Death In Children’s Literature

A lot of people will probably tell you their first brush with death was watching 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 handwriting 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 patriarchal (though kind) man of his time.

Back to Bambi…

Bambi death stare

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.

Susanne Brent, WoW

Bambi could’ve been worse, ya’ll. Or maybe it would have been better..?

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

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. YA 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

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 Self-revelation 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 — Whereas in MG novels death tends to happen off stage, reported back by characters, 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.

There’s this really popular narrative trope used to explore death in YA literature — the main character is a photographer.

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 Battle 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

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

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