Death In Children’s Literature

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

In literature produced for children in earlier centuries, death was nearly omnipresent—either as a reward for spiritual righteousness and moral rectitude or as a punishment for wicked, ungodly behaviour.

In the earliest collection of Grimm fairytales (which admittedly, weren’t really for children), you see the link between life and death really clearly in endings such as:

  • And if they haven’t died, they’re still alive.
  • They were once again together and lived happily ever after until the end of their days.
  • They lived happily together until they died.

For medieval people, death wasn’t really considered tragic. I guess medieval people had a lot more confidence in their after life beliefs. They were DEAD sure they weren’t going to die. Only their corporeal bodies died. This is why The Little Match girl has a HAPPY ending. The girl meets up with her grandmother and they live together in Heaven! Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her seminal book about death said that, there are two kinds of people who are most at peace on their death beds. The super religious and the super atheist. But most of us fall in the murky middle, and find death pretty terrifying.

Fast forward to the 20th century and Western civilisation no longer feels quite as optimistic about life after death. Though death was a common theme in 19th century fiction for children, it 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. In contemporary children’s literature, 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 a generation or two older; the main character and his or her friends tend to 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

Roberta Seelinger Trites has a theory about death and sex as its inverse:

I have always suspected that authority figures in our culture protect children from knowledge of sex because of our cultural desire to protect children from a knowledge of death. Philippe Aries refers to this as the “interdict laid upon death” in the twentieth century. The romantic image of the innocent child still dominating our culture perpetuates the illusion that children flourish best if they are free from the corrupting knowledge of carnality. Carnality: sex and death, death and sex. They are cultural and biological concepts that are linked inviolably.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

But what’s a story without carnality? Boring, that’s what. Children’s authors avoid sex and death, but they do include lots of eating as a stand-in.

DEATH IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

Young adults are seventy-six times more likely to die in a YA novel than in actual life.

Nicole Galante – A Genre Against Them: Regulating Young Adults Through Literature

Everything said above applies to children’s literature but not young adult literature. The rules are quite different here.

Seelinger Trites makes the point that ‘mortality’ is different from ‘death’. In junior fiction, an understanding of mortality — as part of the cycle of life — is part of a symbolic separating from parents. YA characters learn that death is about more than just separating from parents. Teenage readers are now understanding that death might be completely and utterly final, and that’s terrifying.

Seelinger Trites posits death as the defining difference between YA fiction and every other type of fiction (junior and adult) — the sine qua non, the defining feature. YA novels are all about the death, but not from a variety of different angles. Not like adult literature. Young adult novels deal with a very specific aspect of death:

In adolescent literature, death is often depicted in terms of maturation when the protagonist accepts the permanence of mortality, when she/he accepts herself as Being-towards-death.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe