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Old 12-13-2012, 04:58 AM   #1
DanielaTorre
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Killing off your characters in MG

I searched the AW forum for this question and came upon something similar. It concerned violence in MG books. However, I'm more interested to learn more about the manner in which that violence is presented in a middle grade book.

In nearly every single Disney movie, the villain often dies off screen, usually by falling off a precipice. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far. This is very clever because it kills off the evil without raking up a body count.

I'm writing an MG Fantasy book about stage magic and the question came to mind. If I ever decided to write a follow up to it, I imagine a certain character would meet his/her demise for various reasons. This must happen. It's not something that I would do for cheap shock value. But for the life of me I cannot think of a way to kill said person off without some sort of violence or blood being involved. This isn't Harry Potter where I could plug in a wand and utter a magic word and kill the person without a drop of blood being spilt. Nor can I have this person fall off a building. It's just not logical to the story being told. Another thing to consider is that my characters are actual people. They're not monsters or demons so the consequences are real.

So my question is — and this sounds so morbid in my head as I type this — what is the least gory manner a person can get killed by another person in a middle grade book?

I probably will never get to write a follow up to my current project, you know, because I'm not yet thinking that far ahead, but I'm really interested to learn. As a writer, how would you or how have you approached murder?

ETA: My problem in particular is that it needs to be done in the heat of the moment. So things like poison or what have you are not an option.

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Old 12-13-2012, 05:09 AM   #2
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Trust me, you will be surprised at the amount of violence you can get away with in MG.
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Old 12-13-2012, 05:22 AM   #3
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I totally relate. It's not unheard of for characters to die in MG, though, not even in realistic MG. Off the top of my head, Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia. It happens offscreen and the MC finds out about it secondhand (IIRC. I haven't read it in awhile). If you need yours to happen onscreen, but still want a subtler, more emotional feel, you could direct the readers' focus away from the IKEA details of the death ("Joe inserted the knife into Mike's jugular and twisted it exactly 3 mm in a clockwise direction to keep the bright red blood flowing") and onto the emotions and sensations involved ("Mike saw something flash in Joe's hand, something that caught the stage lights overhead. He felt like Mike had punched him in the throat and clutched it. Why did his hands feel so wet?").

Here's how I handled a murder in one of my stories.

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The wine cellar held four men. Two stretched on a ladder propped against a rack of leaky glass bottles. The third sat right in the middle of the floor. The fourth lay in a heap beside him.

The man sitting on the floor brushed whorled fingers over the forehead of the prone lump next to him.

"He's cold," He said to the two on the ladder.

Just like that, the wine cellar held three men.
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Old 12-13-2012, 08:25 AM   #4
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I've killed off characters in my MG, but I generally do it in a manner more like Harry Potter, where there is a minimum of blood. Of course, I don't think MG fiction has to have no violence or death. I was watching action movies a long time before I was old enough to read MG. In fact, that was one of the things I liked about Harry Potter. It had violence. I mean, it opens with the news of a double murder. I think you can get away with a lot in MG, especially if it's upper MG.
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Old 12-13-2012, 10:42 PM   #5
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Well, I can't really say okay, "MC flew at Antag and stabbed him with a knife". My charcters aren't violent people. The setting is a bit violent in nature as they are magicians that work with certain props and magical elements that can be quite dangerous. They can manipulate how people perceive them, they can make things literally disappear, they can transport themselves between places and they screw with people's minds... I guess you can say it's more "magical realism" than it is fantasy.

While one magician might be an illusionist, the other specializes in mentalism, and another is an escape artist, etc. So, in the world and setting I created, there's little room for snapping your fingers and making someone croak. My MC's mom died while performing in a water tank onstage. She drowned. That's as least bloody as I can get it but that's only mentioned, not shown.

I mean, I'm not stressing over it as it's not something I'm writing at the moment, but the question is still there.

In the heat of the moment, how does person A kill person B? Hmm. I got a lot of thinking to do.
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Old 12-13-2012, 11:23 PM   #6
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I had a skeletal horse kick the villain's head in right before he stabs the protagonist in my last book. In my experience, kids generally like violence as long as it's directed against the right people.

I stated it rather baldly, but didn't get into brain spatter or anything like that, and the editor didn't even comment on it. I wouldn't sweat too much. I mean, Graveyard Book starts with everybody getting murdered, not exactly off-screen, and it won all the awards.
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Old 12-14-2012, 06:25 PM   #7
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Not sure if this helps, but I'd say a head injury -- character gets smacked over the head and hits the ground. You don't need any blood to die of a head injury, and it can be done in the heat of the moment.
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Old 12-15-2012, 03:27 AM   #8
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Old 12-15-2012, 03:43 AM   #9
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Hmm... you should check out Inkheart. It's upper MG and there are some clever death scenes in it. If I remember correctly, there are a few stabbings and burn deaths and what not. I haven't read it since I was a kid, though.

Anthropomorphized characters seem to get more lee-way with violence, though. Watership Down, Animals of Farthingwood... bloody, even for some AF I've read.
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Old 12-15-2012, 07:16 PM   #10
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With violence in MG it's merely a matter of style/description over quantity - in other words, as long as you don't go into excessive detail about every last, bloody action, you'll be alright.

Think of it as the difference between Watership Down (violent, but classic children's tale) and the Hunger Games (definitely YA at least). Also, I'm re-watching my extended-cut Lord of the Rings box set, and only just realised it's a 12 certificate all the way through. Sure it's violent, it's Epic Fantasy, there's a war going on and darkness is on the rise. So sure, lots of characters (and orcs, goblins, trolls, humans, elves, wargs, Ring Wraiths) die throughout, but it's pretty much bloodless - Boromir gets shot in the chest with THREE ARROWS, and do you know why that violent act didn't earn Fellowship a 15? Because there wasn't excessive blood (there were spots from the wounds, but no spurts), and because the focus wasn't on the orc brutally shooting him, but on how Boromir fought on regardless to protect Pippin and Merry.

So yes, violence really isn't a problem as long as it's not gratuitous, excessive, explicit, and either directed at the right (mostly bad) people, or at the good guys to showcase their strengths, bravery, friendship, etc.

Hope this helps!

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Old 12-15-2012, 08:40 PM   #11
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It depends so much on the kind of story you're telling, as well. Action/adventure requires a bigger sort of death than lighter fantasy.

Are battles a key part of the plot, like they are in the Percy Jackson series? Then you'll need to kill off your character in battle. Stabbing seems like the death of choice in those sorts of books, because a character can linger for a while and have a good, meaty death scene full of pithy and haunting conversation.

If you don't have battles with swords or other weapons against the enemy, then an accidental death seems more appropriate. And if that's the case, then you have a lot of creative license, it seems to me. The more convoluted or unexpected, the better. Especially if you want your MC's hands to be clean. Have a series of events set in motion by someone, that leads to unintended consequences.

The defeat of the bad guy at the end of the Spiderwick Chronicles is a good example. The kids aren't trying to kill him. He's trying to kill them. All they do is fight back, trying to survive, and he ends up falling victim to the same fate he tried to inflict on them, more or less. So it's his fault, not theirs, and they get to be heroes without being murderers.

Is the character who needs to die one of the MC's good guy sidekicks? Then the death needs to be sacrificial and heroic. Think ObiWon giving in to Darth Vader so that the Millenium Falcon can escape.
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Old 12-15-2012, 11:46 PM   #12
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It depends so much on the kind of story you're telling, as well. Action/adventure requires a bigger sort of death than lighter fantasy.

Are battles a key part of the plot, like they are in the Percy Jackson series? Then you'll need to kill off your character in battle. Stabbing seems like the death of choice in those sorts of books, because a character can linger for a while and have a good, meaty death scene full of pithy and haunting conversation.

If you don't have battles with swords or other weapons against the enemy, then an accidental death seems more appropriate. And if that's the case, then you have a lot of creative license, it seems to me. The more convoluted or unexpected, the better. Especially if you want your MC's hands to be clean. Have a series of events set in motion by someone, that leads to unintended consequences.

The defeat of the bad guy at the end of the Spiderwick Chronicles is a good example. The kids aren't trying to kill him. He's trying to kill them. All they do is fight back, trying to survive, and he ends up falling victim to the same fate he tried to inflict on them, more or less. So it's his fault, not theirs, and they get to be heroes without being murderers.

Is the character who needs to die one of the MC's good guy sidekicks? Then the death needs to be sacrificial and heroic. Think ObiWon giving in to Darth Vader so that the Millenium Falcon can escape.
Wow. This is by far the closest to what I'm trying to achieve. I can't decide yet who is going to die since this is all speculative "down-the-road-if-it-ever-gets-written" kind of thing, but I do have an idea. It is someone close to the MC. His death is accidental but the one striking him down had intended the death to be for the MC. There are no battles of any kind.

Yes to the series of events set in motion by someone that leads to unintended consequences. Yes to the killer wanting to be the one who survives thus killing the other (this is weird I know, but it's too lengthy to explain). Yes to the heroic death.

But in my world full of transporting doors, card tricks, escape artists and disappearing houses, what can I use as a weapon? This is ridiculous because a magician works with so many dangerous props, but none so dangerous that death can happen in an instant. I guess this is just one of those sort of things I have to figure out alone. Everyone has been very insightful which has made the gears in my head turn. I have a better understanding on how I might approach this scene now. That's kind of why I wanted to post this question to begin with.
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Old 12-16-2012, 05:09 PM   #13
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Just hearing about this and the mention of 'card tricks' reminds me of that episode of X-Files where that guy can psychically teleport objects anywhere he wants... Which usually means lots of metal objects in the guts of his poor victims. Gruesome, yes. Probably not suitable for MG? Ooooh, yes.

ETA: if you're looking for deaths that would seem like an accident on stage, there's always the classic switched prop routine: guns for bullet catch trick, swords for the impaling cabinet, real locks on underwater escape acts, etc...

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Old 01-05-2013, 02:18 AM   #14
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You need to be very careful you do not cross the "line" with violence in the MC's death. Otherwise, parents WILL complain about the book. If they complain, it won't get purchased by them at school book fairs, and it may end up being taken off the shelves of a school library. (Trust me, all of us librarians HATE having to do that, but every school district has different standards and procedures to follow when a parent lodges a complaint. Ours goes through a rigorous process that keeps most of them on the shelves, but books DO get banned, more often than you would believe.)

Currently, and in the recent past, I have had parents complain about the following subjects in books (and some of these were in Picture Books!)

1. Adoption, specifically having to explain why the adopted child's parents did not want her.
2. The repeated use of the word "stupid"
3. A scene in a graphic novel where the non-human characters appeared to be smoking cigars
4. A scene where the MC contemplated joining his brother's gang to have friends
5. Children disobeying their parents to walk on a train track.
6. Children being "rude" to each other in conversations throughout the book.
7. Scenes from the Civil Rights movement (this objection was due to the unfair treatment of a little girl in the book...objection made by a mother who didn't want her daughter to know what her grandparents had gone through)
8. Descriptions of slavery in an historical fiction book.

Those are just a sample. Some parents feel their children should be isolated from reality and covered with bubble wrap. So, if your MC dies in an excruciatingly painful way, be prepared for your book being possibly taken from it's target audience! (And know that every librarian is being FORCED to remove it against their wills!)

That being said, do what is right for your character and your book. The buzz about banned books sometimes results in free publicity and children with less restrictive parents passing around the books...garnering a larger audience!
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Old 01-05-2013, 03:06 AM   #15
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You need to be very careful you do not cross the "line" with violence in the MC's death. Otherwise, parents WILL complain about the book. If they complain, it won't get purchased by them at school book fairs, and it may end up being taken off the shelves of a school library. (Trust me, all of us librarians HATE having to do that, but every school district has different standards and procedures to follow when a parent lodges a complaint. Ours goes through a rigorous process that keeps most of them on the shelves, but books DO get banned, more often than you would believe.)

Currently, and in the recent past, I have had parents complain about the following subjects in books (and some of these were in Picture Books!)

1. Adoption, specifically having to explain why the adopted child's parents did not want her.
2. The repeated use of the word "stupid" GUILTY
3. A scene in a graphic novel where the non-human characters appeared to be smoking cigars Sidekick mentions seeing teacher go upstairs to smoke
4. A scene where the MC contemplated joining his brother's gang to have friends
5. Children disobeying their parents to walk on a train track.
6. Children being "rude" to each other in conversations throughout the book. It's a recurring thing amongst two sidekicks
7. Scenes from the Civil Rights movement (this objection was due to the unfair treatment of a little girl in the book...objection made by a mother who didn't want her daughter to know what her grandparents had gone through)
8. Descriptions of slavery in an historical fiction book.

Those are just a sample. Some parents feel their children should be isolated from reality and covered with bubble wrap. So, if your MC dies in an excruciatingly painful way, be prepared for your book being possibly taken from it's target audience! (And know that every librarian is being FORCED to remove it against their wills!)

That being said, do what is right for your character and your book. The buzz about banned books sometimes results in free publicity and children with less restrictive parents passing around the books...garnering a larger audience!
Most of these things are bordering on ridiculous, especially the last two. Do they want to pretend it never happened or something?


I'm leaning toward a way to do this that I think will work very well. But, that said, it could be a little bloody. I mean, I don't have to be graphic about it, but not yet sure. Either way, it's currently hypothetical.

I think that if my ms ever gets published, it'll automatically be shunned by what I will dub as "orthodox parents". parents who what to shelter the crap out of their kids. The reason being that it involves magic. Also, the MC's uncle dabbles in the illegal, and the MC's best friend has sticky fingers.

Good god, I'd be a terrible influence on children...
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Old 01-05-2013, 03:18 AM   #16
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Most forms of suffocation are bloodless - drowning, choking, wrapping their head in a plastic bag (or shower curtain). Hanging is bloodless (but if you're a stickler for realism don't forget the body tends to release bowels). A blood clot and poisoning are bloodless, as is an air embolism. Breaking the neck is usually bloodless. A swift blow to the head can cause swelling around the brain which can end in a bloodless death.
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Old 01-05-2013, 04:21 AM   #17
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Most forms of suffocation are bloodless - drowning, choking, wrapping their head in a plastic bag (or shower curtain). Hanging is bloodless (but if you're a stickler for realism don't forget the body tends to release bowels). A blood clot and poisoning are bloodless, as is an air embolism. Breaking the neck is usually bloodless. A swift blow to the head can cause swelling around the brain which can end in a bloodless death.
I absolutely love all these ideas... I just couldn't imagine one of my characters throw a bag over the other one's head and smother them to death in a book aimed at 10-14 year olds. But it would be a pleasure for any writer to describe such a scene.
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Old 01-05-2013, 11:00 AM   #18
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I love these ideas. Your book sounds intriguing, DanielaTorre.
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Old 01-05-2013, 11:06 AM   #19
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NGL, my stuff can get a little heavy on the torture-porn but I figure, if you can read it without wincing, I'm not doing my job.
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Old 01-06-2013, 05:42 PM   #20
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I'm excited because my EF research can come in handy here. And by 'research' I do of course mean having watched every X-Files episode :p

There was an episode in the earlier series about a man who could took small objects - usually cutlery, tools or nails - and teleports them in a blink of an eye to the... Insides of his victims, causing heavy internal bleeding and death >_<

You could magic-ify this by calling it 'Dark Phasing Magic' or something similar, and having it banned in your wizarding community... This way you'd have an evil, painful, murderous way of dispatching with an unfortunate character with little to no blood. Plus all you'd have to convey is the fact that the objects are now inside their guts that it's helluva painful, and let the reader imagine the rest.

Just an idea.

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Old 01-06-2013, 06:11 PM   #21
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The book deals with magic, correct? Then I'd kill whoever with a magic trick 'gone wrong.' The knives in the box trick comes to mind, except this time the knife is real and sharp and finds its target. Box is opened and the girl/man/woman inside hasn't vanished, but is right there, full of holes.

For MG you can kill your subject any way you like, just play down the gore value. If the MC is young (or not) he reports the death without over-describing it, and the horror comes from the death itself and not the wounds and the blood and the gore of it.

I suppose there are many, many magic tricks where this might happen- magic gone wrong, that is.
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Old 01-06-2013, 06:19 PM   #22
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You need to be very careful you do not cross the "line" with violence in the MC's death. Otherwise, parents WILL complain about the book. If they complain, it won't get purchased by them at school book fairs, and it may end up being taken off the shelves of a school library. (Trust me, all of us librarians HATE having to do that, but every school district has different standards and procedures to follow when a parent lodges a complaint. Ours goes through a rigorous process that keeps most of them on the shelves, but books DO get banned, more often than you would believe.)

Currently, and in the recent past, I have had parents complain about the following subjects in books (and some of these were in Picture Books!)

1. Adoption, specifically having to explain why the adopted child's parents did not want her.
2. The repeated use of the word "stupid"
3. A scene in a graphic novel where the non-human characters appeared to be smoking cigars
4. A scene where the MC contemplated joining his brother's gang to have friends
5. Children disobeying their parents to walk on a train track.
6. Children being "rude" to each other in conversations throughout the book.
7. Scenes from the Civil Rights movement (this objection was due to the unfair treatment of a little girl in the book...objection made by a mother who didn't want her daughter to know what her grandparents had gone through)
8. Descriptions of slavery in an historical fiction book.

Those are just a sample. Some parents feel their children should be isolated from reality and covered with bubble wrap. So, if your MC dies in an excruciatingly painful way, be prepared for your book being possibly taken from it's target audience! (And know that every librarian is being FORCED to remove it against their wills!)

That being said, do what is right for your character and your book. The buzz about banned books sometimes results in free publicity and children with less restrictive parents passing around the books...garnering a larger audience!
I just want to say WOW to your entire post. I'm sorry you have to work under these circumstances.

I'm from (more liberal perhaps) MA and have known a number of librarians. (I am a retired teacher.) I am a member of several library groups as I own two homes, in two diff. library 'regions.' And I must say, from talking to the librarians in the children's areas, this seldom happens - not that it doesn't, though. The usual response, from what I've heard, is if a number of parents do object to a book, the book isn't removed, but placed on a shelf near or 'behind' the librarian's desk. The book is still available, but has to be asked for.

There must be so many books, though, that you've had to remove. Are the HP books available? What about Neil Gaiman's? (Or are they simply moved to the adult area?)

I'd also imagine you've had to remove a fair number of classics, or restrict them.

Sad these things still happen in this day and age. If a parent does want to monitor their child's reading, they can simply accompany their child to the library/bookstore and control what their child reads that way.
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Old 01-06-2013, 08:04 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by DavidBrett View Post
I'm excited because my EF research can come in handy here. And by 'research' I do of course mean having watched every X-Files episode :p

There was an episode in the earlier series about a man who could took small objects - usually cutlery, tools or nails - and teleports them in a blink of an eye to the... Insides of his victims, causing heavy internal bleeding and death >_<

You could magic-ify this by calling it 'Dark Phasing Magic' or something similar, and having it banned in your wizarding community... This way you'd have an evil, painful, murderous way of dispatching with an unfortunate character with little to no blood. Plus all you'd have to convey is the fact that the objects are now inside their guts that it's helluva painful, and let the reader imagine the rest.

Just an idea.

Dave
You know Dave, this form of death actually came to mind a couple weeks back? It could actually work the way I'm imagining it this moment. In fact, my characters use smoke bombs to appear and disappear and in one of those instances BOOM, reappear but with something really nasty in their gut. MUAHAHHAHAHAHA! I'd have to actually craft this so that the reader understands what happened.

It's either this or an object (an object that has poetic significance) slits the character's throat. That would be a little harder to keep the gore factor down, but hey, it was the only thought I had.

If mentioned the same thing I was thinking, then perhaps that's a sign that it could work. Woohoo! Wait, why am I excited about potentially killing a really important character of mine? Damn you brain, you fudged with me again.

Quote:
Originally Posted by jaksen View Post

For MG you can kill your subject any way you like, just play down the gore value. If the MC is young (or not) he reports the death without over-describing it, and the horror comes from the death itself and not the wounds and the blood and the gore of it.

I suppose there are many, many magic tricks where this might happen- magic gone wrong, that is.

Woah. I never really thought about this. Horror comes from the death itself... yes. Brilliant! I think the effect will work because the character is someone really important. Thanks Jaksen. I'll keep this in mind when crafting the scene.
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Old 01-08-2013, 01:27 AM   #24
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Originally Posted by jaksen View Post
The usual response, from what I've heard, is if a number of parents do object to a book, the book isn't removed, but placed on a shelf near or 'behind' the librarian's desk. The book is still available, but has to be asked for.

There must be so many books, though, that you've had to remove. Are the HP books available? What about Neil Gaiman's? (Or are they simply moved to the adult area?)

I'd also imagine you've had to remove a fair number of classics, or restrict them.
This is an elementary school library, and we do not have a restricted shelf. If a parent pursues wanting the book removed, it is read by a committee of teachers, all reviews written on the book are read, etc. Only if the committee agrees the book lacks literary merit OR is age-inappropriate is the book removed. I actually have only needed to remove one book. The process, however, is aggravating. We have all HP books actively circulating!
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Old 01-13-2013, 07:58 PM   #25
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Houses zipping here and there... hmmmm

Someone could be checking the bricks on the chimney and find the house transported from under him.....or be sitting in a field of buttercups by a babbling brook and reading a book when out of the blue comes a two-storey bomb!

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