Death In Children’s Literature


[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.

Amanda Craig writing about the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature

While some commentators don’t see death in young adult literature as problematic, feeling it prepares young people somehow for sadnesses in the ‘real world’, Nicole Galante disagrees, arguing that it strips young people of power in the here and now, keeping them in ‘their place’:

By looking to the future despite the death of adolescents, YA simultaneously promises future power and removes the hope of it altogether. Moreover, death is used as a threat. The young adults who die in the genre are usually those who make a grab for power before a socially acceptable time. For example, Alaska dies in Looking for Alaska after spending her teenage years drinking, smoking and having sex; Oslo in Where Things Come Back dies from an overdose, breaking the adult rule of Don’t Do Drugs; and Mary in The Absolutely True Diary of a PartTime Indian dies after moving off the reservation despite traditions that warn against it. A subtler version of this tactic is used at the close of the The Disreputable History. The narrator says, “Frankie Landau-Banks is an off-roader. She might, in fact, go crazy, as has happened with a lot of people who
break the rules” (337). Frankie isn’t dead, but being threatened with the label “crazy” disenfranchises her as a punishment for breaking the rules set in place by adults. Young adult readers’ options are as follows: wait for power and spend years sticking to the status quo, or make a grab for power and die in the process. Because both options, waiting and dying, are bleak, young adult readers can internalize the message that power is always out of reach, and therefore
they’ll never try to break the cycle of powerlessness. In this way, power remains in the hands of adults, and it becomes unfortunately evident that YA is not trying to empower young adult readers, but rather it is trying to regulate them.

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

Galante has two recommendations for writers of young adult literature:

  1. Stop relying so heavily on the future that the present is forgotten, and young adult readers are consequently rendered powerless.
  2. Stop killing off “rule-breaking” characters.

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 may be 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

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