Death and Dying in Children’s Books

 

sad book
Michael Rosen looks at life after the death of his son in his Sad Book.

 

First published on 3rd March, 2013 in The Star.

How do you feel about characters in children’s books dying? If you’re a parent buying books for your child, you may find yourself steering clear of books in which characters die. If you’re an author who writes for children, you may be wondering if your characters are “allowed” to die.

Personally, I feel children take death (fictional or otherwise) in their stride. If there is any fear or extreme emotional pain as a result of encountering death, I find it’s because of a child is unprepared for it, and/or is not offered any support during or after the event. Talking about it makes all the difference.

I notice something interesting though. Parents might have qualms about their child reading a book in which the main character dies but they don’t have problems with the same children watching a superhero movie in which many people might be destroyed in, say, an explosion or as a secondary result of the battle between the hero and the villain.

monster calls
In this book, a young boy must come to terms with the impending death of his mother who has cancer.

A storybook character dying is sad because the reader has established some kind of connection with him, whereas in a superhero movie, the casualties are faceless and nameless, and the viewer doesn’t give them a second thought. When a main character dies, it’s almost inevitably a villain whom you wanted to die anyway. So … it’s not death per se that is the problem. It’s the suffering of people (characters) you care about and have invested in.

I’ve written in the past that the world of a story is a safe place in which children may experience and learn to deal with painful and difficult situations, death, pain and loss included. Call it a practice-run before real life happens. Or, if real life has already kicked in, stories may offer comfort and reassurance.

As an adult who’s had to deal with a seriously ill child and the death of my parents, I can’t think of books that have comforted me more than the children’s novels A Monster Calls and Ways to Live Forever. They are extremely sad and every reading makes me cry buckets but the grief is totally cathartic and cleansing.

Now, if you’re a writer, you probably realise that when death happens in your stories it’s inevitable – a character dies because that is the way the plot unfolds. You don’t kill off a character to teach your readers life lessons, or to cause a sensation. A writer can’t prevent the death of a character and neither can she will it. Characters are independent creatures, not, as you might think, controlled by the whims and fancies of their so-called creator, the author. They have lives that must be lived, and their lives sometimes end … in death – not because the writer decides it must be so but because the characters fall ill or into a well or in front of a bus, or get very old, or are eaten by zombies. This has been my personal experience anyway.

i want my hat backFunny thing is, I started writing this piece because I was thinking about Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat, two hilarious picture books which actually have deaths in them, and not just deaths but characters who die as a result of being eaten. So, yeah, it’s not death per se that is sad or terrifying. You could say that death is actually, literally, the end of sad. It’s life that may be painful and your kids may read about it and feel like their hearts are breaking, but that’s OK. Hearts break but hearts also mend, in stories as well as real life.

 

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