Kids Media Centre Post: Death in Children’s Literature

Here is an article I wrote for the Kids Media Centre critically analyzing the subject of death in children’s Literature.

http://kidsmediacentre.ca/2016/12/30/death-childrens-books-ever-soon/

 

UrP4fwuq1G3L+lCQHXVjJ4WD9n1O4!fHVzU32t1zotb2XltGqt5NH08Zg1lv!rMx0rUDeeqoUwC9Vrx87vEQ1LSjaF5npgVSlS9ewe+XLyc=  Do you remember when Charlotte crawled across her web and wrote “SOME PIG!” about her beloved Wilbur?

How about when Jess and Leslie discover the Bridge to Terabithia?

Both these children’s books bring us joy and fill us with nostalgia. While their scenes and special moments remain with us, they also contain one of the hardest and heaviest topics that make even adults stir uncomfortably: death.

Bridge to Terabithia book coverAnd yet, Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia are both stories that have endured within our cultural psyche and earned their place among the classics on our shelves.

Death may not seem like a topic we broach with children unless we absolutely must, but the pain of loss, the complexity of grief — simple as it may sound — is a part of life’s learning process. Whether the pain of Charlotte’s death due to old age, or Leslie’s sudden passing after a tragic accident — the sadness remains with us, and that’s not a bad thing.

C. S. Lewis wrote “a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say … the form makes it easier to see into the depths, even of death.” Childhood may be thought as a blissful state of innocence and naivety, leaving many adults skittering around emotionally heavier topics. But if done with care, introducing children to concepts loss and grief through books can aid during major transitions and difficulties.

Gustave book coverGustave by Remy Simard and Pierre Pratt is a picture book that contains strong colours and compelling imagery. It’s marketed to children as young as four, and while a simple story — it’s also a difficult one. Gustave has lost his brother. In the silent yet suspenseful plot that ensues, with the use of a select few words; Gustave comes to terms with what has happened. It may seem “too much,” after all; no child should be exposed to such a horrific idea of a mouse losing his brother to a cat.

But this is something, writes academic Judith P. Moss, which must be discussed. Otherwise, we would be blind to what child psychologists have already affirmed — children know about death before we give them credit. Moss says her own children began asking about death from the age of three. To let their questions go answered, to let their fears fester because our own fears of ageing and dying are so great, is to ignore questions that come as naturally as any other. “Death has replaced the topic of reproduction,” Moss goes on to write. “Dying has replaced reproduction as the hush-hush topic between parents and children.”

We cannot inure ourselves, no matter our age, from the topic of death. It will always make us uncomfortable. But stories compel healing and deepen understanding.

Ghosts book coverNot all books that deal with the subject matter of death are forthright in their approach. Take Raina Telgemeier — author of the phenomenal bestseller Smile — with her recent graphic novel Ghosts. A family moves to a foggy town to get younger sister Maya better treatment for her cystic fibrosis, which as we know, is a chronic condition with a grim prognosis. Her old sister Cat is also contending with the struggles of an ill sister. Together, they are introduced to a town immersed in the Day of the Dead celebration. And while not as direct as Gustave, through engaging narrative and imagery, both sisters tackle the issue of dying and the loss of loved ones. Many people have told me Ghosts is their favourite Telgemeier book.

To think of death in children’s book is to reassess our perception not only of children’s content, but a child’s own level of understanding. Books are a powerful medium that allows for quiet contemplation and brings to light subjects some may otherwise, be too nervous to discuss aloud. So, as we continue to buy and give kid’s books, we should not be afraid to pick up the ones that make us a bit uncomfortable; they will do our children and us a great service.

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HOOT

HOOT

by Carl Hiaasen

[Goodreads] “Unfortunately, Roy’s first acquaintance in Florida is Dana Matherson, a well-known bully. Then again, if Dana hadn’t been sinking his thumbs into Roy’s temples and mashing his face against the school-bus window, Roy might never have spotted the running boy. And the running boy is intriguing: he was running away from the school bus, carried no books, and-here’s the odd part-wore no shoes. Sensing a mystery, Roy sets himself on the boy’s trail. The chase introduces him to potty-trained alligators, a fake-fart champion, some burrowing owls, a renegade eco-avenger, and several extremely poisonous snakes with unnaturally sparkling tails.”

Hiaasen is a seasoned journalist, and his books read as such. He has written some excellent true-to-life thrillers. Flush is the first of his books that I read, and what I love about him is that his passions in life really come through in his work. I mean, the guy has been writing about Florida since he was six! His passion for the environment is the common denominator throughout his books. With Hoot in particular, the lives of the burrowing owls is put in danger after a pancake house wants to plant themselves smack dab on top of their burrows. His settings are seeped with idyllic Florida life, and even though I’ve never been to Florida, Hiaasen seems to represent the many colourful inhabitants of the state with compassion and familiarity.

Fans of Stuart Gibb’s ‘Belly Up’ will be sure to love this.

Belly UP

Belly Up 

By Stuart Gibbs 

12 year old Theodore“Teddy” Roosevelt Fitzroy has got a murder on his hands and trouble on his tail. Henry, the hippopatamus at the brand-new nationally known FunJungle, has gone belly up. Even though it’s claimed he died of natural causes, Teddy smells something fishy and it sure ain’t the polar bear’s lunch. 

Stuart Gibbs keeps you moving in his spectacular debut novel as you’re introduced to a young boy named Teddy, who seeks to uncover the mysterious death of Henry—a 4,000-pound hippo who one day, very suddenly and mysteriously goes belly up. Cue all the antics that ensue within the parameters of the FunJungle zoo—and that’s where the story really kicks off.

There’s no reason for this notoriously mean hippo’s sudden parting. After all, he’s still young, still robust and full of temperamental spirit. There’s something else going on here, something deep and sinister.

This mystery keeps you guessing, and also laughing along as the plot unfolds with startling detail and accuracy. No surprise, Gibbs formerly worked at the Philadelphia Zoo. His passion seeps through the pages and lends credibility to the characters and resonance to their voice.

It’s a great book that I would definitely recommend to any one who is young or young at heart and looking for a good, nuanced mystery, humour, and of course, animals!

The Cricket in Times Square

The Cricket in Times Square 

by George Selden

Tucker is a streetwise city mouse. He thought he’d seen it all. But he’s never met a cricket before, which really isn’t surprising, because, along with his friend Harry Cat, Tucker lives in the very heart of New York City―the Times Square subway station. Chester Cricket never intended to leave his Connecticut meadow. He’d be there still if he hadn’t followed the entrancing aroma of liverwurst right into someone’s picnic basket. Now, like any tourist in the city, he wants to look around. And he could not have found two better guides―and friends―than Tucker and Harry. The trio have many adventures―from taking in the sights and sounds of Broadway to escaping a smoky fire.

Simple and heart-warming, this book wins me over. I’m a sucker for books about friendship, animals, and New York City; and I lucked out on all three. There’s something about combining the small – in this case insects and animals – with the big – New York City. What you get is magic. It gave me that feeling I had when I read Harriet the Spy; there’s this little world and many little worlds unfolding in an immense city. Only in NYC can people and creatures of such diverse backgrounds find love and companionship together.