The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly

Note: This week I’m exploring the role of death in books for young readers. I’m cross-posting here and at Reads 4 Tweens—so yes, if you follow both sites, this will look familiar.

Warning: some mild spoilers—if a book has been out for several years or has been made into a movie, I’m more liberal with the spoilers. If I can avoid specifics, I do—but please remember that all book reviews that are linked to in this article definitely contain spoilers.

Why is death so prevalent in books aimed at kids?

Sometimes, of course, it’s there for a really good reason. Some deaths are crucial to how the characters and/or the stories develop. Death might:

  • Motivate the surviving characters, such as Rue’s death in The Hunger Games or the murder of Calla’s mother in the Lily Dale series.
  • Be a pivotal moment in the plot and demonstrate the consequences of choices made—there’s a death like this in Gregor the Overlander.
  • Represent redemption, such as Boromir’s death in The Two Towers—it’s the ultimate proof that his character has atoned for his sins.
  • Cause the characters and the readers to rethink their ideas of death—Aurelia and Exile deal with this theme, as does The Hunger Games, Only You Can Save Mankind, and many others.
  • Be the catalyst for the protagonist to grow and the plot to progress, such as the very common trope of the death of a mentor—Dumbledore has to die for Harry to stand on his own.
  • Be a fact of life that is tied seamlessly and meaningfully into the plot. In Anastasia Krupnik, for instance, Anastasia watches her grandmother age and eventually die—it’s touching and Anastasia goes through issues I think most kids can identify with.

Death is a potentially powerful plot point when it’s handled well, and it engages the reader in an issue that all of us must face throughout our lives. It’s common ground we share with the characters.

Depending on the setting, death may be necessary for the world to feel real. Fever 1793 can’t portray the yellow fever epidemic without a few fatalities. When the purpose of your book is to portray the horrors of war, such as George Washington’s Socks, there’s nothing better to drive home your point than a few poignant deaths. A series called Warriors can be expected to have fatalities, as well as dystopian novels like The Hunger Games. It’s all a matter of whether the deaths are portrayed in meaningful and effective ways.

However, death is not always handled well and sometimes feels like a cheap ploy on the part of the author (and yes, my cheap ploy may be your incredibly moving and meaningful scene—not all readers respond the same way, so my apologies if I rip into any of your favorite scenes).

One particularly annoying type of death is when it’s required for the plot but not the story. For instance, in George Washington’s Socks, a character is killed off because he has information that would be helpful to the main characters—if they talked to him, the plot would fall apart. He’s killed off by the author in an odd accident, not by characters trying to prevent the information from getting out; therefore it serves only plot, and not story. This feels like lazy storytelling to me, and it annoys me.

Related, though different, is the routine killing off of parental figures. Sometimes this is a case of a necessary death that drives the story or the character’s actions, such as the coming of age situation where the protagonist must stand alone to grow up. However, often it simply serves the purpose of removing inconvenient obstacles to the plot—essentially leaving the children alone so the plot can move forward uninhibited by people who would support and protect them. (There’s a whole subtext in that mothers are killed much more frequently than fathers—it implies that fathers can’t or don’t protect and guide their children adequately. But that’s a post for another day.) Admittedly, when I used to play pretend with my friends when we were little, we typically killed off the parents without a second thought. It was much easier than trying to figure out how to work them into our kid-centered plots. So I understand, but it does give me a particular appreciation for books that manage to portray intact and healthy families without taking the focus and agency from the young protagonists. Killing the parents as a necessary step in a kid-centered book can seem like taking the easy way out. Some books take this trope to a humorous extreme, such as The Witches and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).

Especially in action or adventure stories that focus primarily on plot, it’s very common for a few minor characters to kick off as part of the plot, usually with little fanfare. It’s just what happens in stories like this, whether it’s books, TV shows, or movies. Some of the deaths in Warriors: Into the Wild fit into this, as do a few deaths in Gregor the Overlander. I have plenty of issues with this, because it just seems like a bad idea to bombard kids with meaningless death, and it can be handled differently. The Hunger Games is a good example of how to avoid this—sure, it’s full of violence and death, but even the deaths of enemies have impact. On the other hand, Mockingjay unfortunately handles death less deftly as characters start to fall faster than we can keep track.

Sometimes, though, characters are killed off for reasons that are harder to discern. Maybe there’s the idea that if a novel wrings an emotional response from the reader, the book will be more memorable. Have you heard that roller coasters and horror movies make for better dates? The theory is that your date may correlate the adrenalin rush and racing heartbeat with you, even though you weren’t the cause of it. Is making a reader cry over a gratuitously killed character the literature equivalent? I know my daughter remembers the books that made her cry, although it’s not always with fondness. The sudden accidental demise of a character in Beryl: A Pig’s Tale is an example of this kind of death. I’d argue that the end of Mockingjay and the battle of Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows both fall into this category as well. If you’re going to kill off a character the reader has grown to love, it needs to feel meaningful, and not just like collateral damage from a dangerous world.

My (perhaps) cynical take is that there’s an impression that killing a character lets the story be categorized as more important and serious—it won’t get dismissed as simply a fluffy children’s novel because in this one, someone dies. I can’t help but think that Leslie’s sudden death in Bridge to Terabithia falls into this category—a beautiful story of finding yourself through friendship abruptly becomes an exploration of grief. Would this book have become the classic (and frequently assigned classroom reading) that it did if Leslie was allowed to live? Many of the classics have memorable deaths—Charlotte’s Web, Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Bambi, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Little Women, etc. (Huh—many of those, especially the ones aimed at younger readers, are animal deaths, although to many kids those deaths are just as brutal as human ones.) Would these have stood the test of time if characters didn’t get so memorably bumped off? Does death somehow potentially raise the worth of a story, at least from the point of view of the adults who offer these books to kids?

I worry about character death as an easy shortcut in novel writing, especially in novels that kids are reading. Just as the thousands of killings we watch on TV wear away at our tendency to be shocked by it, the sheer number of character deaths threatens to make us numb, lessening the emotional impact. It’s a defense mechanism we have to put in place, or reading becomes too emotionally exhausting (more on this from my daughter). I’m certainly not suggesting that death should be avoided in all kids books. But if an author kills off a character, it’s much more effective if it really matters, if the story and the character development are stronger because of the tragedy.

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