The emphasis in the First Golden Age [of children’s literature] was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what has been termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, being ill, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I Say Goodbye, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.and many more.
Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones wasn’t just influential on the subgenre of YA known derisively as ‘sick-lit’, but which continues to prove super popular with the 2017 release of John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down. It has now been a full sociological decade (15 years) since The Lovely Bones was published. As Sophie Masson writes in an article in the latest edition of The Looking Glass:
In the last fifteen years, fiction set in or about the afterlife has become a popular and critically acclaimed sub-genre within contemporary speculative fiction for young adults especially, but not only, in English language publishing. These narratives, where the main characters die at the beginning of the story and find themselves in an alien world, the world beyond death, have developed into a fertile ground for imaginative and intellectual challenge and discovery, as a means both to depict the ultimate culture shock and a challenging exploration of otherness and alienation.
I highly recommend a read of the actual article as it’s free to access. The following are my own takeaway points.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
Its roots come from:
- Classic literature
- The Gothic mode
- The Victorian Ghost Story
These days (in Australia, at least) more young people believe in an afterlife than believe in god.
FEATURES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
- Modern YA afterlife stories are a subgenre of paranormal YA fiction, which can include vampires, fairies, trolls and so on.
- The afterlife story is kind of like a portal story,
- They are usually but not always set in a fantasy storyworld.
- This afterlife world is a ‘liminal’ space, not the final end point. They are not the absolute territories of Heaven/Hell, but more closely resemble Purgatory/Limbo.
- The idea of Purgatory in these novels isn’t linked to religion — it’s there for the narrative.
- There’s still much mundane detail about the real world — what characters are eating, how much money they have. However there tends to be little mention of class.
- The afterlife world might be a ghostly copy of the real place on Earth. The landscapes and townscapes of the afterworlds are more solid than the portals but are prone to unexpected changes and reversals which makes it hard for characters to carry out their quests.
- Characters in the afterlife tend to be unable to taste food.
- The genre blend is most commonly fantasy adventure.
- Rich narrative and prose styles
- Strong plots
- Interesting characters
- High sales as well as critical acclaim
- Absence of moral judgement.
- The main characters of modern afterlife YA have either died violently or after illness, which links this genre to the wider sick-lit movement.
- There may well be monsters to defeat. These are supernatural beings. They are often transformed by their encounters with the newly dead young characters.
- There is probably a romantic subplot.
THE ADVANTAGE OF A DEAD NARRATOR
- There’s a very good reason: The thing that marks YA out from adult fiction is its immediacy of voice. The narrator hasn’t aged much before their story is told. But when the narrator is full on dead, that character is afforded omniscience and wisdom which would otherwise feel unnatural, while maintaining the immediacy.
- Many stories for young people are about displacement and feeling like you’re ‘the other’. That’s because you’re trying to find your place at this age. By being dead, the main character is very much The Other.
- If there’s a romantic subplot, it’s the job of the author to keep two lovers apart for the duration of the adventure. Making one of them dead is a really efficient way to keep two characters apart. Or, they may both be dead but of vastly different Earthly ages. Or, the afterlife might be kinder to one than the other.
OTHER EXAMPLES OF AFTERLIFE FICTION
The authors of these works are themselves from diverse backgrounds.
- How The Dead Live by Will Self
- My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
- Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
- His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (sort of)
- Everlost by Neal Shusterman and sequels
- A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
- More than This by Patrick Ness
- Afterworld by Lynnette Lounsbury
- Ferryman by Claire mcFall
- The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
- The Afterlife by Gary Soto
- When We Wake by Karen Healey
- Me and Death: An Afterlife Adventure by Richard Scrimger
- Memor: le monde d’apres by Kinga Wyrzykowska
- The Ghost Squad by Sophie Masson
An earlier outlier and not really connected to anything that has come since: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. In this story:
- This is a story about brotherly love in a Narnia-like world.
- Two brothers die at the beginning.
- They find themselves in the afterlife world of Nangiyala, a place of campfires and sagas.
- The brothers have no trouble fitting into the new world.
- They are happy to be there.
- There’s no mention of the grieving mother left behind.
- It’s possible to die again in this afterlife world.
THE AFTERLIFE IN WIDER POP CULTURE
- Lost, the TV series (American)
- The Returned, a French series called Les Revants (and all the other franchises based on this storyline)
- Resurrection (American)
- The Glitch (Australian)
FURTHER ACADEMIC READING
- Afterlife in Contemporary Fiction by Alice Bennett, a groundbreaking study in the afterlife as depicted in fiction for adults.
- Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination by Greg Garrett, who doesn’t talk much about YA in particular.