Death In Children’s Literature

  • 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.
death is evaded in the fallen series by lauren kate
  • 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.
Duck Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

The following short film, based on the picture book, shows that when it comes to writing about hard stuff for kids, it’s about the treatment rather than the subject matter. The short film is far darker than the tone of the picture book.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/90681329″ width=”640″ height=”150″ allowfullscreen=”allowfullscreen
  • 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.
FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1937) Robert Lawson the old grey goose is dead
FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS (1937) Robert Lawson the old grey goose is dead

THE 1970S TENTPOLE BOOK ABOUT DEATH: BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA BY KATHERINE PATERSON

Bridge to Terabithia [like] The Brothers Lionheart, [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
Lionheart_brothers

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
CHILDREN’S BOOKS ABOUT DEATH

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952) — Ditto. Wilbur knows all about death but he doesn’t let it consume him.

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.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit (1975) — You can’t look past this book in any discussion about children’s literature and death. Doomed to – or blessed with – eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

Cousins by Virginia Hamilton (1990)  — This is a moving book written by America’s first great black writer, winner of the Newbery. It is the story of eleven-year-old Cammy, who must come to grips with the sudden death of her cousin and rival, Patty Ann.

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.) When May dies suddenly while gardening, Summer assumes she’ll never see her beloved aunt again. But then Summer’s Uncle Ob claims that May is on her way back—she has sent a sign from the spirit world. Summer isn’t sure she believes in the spirit world, but her quirky classmate Cletus Underwood—who befriends Ob during his time of mourning—does. So at Cletus’ suggestion, Ob and Summer (with Cletus in tow) set off in search of Miriam B. Young, Small Medium at Large, whom they hope will explain May’s departure and confirm her possible return. The characters learn that they won’t begin to accept May’s death until they let go of supernatural hopes of meeting her again.

Undone by Brooke Taylor (2008) — When Kori Kitlzer, the “dark angel” of the 8th grade, tells Serena Moore that they are more alike than she thinks, Serena is instantly intrigued. As their friendship solidifies and their lives entwine, Serena tries to become more like the fearless, outspoken, and ambitious Kori. Soon Serena doesn’t know where she begins and Kori ends. But when a twist of fate yanks Kori away from Serena, she will need to find a way to complete her best friend’s life left undone. Undone is a novel about friendship, family, and the secrets we keep from the people to whom we are closest.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier (2009) — Micah will freely admit that she’s a compulsive liar, but that may be the one honest thing she’ll ever tell you. Over the years she’s duped her classmates, her teachers, and even her parents, and she’s always managed to stay one step ahead of her lies. That is, until her boyfriend dies under brutal circumstances and her dishonesty begins to catch up with her. But is it possible to tell the truth when lying comes as naturally as breathing? Taking readers deep into the psyche of a young woman who will say just about anything to convince them—and herself—that she’s finally come clean, Liar is a bone-chilling thriller that will have readers see-sawing between truths and lies right up to the end. Honestly.

Adios Nirvana by Conrad Wesselhoeft (2010) — Since the death of his brother, Jonathan’s been losing his grip on reality. Last year’s Best Young Poet and gifted guitarist is now Taft High School’s resident tortured artist, when he bothers to show up. He’s on track to repeat eleventh grade, but his English teacher, his principal, and his crew of Thicks (who refuse to be seniors without him) won’t sit back and let him fail.

You Are Not Here by Samantha Schutz (2010) — Annaleah and Brian shared something special – Annaleah is sure of it. When they were together, they didn’t need anyone else. It didn’t matter that their relationship was secret. All that mattered was what they had with each other. And then, out of nowhere, Brian dies. And while everyone else has their role in the grieving process, Annaleah finds herself living outside of it, unacknowledged and lonely. How can you recover from a loss that no one will let you have?

Dead Beautiful by Yvonne Woon (2010) — On the morning of her sixteenth birthday, Renée Winters was still an ordinary girl. She spent her summers at the beach, had the perfect best friend, and had just started dating the cutest guy at school. No one she’d ever known had died. But all that changes when she finds her parents dead in the Redwood Forest, in what appears to be a strange double murder. After the funeral Renée’s wealthy grandfather sends her to Gottfried Academy, a remote and mysterious boarding school in Maine, where she finds herself studying subjects like Philosophy, Latin, and the “Crude Sciences.” It’s there that she meets Dante Berlin, a handsome and elusive boy to whom she feels inexplicably drawn. As they grow closer, unexplainable things begin to happen, but Renée can’t stop herself from falling in love. It’s only when she discovers a dark tragedy in Gottfried’s past that she begins to wonder if the Academy is everything it seems. Little does she know, Dante is the one hiding a dangerous secret, one that has him fearing for her life. 

Dear Anjali by Melissa Glenn Haber (2010) — Twelve-year-old Meredith’s world is rocked when her best friend Anjali dies from a sudden viral infection. In letters to Anjali, Meredith puzzles through how to cope with the ongoing challenges of school and regular life—without Anjali by her side. Complicating matters is the new friendship Meredith develops with Noah, the object of a crush she and Anjali once shared. Meredith’s connection with Noah leads first to guilt as the two grow closer…and ultimately to revelations that could shatter every memory Meredith holds dear regarding her lost friend.

Abandon by Meg Cabot (2011) — Though she tries returning to the life she knew before the accident, Pierce can’t help but feel at once a part of this world, and apart from it. Yet she’s never alone . . . because someone is always watching her. Escape from the realm of the dead is impossible when someone there wants you back. But now she’s moved to a new town. Maybe at her new school, she can start fresh. Maybe she can stop feeling so afraid. Only she can’t. Because even here, he finds her. That’s how desperately he wants her back. She knows he’s no guardian angel, and his dark world isn’t exactly heaven, yet she can’t stay away . . . especially since he always appears when she least expects it, but exactly when she needs him most. But if she lets herself fall any further, she may just find herself back in the one place she most fears: the Underworld.

So Shelly by Ty Roth (2011) — Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident. After stealing Shelly’s ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly’s body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last “so Shelly” romantic quest. At least that’s what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly’s and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end.

The Trouble With Half A Moon by Danette Vigilante (2011) — Ever since her brother’s death, Dellie’s life has been quiet and sad. Her mother cries all the time, and Dellie lives with the horrible guilt that the accident that killed her brother may have been all her fault. But Dellie’s world begins to change when new neighbors move into her housing project building. Suddenly, men are fighting on the stoop and gunfire is sounding off in the night. In the middle of all that trouble is Corey, an abused five-year-old boy, who’s often left home alone and hungry. Dellie strikes up a dangerous friendship with this little boy who reminds her so much of her brother. She wonders if she can do for Corey what she couldn’t do for her brother—save him.

See also: The Influence Of The Lovely Bones, which is a post about dead narrators.

Quite a few children’s novels have death, the fear of death, and “coping with death” as a central or peripheral motif, and writers can deal with death as an “issue” (“How to help children cope with the death of a relative”) or an existential problem, in a realistic (Bridge to Terabithia) or fantastic (The Brothers Lionheart) mode. Most often, the person who dies in a children’s book is the protagonist’s older relative, quite often a pet (“transitional object”), more rarely a parent, occasionally a sibling or a friend. The event very rarely concludes the novel, as Forster suggests; on the contrary, it is introduced in the beginning to set the plot in motion. By the end of the book, the trauma has been successfully healed. In many novels, the parents’ death (utter form of “absence”), as in fairy tales, is the necessary prerequisite for the character’s quest (The Secret Garden).

The treatment of death in children’s literature has changed radically during the past two hundred years, as has the general attitude with regard to death in our society. While the nineteenth-century practice of letting the young protagonist die may seem improper to us today, it reflects the contemporary views on childhood as the period of blissful innocence, the Christina perspective on death as well as the actual child mortality of that time. Today we may view the ending to Andersen’s The Little Match Girl as tragic; Andersen’s contemporaries were supposed to see the happy reunion of the child and her grandmother in heaven.

The taboo on death in children’s literature during the first half of the twentieth century gave way to a more serious treatment of the theme in contemporary psychological children’s novels. … death is one of the three essential components of human growth, together with the sacred and sexuality, and therefore always present in children’s fiction in some form.

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature:

Of Swedish children’s books in the 1960s and 70s, Nikolajeva writes in Children Literature Comes Of Age:

Almost everything in a child’s life is presented as a problem: to get a new sibling, to start school, to move into a big city. At the same time there is a treatment of more serious questions such as the child’s response to death. In Sweden of the 1960s and later, where most old people die in hospitals and the majority of the children never see a dead person, death becomes something alien and dreadful. More and more commonly, therefore, death and the child’s contemplation of death appear as a secondary motif in some children’s books and the central theme in others. Young adult novels went still further in this direction, depicting young people’s suicide attempts or, in extreme cases, even accomplished suicides.

This was a necessary and understandable reaction to earlier idyllic children’s literature, which wished to spare young readers the less attractive sides of society. But as the socially committed code dominated children’s literature, all other codes were banished to the periphery, among them the imaginative code of the fairy tale and fantasy.

As a motif, death has played a large role in children’s literature from the start:

…investigations of the motif of death in children’s literature could examine how, in fantasy, it can feature as a way of overcoming time and space, for instance as a gateway to fantastic adventures in Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart (1973), or how it combines the aesthetic and the erotic, especially in the death of young girls. Death becomes the prettily staged literary fate of girls who will never grow up — or never be allowed to grow up — to become women. Female exuality is not permitted to develop and its repression mingles with the eroticism expressed in the extinction of the budding woman thus rendered permanently chaste and safe from violation, age and corruption: nothing can be purer than a girl who dies a virgin. The link between death fantasies and erotic desire is evident in stories such as Johanna Spyri’s Gritli’s children (1883), in which an old nurse acts as a kind of go-between, presenting death as desirable in poems and stories, while two girls have ‘forbidden’, intimate conversations about dying. Nineteenth-century British fantasies for children, too, are pervaded by ‘the presentation of death as seductive and desirable.

Comparative Children’s Literature by Emer O’Sullivan

RELATED LINKS

Some lists on Goodreads:

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.

Why being aware of your mortality can be good for you