. In Coop Knows the Scoop, I was uncomfortable with an eight-year-old reading about a seventh grader who is trying to figure out motive for the murder of an adult. Not even Coop’s own grandfather was above suspicion. For more than half the book Coop and his friends were marinating in in the dark side of human nature. They were speculating on who was evil enough to murder Tabby, Coop’s long-lost grandmother. They were wondering if Tabby was faithful or if his grandfather was violent. They were looking for the worst in people. All this is in a setting where people talk about God, revere the Bible, and attend church—but a Christian setting does not necessarily mean it’s a wholesome read even if the murderer goes to jail.

Why the Christian market has a parent’s back

In my books published by Focus on the Family/Tyndale, the front covers show the danger clearly—I lean into it for marketing. Parents will know that when they buy my book there will be a tiger attack or a volcano eruption. They know if there are druids or sorcerers in the story right away. That way, they can avoid those topics till their children are ready for such strong content. And, while the plot may have its dark moments, the overall content is hopeful and looks for the best in Christian heroes.

So the bottom line is that getting a book published in the Christian Booksellers Association market is an honor. It’s nice to be part of an industry that understands the parents’ role in selecting material for their children. That doesn’t mean every book is great, but if the publishers remain true to their buyers, it will give parents a fighting chance to know the important facts about the content of a book when they buy it.

Why some manuscripts may be rejected

Keep this need for wholesome content in mind when you’re pitching to an agent or a publisher. Make sure your content is in line with the CBA unwritten rules, because if it’s not, you most likely will be rejected. If you’re not sure what those elusive rules are, get advice before writing a lot more on your manuscript.

I’m not sure if my book proposal will be accepted by the publisher who asked for it. Even the defense that “it’s in the Bible” may not be enough to justify the scene’s obvious gore. But stay tuned; I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Want to chat with me for 30 minutes to talk about your children’s project for free? Or we can talk about pickleball. I love pickleball. Email me at HeLovesMeBooks@gmail.com to schedule something.

About Marianne Hering

Marianne Hering was a founding editor of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Since then she’s been writing for children and editing Christian books for adults. Find out more about the Imagination Station book series that has sold more than 1 million copies at MarianneHering.com. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

6 thoughts on “On Violence in Middle-Grade Books by Marianne Hering

    1. Thanks, Jarm. I once checked out a book from the library and it had content about same-sex attraction. I looked at the cover and back cover copy, and that wasn’t mentioned. That was an ABA book. I think the publishers think they are doing kids a favor by including material their parents wouldn’t want them reading.

    1. Janice, I have no list. I just have experience with ABA books that don’t tell about controversial topics and then get half way through to find content I wish I’d been warned about. I usually don’t find that in CBA books. Sorry I’m not more help.

  1. Marianne, this is an intriguing post. I greatly appreciate Christian publishers who are standing firm in this challenging market.
    Last year, I had a small religious publishing house send me an unsolicited book to review on my blog. I had reviewed a book before by the same author. The story was fine, but there was one illustration blatantly promoting behavior contrary to God’s Word. The sticking point for me is that the illustration had nothing to do with the story. It was just placed there to promote an agenda inappropriate for young children.
    Parents and guardians will need to diligently serve as the gatekeepers until their children grow in wisdom and discernment.
    Gone are the days when we could just pick up any book in the children’s section and feel confident it would be appropriate for our children.

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