Death is an unavoidable part of life. Obviously. Figuring out how to deal with it in media aimed at children is equally unavoidable and as potentially fraught with peril.
One popular option is to just pretend it doesn’t exist. Cartoons and action movies are awesome at this—no matter what horrific violence is done, everyone gets up and walks away, often without actual bloodshed. When we explicitly include young children as part of the audience—such as publishing fairytales for kids—there’s a tendency to remove things we find disturbing. Evil mothers get some distance by becoming stepmothers, the gruesomely violent and fatal fates of villains are softened to the hero chasing the villain away.
However, there are plenty of issues with this. One fear is that it does kids no favors when they don’t see the logical consequences of violence—actual people bleed and die when shot, hit too hard, or pushed off cliffs. But there’s also fascinating evidence that suggests that sanitizing stories can actually be harmful to kids—when the villain is merely chased away rather than killed such as in cleaned up versions of “The Three Little Pigs,” it’s unsettling. Kids know that the wolf is only going to come back later—the happy ending is disturbingly temporary.
On the other side of the equation, there are the books (often aimed at an elementary aged crowd) and wildlife documentaries (usually frighteningly rated G and targeted at an animal-loving preschool crowd despite bloody and graphic circle-of-life lessons) that seem to think it’s their job to remind my kids that death is a part of life. Thanks, I guess.
But you know what? My kids know this already—in their young lives, they’ve already dealt with death plenty, and they’re not all that unusual. Most kids have lost a grandparent or a pet. Most parents have answered questions about that bird that hit the window or the animal alongside the road. And some have dealt with much, much harder questions to answer. If my kids have issues to work through about death, I’d much rather choose books that deal specifically with that issue rather than having an abrupt reminder of mortality in the middle of a rip-roaring adventure.
Death absolutely has a role to play in books for kids—it’s an issue they’ll all deal with at some point, and reading about it can help them either prepare for it or work through it when death inevitably affects them. But not all fictional deaths are equal, and simply killing off a character doesn’t necessarily add anything either to the plot or to a child’s understanding of death.
Reads 4 Tweens was inspired in part by Bridge to Terabithia, which contains a death that rocked many of our young lives, and often not in a good way—I’m amazed at how many adults still harbor anger over the ending of that book. So many books aimed at a tween audience include death in some way. Just skim the reviews on this site—almost every one has a “Death” category. I’ve included a representative but not exhaustive list below.
Sometimes death is a meaningful part of the plot, but all too often it falls well short of that. Certainly, to some extent these are matters of taste—a touching and meaningful death to one reader may seem manipulative and gratuitous to another.
This week I’ll be posting some of my thoughts on death in books for kids, as well as an opinion from my daughter, and several reviews of books where death may be problematic. Please join in the discussion by posting your own opinions in the comments on either blog posts or book reviews. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!
Here are some reviews of books in which death plays a significant role—sometimes to good effect, sometimes not so much, sometimes a little of each:
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Witches by Roald Dahl
The Fire Within by Chris d’Lacey
Warriors: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter
Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Witch & Wizard by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet
Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett
Lily Dale series by Wendy Corsi Staub
My Life as a Book by Janet Tashjian
George Washington’s Socks by Elvira Woodruff
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen