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.

The Penderwicks

The Penderwicks

by Jeanne Birdsall

A National Book Award winner, this modern classic is perfect for fans of Noel Streatfeild and Edward Eager.

This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.

The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget.

Deliciously nostalgic and quaintly witty, this is a story as breezy and carefree as a summer day.

That warm, buttery yellow cottage that the Penderwicks arrive to is just the beginning of this sumptuous reading experience. We can all remember that one, unforgettable summer filled with warm, radiant days and fun and adventure.

This book is Anne of Green Gables – with its idyllic setting – meets Little Women – with its strong, well developed characters moving through the pages. If you’re looking for one captivating premise that will sell you on this, you won’t find it. I can say it’s a glimpse into a time filled with small adventures, amazing encounters, beautiful characters – including of the cuddly variety. It’s as if Birdsall had all of them sitting before her as she wrote this, recounting to her that one unforgettable summer.

 

One of my new favourite books.