Sunday, September 26, 2010

This is Your Book with Guns

Q: Is it okay for characters in YA novels to use guns? My story takes place in the future and several of the teenage characters have and use guns. I'm in the middle of revising, so it wouldn't be impossible to replace the word gun with some imaginary weapon from the future but I feel like that's a cop out. We hunted (bad choice of word?) down a librarian in the YA section to ask what she thought and she said it was fine, but her coworker overheard and they ended up disagreeing! Can you shed any light on this?
Once you throw firearms into the mix in a children's book, you're potentially upping the age level and cutting out a certain percentage of your audience. Not to say that it is verboten in YA, but the 10-12 crowd that very often reads up to YA might not get the chance to read it, some parents and other gatekeepers will be distraught about it, and if there is a "mature" YA section in the bookstore or library different from the other YA, the book may well be relegated to it. Plus the book might not make it into curriculum, book fairs and school libraries if there is a lot of gunplay.

So I think you have to decide, and this is something that only you will know: in the story that you are telling, are guns really necessary? If they are, really and truly, then you've gotta leave them in. If you're telling a story about gangsters or child soldiers or a school shooting or hunting (and probably a few other topics) it would absolutely not make sense to not have guns.

That said, I'd also urge you to check out how some other authors have handled the problem. Anthony Horowitz's teen spy Alex Rider for example (though those books are more 10+ rather than teen), is in MI6 like James Bond. However, they make a point of NOT giving him a gun, but rather all kinds of more-awesome gadgets that are a bit more kid friendly, like explosive gum,  metal-melting zit cream, and the like - plus he knows martial arts and uses at-hand objects such as sporting equipment, along with cunning, to disable or capture his enemies.  In Ender's Game, though the kids are in fact using real weapons, they think they are essentially playing a game... and they aren't "guns" as we know them anyway. (That's another thing - how far in the future are we talking? If it is super far into the future, surely they'd have something more high-tech than a plain old gun... so 19th century!)

Anyway. This is all a long way to say, if you need them leave them in. But if you aren't sure, try taking them out and see what it sounds like. Doesn't hurt to TRY, right? You can always put 'em back.


  1. Anonymous9:54 AM

    I have a middle grade novel with a 13 y/o girl who is a proficient hunter. I have had two editors who said, "No guns." One suggested I change it to a sling shot. However, three other editors have now asked for full manuscript, so I guess tastes differ. Shelley

  2. I'm really anxious to see how people respond to this post, because I can honestly say I've not thought about it. Maybe it's my tendency to stick to mostly fantasy (including urban fantasy/paranormal) where swords/knives are quite popular, but if guns are used, I've never blinked twice. Maybe I wouldn't say the same if I read about one used in a contemporary, though.

  3. Michael Grant's Gone series is one where they very definitely use guns. I love those books, but were I a parent, I might want my kids to grow up a little before reading them. 13 at least.

    It's a hard subject for sure, also because video games have plenty of guns. And according to my husband (who worked in that industry at one of the bigger companies) the guns don't change the rating as much as the portrayal of violence.

    *Shrugs* Just some food for thought.

  4. I really didn't even think that guns were something like a no-no in YA.

    Well, then. Now what if the MC doesn't know about guns (isolated from modern man-made things like guns), doesn't use one, but still, guns are still a major part of the story?

    I wouldn't have second thought that guns were a no-no, but then again, the guns in Pokemon was taken out when it came to America, so I guess it shouldn't have been much of a surprise.

    I guess the more you know (which makes it just as frustrating as it does interesting).

  5. KinDallas10:34 AM

    Sorry if this is a duplicate (I keep getting an error when I try to comment).

    I find this very interesting, giving the world post-Mockingjay. They very definitely use guns, explosives, bows/arrows and spears (in Hunger Games). And SCHOLASTIC was the publisher, who I understand to be a bit restrictive about certain things (language/sexuality in particular). I think it has everything to do with the story.

    I'm on submission with an older MG about a kid who gets tangled up in monster hunting with the military. He has his own special weapon (not a gun, but a knife and requires hand-to-hand combat), but having the soldiers carry sling-shots would be completely unrealistic, so they have military weaponry. Now I don't show them filling anything full of holes, true. Guess we'll see if it sells or not.

  6. This answer has definitely given me loads to think about. And someone in my group pointed out that since I have a car bomb going off in the first chapter it all might be moot anyway! I might be relegating myself to the more mature YA section regardless.

    Still, I'm going to do what you suggested and try writing them out to see how it works. It's only about 30 years in the future so not enough to go Star Trek, but far enough that something similar new and less controversial should be possible.

    Thank you for answering my question so thoroughly!

  7. Hm. This is a problem for me because I'm currently working on an upper YA book that is dystopian/post-apocalyptic and because of the militaristic, everyone-for-themselves way of life, everyone has and uses guns. There is even bloodshed and death. Honestly, I'd rather drop the YA then get rid of the violence because it's a pretty big part of the story.

  8. I never thought guns were questionable in YA as well. However, why bring them in unless they're a must (like in the situations you mentioned--e.g. school shooting). If they're just there for no purpose, then they're just gratuitous and do nothing to contribute to plot. So why have them except for shock value? And if your book has to rely on pure shock value, that's a problem.

  9. I love that you used Alex Rider for an example. Great series. One thing, though, is that Alex does end up using a gun... but it's later in the series after Horowitz (presumably) has already establish his audience. Alex doesn't really like it, though, so it sends a message to kids that guns aren't really that cool.

    Another thing to think about with guns is how they're being portrayed. Are they this weapon of mass destruction that the characters need to have in order to be strong? Or is it something that they carry around for safety and hate to use?

  10. I think some of you are misunderstanding me. I never said that you CAN'T HAVE GUNS IN YA (or even in middle grade) books.

    I said, if you have them, you'd better have a good reason, and you have to be aware that some people won't approve. Sorta like in real life.

    "Surviving by any means necessary in a world gone mad" is a good reason. "I'm a champion hunter" is a good reason. "Nazis are after me and my family" is a good reason. "I am a crazy person and gonna go on a killing spree" is a good reason (well... you know. not a GOOD reason, but.)

  11. I completely agree! There has to be a reason for it. Like dystopia for example, to rise up or to have war you need to have weapons. I do like when kids are given something besides firearms though. A bow, a tricked out watch that shoots knock out darts. I like creativity in my weapons.

  12. I recently read a YA novel, Jennifer Hubbards, THE SECRET YEAR (was awesome, by the way) where the MC liked to target shoot on his families land. She made a point to add something about how whenever he would do that, he had to put an orange cone on the front porch so everyone would know that someone was out there shooting. I kept expecting someone to get shot because of the obvious mention of it being a safety issue, but now I realize it was probably to make it more acceptable for YA audience... interesting topic! I live in the south, and all the kids around here grow up hunting and shooting for sport, so I guess it all depends on the context.

  13. Also to think about: I tend toward "mature" YA in my reading as well as my writing. I'm okay with that. If my books have things or themes in them that would cause them to have a somewhat smaller audience but maintain the integrity of the work, not a problem for me. You have to also ask yourself if you're okay with that. I am, but I know someone else might not be and change the tone of their book to be friendly to a wider audience. Neither is wrong!


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