A lot of people will probably tell you their first brush with death in children’s literature was with Bambi. I can’t say the same because I never saw the animated Disney film. I thought I knew the story for the longest time, because my grandmother bought me a Little Golden Book called Bambi and Friends Of The Forest. I still have it, because Nana’s wobbly hand-writing is in the front. Bambi and Friends is like an extended scene like that one out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, where Snow White is frolicking with the animals in the forest. In this Little Golden Book there is no death.
The first literary death to really affect me came much later at age 11 when I read Anne of Green Gables. It was interesting to watch Anne With An E (the Netflix series) and see that Matthew does not die in this more modern revisioning. What was behind that decision? By keeping Matthew alive, Walley-Beckett refused to give him tragic hero status. Instead, she turns him into a more flawed human being, whose lack of communication to Marilla about their shared financial position posits him as a man of his time.
Back to Bambi…
DEATH IN BAMBI
I was first introduced to death by my older sister who took me to see the movie Bambi when I was a little girl. I’d barely dried my tears over the death of Bambi’s mother, when I was crying again while reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book By the Shores of Silver Lake. Not only did Laura’s sister Mary go blind, but their loyal bull dog, Jack, died. In high school I reached for the tissue again when Scarlet O’Hara’s elderly father dies in Gone with the Wind.
Even then, I wondered why did writers let people and beloved animals die? I didn’t think it was too much to ask those with the power of make believe to keep everyone alive.
Walt Disney wanted not just one death, but two. […] Walt wanted to add the image of a man’s hand in the fire sequence, showing that the flames came at the hands of man, and that same fire destroyed the cause of all the chaos, too.
Believe It Or Not, Bambi Was Originally Even Sadder, from Refinery29
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DEATH IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Death, which was a common theme in 19th century fiction for children, was almost banished during the first half of this century. Since then it has begun to reappear; the breakthrough book was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Today not only animals but people die, notably in the sort of books that get awards and are recommended by librarians and psychologists for children who have lost a relative. But even today the characters who die tend to be of another generation; the protagonist and his or her friends survive.
Though there are some interesting exceptions, even the most subversive of contemporary children’s books usually follow these conventions. They portray an ideal world of perfectible beings, free of the necessity for survival and reproduction: not only a pastoral but a paradisal universe — for without sex and death, humans may become as angels. The romantic child, trailing clouds of glory, is not as far off as we might think.
— Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
It can be challenging for writers to describe grief in a way that feels both real and honest. One solution is to write about the ways in which you evade it.
DEATH AND TRANSHUMANISM
First, what is transhumanism?
Transhumanism is the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
While the transhumanist movement and goal for singularity can make sense of our increasingly science-fiction world with its rapidly growing technologies, I see problems with articulating the wrongness of death; in a recent Slate article, Joelle Renstrom writes that,
Representing death as wrong gives it greater power, especially when people do die. If death is wrong, are people who die bad, or are they victims of an obsolete paradigm? Either way, making peace with death would be particularly challenging. Kids could grow up not just afraid of death, but also afraid of failing to fix it. Stolyarov makes death a powerful nemesis that could rule their lives—just as it’s ruled his.
The notion of immortality becomes a fact rather than a concept; to present that to a young mind, a nascent consciousness, does not bode well for their development.
Peter Pan And The Reversibility Of Death
[T]he Neverland is unmistakably the land of the dead, with all its implications. In Mrs. Darling’s vague childhood memories of Peter, “when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they shouldn’t be frightened”. Peter’s famous statement “To die will be an awfully big adventure,” is based on the idea of reversibility of death. This is not a Christian, but a pagan (archaic) notion. To die in the Neverland is an everyday matter, and the author deals with it quite casually: “Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method”. This is only possible because it is not real death, but make-believe. Wendy is shot down by the not-so-bright Tootles and lies dead for a while, mourned by the boys, emerging from the little house in a perfect “returning-goddess” ritual. Even Tinker Bell, having taken poison, can easily be resurrected, because her life and death are merely a question of belief. If all the inhabitants of the Neverland are already dead, then of course they are not afraid to die.
Writers who choose to let their young protagonists die or commit suicide allow them to stay forever young.
– From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
DEATH AND REBELLION
[I]n our Third Golden Age, we ask children to confront not only the traditional enemies such as school bullies or Dark Lords, but Death itself. Far from reassuring readers that some authority is benign, it is portrayed as unequivocally malignant, corrupted by ecological disaster, politics, greed and war. The child’s heroism lies not in following instructions but in defiance, truancy and rebellion. With the advent of YA fiction for secondary school pupils, not only death but sex has become part of the picture – in fact, with novels such as Twilight, it’s central to it.
The following notes are from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 4.
- In many stories death is the beginning of the book rather than the ending.
- Death is an on-limits topic in books for all ages, from picturebooks to adult.
- Western children are otherwise completely protected from death. It’s common these days to reach adulthood without ever having witnessed death. Yet children’s literature is replete with references to death, with family members and friends dying all the time.
- In the Victorian era death was far more a part of life than it is now, but the rate of death doesn’t seem to have gone down much.
- The reality is children still have to deal with death. Grandparents are the most common.
- Many believe the function of kidlit is to prepare them for all eventualities. [Bibliotherapy is discussed in detail by David Beagley.]
- There’s definitely a demand for books on this topic. Ask any librarian. Parents want help introducing this topic to their children in a way that is safer and less personal.
- There are many, many books looking at the death of animals, as a more indirect way of learning about this topic.
- My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece uses the death of an animal as an overt device through which the male protagonist finally understands his father’s grief for his sister, who died five years before. This book deals not with death itself but with the characters who are left behind dealing with it.
- Artichoke Hearts by Sita Brahmachari is one of the best YA books of the past few years and in this story we see the day-to-day life of a girl who is slowly losing her grandmother to cancer.
- In fact, most children’s books are not tackling death; they tackle mourning.
- Big philosophical questions about what happens after you die are avoided. Mourning is easier to tackle, and such stories are perhaps selected for publishing because they have a therapeutic effect on young readers. The stories have endings which are not final. Phillip Pullman’s Lyra saves death in The Amber Spyglass (aka Northern Lights) because she essentially ensures that people become part of everything after death. This is a comforting idea because nothing feels final. Your life or at least your essence will continue to be part of the world.
- This is not specific to kidlit, e.g. Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven [or Proof Of Heaven etc]
- Still, there is a difference between the treatment of death in children’s and adults’ literature. The difference is that in literature for adults it is okay to not be able to mourn. It is okay for a death to be completely meaningless, completely unfair and devoid of any possibility for the people who are left to grieve and achieve a wholeness in grief. In kidlit, children must at least find some sort of solace.
- The Reformative Value Of Death. This is the idea that with someone dying you can somehow gain value. This a horrible idea when you think about it, but there are numerous examples of this in children’s literature: Jacqueline Wilson’s Vicky Angel is about two best friends (extrovert/introvert). The louder child is killed in a car accident. The quiet child begins to come out of her shell. The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson begins with Lenny grieving for her sister who died completely randomly. The novel explores Lenny’s neuroses. She was so in awe of her sister that she didn’t try anything. In both stories, death gives the girls the gift of empowerment.
- This kind of story is controversial, because the reader is encouraged to empathise wholly with the character left behind and put aside the (fictional) fact that another character has completely gone forever. Perhaps this kind of storyline is again trying to clothe death in meaning, since death almost always feels premature and unfair in real life.
- One problem with the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is that it anesthetizes the reader rather than preparing them for adolescent death. Another issue is that on the one hand the TV game show encourages the reader to consider adolescent death a terrible thing, but on the other hand the reader wills the protagonist to kill some of them. So some of their lives were worth more than others — a ‘lazy and convenient technique’ because, conveniently, all the characters who are killed happen to be unpleasant while the ones who survive are pleasant. [I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.]
- [Related: See The Hunger Games: Violence Is The Answer, in which an academic from Emory University explains how the elements of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy derive from Ancient Roman gladiatorial culture in which violence was used to keep the peace, so to speak. This Roman culture is blended with Greek Myth.]
- Death is therefore not only a theme in a lot of stories for children; it is also a plot device.
- The incredible success of Hunger Games calls into question the degree to which fascination with death works with adolescents.
- In the book Before I Die by Jenny Downham, death is used as the sole plot device. A 16 year old girl is dying of cancer. You may find yourself in tears even if you don’t think this is a particularly good book — it is incredibly manipulative of emotions. An important distinction: The reader is crying because a 16-year-old girl is dying, not because of the writing.
- Manipulation is very important. Death can be an easy way to elicit emotions from a young reader. If we consider different forms of death: accident, homicide, terminal illness and suicide, of those, suicide is perhaps the most highly problematic. Books for adolescents are completely full of references to suicide, whether people actually commit suicide or entertain suicidal ideas. There is a long tradition in literature of young protagonists who contemplate suicides. It was thought after the publication of The Sorrows Of Young Werther lots of young men were committing suicide after reading the book. [Incidentally, this is like the plot of Gloomy Sunday, a small, arty film which inexplicably took off in my hometown of Christchurch in the late 90s and had an extremely long running period at the Arts Centre cinema.]
- Similarly, the Romeo and Juliet plot is found everywhere. We find it in Twilight, Noughts and Crosses by Malory Blackman, Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma, Harry Potter (with the self-sacrifice at the end). A lot of the time it’s clothed behind the fact that she isn’t actually dead — she becomes a vampire. Harry Potter is very Christian — very like Jesus. Self-sacrifice. Suicide is often presented as the noble option in children’s literature.
- Suicide is the third biggest cause of adolescent death. It is glorified in adolescent novels, if not for being a noble act in its own right, but for helping others to see that life is worth living. This may be problematic when adolescent brains are hardwired for risk-taking. [Most recently we have 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and all the discussion that came about after it was adapted as a Netflix series.]
- There’s also an argument that adolescents like living vicariously through reading these books. The books provide the distance and can help them get through the teen years.
- The problem with suicide is that hearing about it triggers the risk in people who are depressed or otherwise at risk. We can’t always hide behind the idea that vicarious experiences are safe ones.
- At the opposite extreme, death is sometimes treated in a comical fashion. Examples: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Harrybo by Michael Rosen
- If death is treated humorously, this may be a better way of helping children deal with death, de-dramatizing it but at the same time acknowledges it is a thing.
It seems that in YA novels, there may be only two ways to deal with growing up, death or self-denial.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear
- Paranormal romance is a genre which seems to indulge a teenager’s fascination with death. Death is not the end in any of the stories — they’re completely escapist. The premise of Fallen by Lauren Kate is reincarnation. Every time the character dies she is reborn. Twilight is literally an ode to living forever. They seem very gothic but in fact they evade the theme of death completely.
- By putting so much death in their children’s books, adult writers are taking the easy way out, clothing their own fears in pretty words and images. One day there will be a true text which deals with death in a meaningful way. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch is a beautiful (but controversial) picture book because it presents the inextricable link between a person and death.
- Could children’s literature even exist if there were no such thing as death? Is part of the reason adults want to tell children all about life (through stories) because they know that they are going to die?
- Perhaps adults simply think that children can’t cope with death. It’s the easy way out and it’s very often what adults believe themselves.
- Remember, we don’t see the books that don’t get published. Publishers are less willing to take risks on books that won’t sell. Parents are the book-buyers. Librarians and teachers are other gatekeepers. There’s a huge amount of adult pressure outside the publisher and author regarding what children will read. Kidlit is a sample of what adults think children can deal with. It seems adults think children need to understand that there is ‘transience’ but few are willing to really get into the nitty gritty harshness of death.
THE 1970S TENTPOLE BOOK ABOUT DEATH: BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA BY KATHERINE PATERSON
Bridge to Terabithia has been subject to a fat similar to that of The Brothers Lionheart, since it has been repeatedly referred to as a good novel to introduce death to young readers. However, it is not a book about “coping with death”, but rather about the hard work of growing up, told not from the point of view of an omniscient and didactic adult, but that of an inexperienced and therefore vulnerable child.
–Maria Nikolajeva: From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Katherine Paterson’s moving Bridge to Terabithia (1977) has death as a theme. Jesse Aarons is introduced to the world of the imagination by his new friend Leslie (a girl); together they set up a secret kingdom in the woods beyond the creek. One day Leslie falls into the creek and is drowned; Jesse must survive his grief, and does so to the extent of building a (surely symbolic) bridge across which he can bring his small sister. Leslie’s death is sudden and not witnessed by Jesse, so to some extent the reader is spared.
— John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children
FURTHER CHILDREN’S BOOKS ABOUT DEATH
Abandoned by Meg Cabot (2011)
Adios Nirvana by Conrad Wesselhoeft (2010)
Cousins by Virginia Hamilton — This is a moving book written by America’s first great black writer, winner of the Newbery.
Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon (2010)
Dear Anjoli by Melissa Glenn Haber (2010)
Missing May by Cynthia Rylant (1992) — About the adjustment of an old man and a young girl to the death of the old woman who was wife to one and dearly-loved aunt to the other. The death of an elderly person is not as gut-wrenching as the death of a child character.
So Shelly by TyRoth (2011)
A Summer To Die by Lois Lowry (1977) — Thirteen year old Meg must live through her sister Molly’s terminal illness, and sees Molly in hospital close to death.
The Trouble With Half A Moon by Danette Vigilante (2011)
You Are Not Here by Samantha Schutz (2010)
Undone by Brooke Taylor (2008)
Some lists on Goodreads:
Death In Literature, a LibraryThing list, which includes a few kids’ books but is mainly adults’ books
A short list of books about death, from a public library (ACPL)
Some recommended books about death from M. Jerry Weiss
Ten Of The Best Children’s Books About Death from Books For Keeps
Younger individuals and people with lower levels of education attainment were more likely to have negative attitudes to death. However, it is not all bad news for these individuals. For example, we found there was a relationship between mortality fearfulness and placing a high value on staying healthy.