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Tonight I read this article by Jackie Kemp, discussing the idea of death in children's writing. She is unquestionly bothered by the thought that not all children's stories are full of happiness and sunshine, using examples of her 11 year old son and the 10 year old daughter of a friend - both of whom were brought to tears by books they were reading.

While I certainly question the wisdom of giving a book about the Holocaust to a ten year old, I disagree that children and YA fiction should not include death. By the age of 10, 11 or 12, kids are already well aware that life isn't fair and that some times the good guys don't always get their happily ever after. Ask a 11 year old to read Cinderella and you'll most likely get eyerolls. While a child might dream of being a king or queen still, at this age that dream is a desire for power against the almighty adult. It's not because they believe that a prince is suddenly going to sweep them off to a magical kingdom.

Kids know how reality works at this age. They're beyond the fairy-tale Happily Ever After. But they like reading about characters who overcome the odds, achieve their goals and, while they might cry when a loved character dies, there's a sense of satisfaction - provided the character's death had meaning.

Pointless death - that is, death that's only there to end the story - has no place in children or YA writing, of course. It has no place in writing aimed at any age group.  However, death is not nessicarily a terrible thing to expose a child to. And when included in novels, it is generally handled a good deal more tactfully then much of what is shown on TV.

At some point in everyone's life, we're exposed to the idea of death, be it a friend, a relative or a pet. And often we encounter it as a child. When a death occurs in books, generally we see how other characters grieve, but continue to go on with their lives. Even the Bible has this idea of people losing a friend and life going on. I don't see this as a terrible concept for children to be exposed to. Not toddlers and pre-schoolers, naturally. But when kids are old enough not to believe in fairy-tales anymore, they're old enough to be gentlely exposed to some of the darker realities.

Death is a part of life. A sad, heart breaking part, but a part of it. And I believe it's easier for a child to be exposed to it through words on a page, and a fictional character, then it is for them when Fluffy or Fido passes away. Parents need to stop wanting to hide their kids from reality and start being willing to actually parent. When your child reads something sad, sit down, hold them tight and discuss the book. Find the reason for or the good in the death of the character. Explain to your child that, yes, sometimes people die and it is very sad. Let your child discuss it with you.

9 times out of 10, your child is more ready for the grim reality then you think. And the magic of a book is, the character is alive again the next time you open it.


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Ann Rosa Starr

May 2012



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