Death In Children’s Literature

Heidegger’s Being-toward-death

That concept Being-towards-death is key.

  • The main character not only acknowledges their separateness as an individual from the dead character
  • And is well aware of the finality of it, but
  • The death influences the main character’s maturation.
  • They recognise their own mortality, not just as a concept but for real.

Here’s what the Anagnorisis arc tends to look like in these stories:

  1. Realization that if this person I’m close to has died, then I too will be dead someday. An emotional storm around this.
  2. A bit of calm to follow
  3. The main character ends up better off than they were before, because now they really understand the power of death, they can make the most out of life. Alongside that, they realise their own tragic vulnerability and experience a heightened awareness of what power they do and do not hold in their lives.

It seems that death has far more power over the adolescent imagination than any human institution possibly could.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Seelinger Trites goes on to describe 3 recurring patterns in YA literature:

  1. DEATH OCCURS ONSTAGE — In MG novels death tends to happen off stage, reported back by characters, or occurring right at the beginning of the story before the audience has had a chance to bond with the dead character. YA novels make the death far more immediate. We’re often right there for the death.
  2. DEATH IS UNTIMELY, VIOLENT AND UNNECESSARY — Whereas MG novels tend to kill off the elderly and parental figures, YA novels kill the young.
  3. TRAGIC LOSS OF INNOCENCE — When the YA character first understands the finality of death, at first it seems really tragic. But before they came to their acceptance of death they were ready for a fall. They overcome tragic vulnerability, avert catastrophe and transform the tragedy of their own mortality into some level of triumph. In this way, the YA novel isn’t so different from The Little Match Girl, who came to terms with death (okay, died) but everything was okay actually. (She reunited with her grandmother and went to Heaven.)

Main Character as Photographer

There’s this really popular narrative trope used to explore death in YA literature — the main character is a photographer. A diarist is similar. In stories about death, the young person is often the sort of personality who incorporates some kind of pause into their thinking, whether it’s by reflecting on events (often by writing events down) or by taking an actual freeze frame (via camera). This pause foreshadows the eternal pause that will eventually define death.

DESCRIBING GRIEF

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.

Why We Find It So Hard To Describe Grief

One way of writing about death is to write symbolically. Books don’t have to feature death to be about death. Stories about solitude and darkness are also about death. For children, the darkness of night is like a kind of death.

In Lemony Snicket’s picture book The Dark, a boys’ descent into the darkness of the basement is metaphorically the Big Struggle scene in which a character comes close to death.

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.

Transhumanism In Kidlit

Peter Pan And The Reversibility Of Death

Critics have said much about Peter and Wendy as a story about death, and adulthood as a form of death.

Peter and Wendy cover 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