Death Be Not Gratuitous

There’s an issue that’s been building up for me, and I think I’m going to do it as a theme week on Read 4 Tweens—gratuitous death in kids books. (“Tune in for Gratuitous Death Week!” That has a ring to it, right?)

But first there’s the whole definitional argument of what makes a death gratuitous.

I could go the route of sheer body count of minor characters, and maybe I will spend some time reflecting on that—just because we as adults have grown numb to characters keeling over as a matter of course doesn’t necessarily mean we should be wishing the same on our kids.

There’s also the tendency to kill family members—typically the parents, most often the mother if only one is dead—in the opening chapter or before the book even starts. This can serve to drive the story and the protagonist forward, but it’s used so often that it can start to feel like a cop out and therefore arguably gratuitous.

However, the kind of death most occupying my mind is when a main character is gratuitously killed off. And, of course, this is where the definition gets most murky. There are plenty of main character deaths that aren’t gratuitous, and I’m in no way suggesting that death has no place in kids books. But some deaths—and although I notice it most in kids books, it’s certainly not limited to them—feel primarily like emotional manipulation, a play for being accepted as a “serious” book, and/or lazy storytelling. And those, frankly, bug the crap out of me.

The thing is, when I try to clearly delineate between why some deaths seem fitting while other deaths feel like I’m being beaten over the head with a sledgehammer, it gets tough. “I know it when I read it” isn’t particularly useful when you’re tying to have a conversation about something.

Here’s an example that isn’t a kids book and the issue is more gratuitous violence than death, but I think it still helps illustrate my point. I know a lot of people loved The Kite Runner. Some people felt like it changed their lives. I absolutely hated it. What could have been a fascinating insight into life in Afghanistan devolved into a horror story of sexual abuse and betrayal. I’m not suggesting that authors shouldn’t depict horrific events, but it needs to feel like it fits the story. With the class issues, the prejudice, and a country torn apart by war, there was plenty going on to keep me interested. When a psychopathic sexual predator got mixed in, it was just gratuitous.

I’m not terribly impressed when authors pile implausible and horrific situations on their characters, and gratuitous character death falls into this. Of course you can make the best friend get run over by a bus—you’re a god in your literary universe and you can write anything into existence. The trick is making it feel like this is where the story really needed to go.

I’d love to hear your thoughts as I wrestle with this. What makes a character death gratuitous in your eyes? Are there any that stand out as either annoyingly gratuitous or truly moving and meaningful (either from childhood or books you’ve read recently)? I’m rereading The Bridge to Terabithia in preparation for Gratuitous Death Week—any suggestions of other kids books I should look at?

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