Saturday, October 18, 2008

Key themes in children's books: Death

1. The many purposes of literature

As I have argued in previous posts (
here & here), we learn a great deal from literature. Literature brings great pleasure but it also teaches us many things. For a start, it passes on aspects of our cultural traditions, it introduces us to other cultures and it teaches us about our world, its history, its people and what it is to be human. A piece of literature is more than just a good story. I wrote in one of my books (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:
  • a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • a source of knowledge
  • a source of ideological challenge
  • a means to peer into the past, and the future
  • a vehicle to other places
  • a means to reflect on inner struggles
  • an introduction to the realities of life and death
  • a vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues

2. Key themes in literature

In my first post on '
Key Themes in Children's Books' (here) I commented that:

"One of the qualities of a great children's book is usually that it develops a number of significant themes as it tells its story simply and well. The secret of such works is that the development of the theme does not draw attention to itself, nor divert attention from the narrative and its characters."

The second theme I want to focus on is death. Literature can helps parents, in particular, to discuss the reality of death with their children. Books that address death can be read with children and by children themselves as a source of insight, comfort and emotional growth. For the preschool child an awareness of death may emerge very early with the death of a family member, or more commonly, through the death of an animal (typically a pet). However, more often the child's first awareness that all living things will one day might be through a book or a film, DVD or television program. As the child grows older the chances of some first-hand experience of death will increase. By the teenage years a close experience with the death of a friend or loved one will be more common, and might well come in tragic circumstances. So death is not a theme to be ignored.

In the world of my parents (and maybe even my childhood), the subject of death was much more easily raised. Today, some people seem reluctant to think about death let alone discuss it with their children. I suspect that in western societies that this has something to do with a reduction in the number of people who have a religious faith. For example, families who see themselves as Christians would teach their children that for people, death is not the end, and that there is a way for life to continue after the horror of death (this of course is one of the key messages of
The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis). Other faith traditions deal with death in different ways, but deal with it they do. Today, there is a temptation to sweep the discussion of death under the carpet. People who hold to various faith traditions of course would see their religious texts as the foundation for their views on death and how they talk about it to their children; but literature provides every reader, irrespective of their beliefs, with insights into the reality of death and its impact on us as humans.

Fantasy has always been an easy way for children to become aware of human frailty. Fairy tales from many different cultural traditions have not been afraid of death as a theme in narrative. Traditional versions of 'Little Red Riding Hood', 'The Three Pigs', 'Jack and Beanstalk', 'The Gingerbread Man', 'The Little Match Girl' and many other tales, all dealt with death in graphic detail. However, today it is common for such tales to be sanitised and death expunged or pushed into the background of the narrative. But traditional fairy tales, myths and legends still offer a rich array of stories that deal with death. In contemporary literature there are also many good examples of books that deal with this important theme.

3. Some books that deal with death

a) Younger readers (0-6 years of age)

I’ll always love you, Hans Wilhelm – a delightful picture book that tells of the death of a little boy’s dog called Elfie and its impact on him. This would be appropriate for children aged 3-7 years.

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat,
by Jenny Wagner. This is a bit more obscure but this story works at multiple levels. It tells of an old woman and her faithful dog and a black cat (the 'midnight cat') that visits and threatens to end their relationship. Jenny Wagner says that the black cat symbolises death, though few readers get this immediately.

Granpa, by John Burningham - This moving book provides an insight through words and pictures of the relationship between a little girl and her grandfather and the impact of his death on her. Some struggle with the staccato nature of the text (that mirrors the disconnected nature of adult/child conversations) but I believe that this is a wonderful book.

Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munsch -- this book tells of the cycle of life as a child grows to be a man and a mother grows to be an old lady; and of course of the relationship between a boy and his mother as they both grow old. Some find it a little unusual but it is an intriguing treatment of the topic from a great children's author (see my earlier Author Focus on Munsch here).

Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs, by Tomie de Paola - Four-year-old Tommy enjoys his relationship with both his grandmother and great-grandmother, but eventually learns to face their inevitable death.

b) Primary Readers (7-12 years of age)

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White – It’s hard to go past this classic tale of survival, hope, life and death. Even if it has been seen first on DVD it is worth reading with your children. In his masterly tale E.B. White shows through Wilbur (the pig), Fern (the little girl) and Charlotte (the spider) how death is part of life; and yet, how death is not the end. Life goes on.

Number the stars, Lois Lowry – This wonderful book tells of the escape of a Danish Jewish family by boat from the Nazis in World War II. It is a novel that touches on numerous themes such as human cruelty, life, death and survival.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr - this book is based on the true story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl diagnosed with leukaemia as a consequence of the bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako Sasaki was just 2 when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The author does not hide the horrors of death providing vivid descriptions of her pain, weakness, sadness, and loneliness. The book also shows the impact on a family of the tragic death of a child.

The machine gunners, Robert Westall – This one is for the boys! Guaranteed to interest any boy. The tale of a group of boys living in Britain through the Blitz, their war souvenir collecting, their brushes with death and of lots of moral choices along the way.

c) Teenagers

Death of a Princess, by Susan Geason - When the Pharaoh's beautiful eleven-year-old daughter, Isis, dies under suspicious circumstances, the beautician becomes the prime suspect! This mystery is set in Ancient Egypt during the reign of the mighty Ramesses II.

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson - This brilliant book won the Newbery Medal in 1978. It is the story of two lonely children who create a magical forest kingdom. Paterson drew inspiration for the novel from the death of a friend of Paterson's son, who was struck by lightning at a beach. It is the story of fifth grader Jesse Aarons, who befriends his new neighbour Leslie Burke after losing a race to her at school. The touching story ends in tragedy.

4. Some final comments

The purpose of this post wasn't to encourage parents and teachers to suddenly spend lots of time dealing with books on death. My point has been simply to remind readers of this blog that the theme is an important one that is present in many books and should not be avoided. There is also another category of books that have been deliberately written to deal with the topic. I haven't mentioned these books because they are usually chosen when using Bibliotherapy. This hasn't been the purpose of this post although some psychologists use some of the books I've mentioned as part of their clinical work. You can read a little about Bibliotherapy here and here.

If you have your own suggestions for good books that deal with death please share them with a comment.


Anonymous said...

Trevor. This is a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing it.

Prue said...

One of the problems I have found with childrens picture books in particular is that it is difficult (impossible?) to find one which deals with someone who dies young. Most just cover the death of animals e.g. family pets, or old people. We had family friends whose second child died a few hours after birth and I spent ages trying to find a book that dealt with death suitable for the baby's older sibling. In the end I had to settle for one which just looked at the cycles of life - everything is born, and everything dies, some things have a long life and others don't. It wasn't really adequate but the best I could do. This was even after picking the brains of the people at the local childrens bookshop.

Trevor Cairney said...

Nice to hear from you Jason and Prue. The book dealing with a sibling who dies is rare but there are some. I've noticed a number on the Baby Steps Site ( I can't vouch for them but I've seen a number of mentions of several books on the list so you've given me a challenge to check them out. Some are written deliberately as tools for bibliotherapy and my experience suggests that sometimes these books lack the same literary quality as books written for more general use. But I'll do some more checking and let you know if I find any that I can recommend. Readers of the blog might also have some suggestions. Thanks for both of your comments. Trevor

Prue said...

I look forward to seeing if you can come up with anything. It was about 3 or 4 years ago now, so maybe there are more books out there dealing with the subject.

Consumer said...

Brittany's Books specialize in books from a child point of view for a child. A Butterfly for Brittany is about a 4 year old who loses her cousing to cancer. Hugs & Kisses from Brittany is about an older sister who loses her younger sister to cancer. My Liddle Buddy Jake is about an older brother who loses his younger brother to a tragic accident but can also be used in the case of SIDS. to read them go to to read the books.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thank you Cristine. I don't usually allow posts that advertise products but your book is an exception. I will try to get hold of a copy.

Thank you,


Lydia I. said...

There's an Australian book called 'Jenny Angel' about a girl whos little brother dies. It's not specified what he dies of but it is presumed that he has cancer.
Could I please use some of your words for a presentation I'm giving on death in childrens literature? I'll be sure to reference it.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Lydia, thanks for the book title. I'm happy for you to quote from my blog but please acknowledge the source. Hope your talk goes well. Trevor