Dealing with Death in YA Lit
Well, here’s a topic that’s going to make everyone’s day more cheerful…
Although we all have to face death at some point, many of us get through our day-to-day lives by putting it at the back of our minds. That doesn’t always work, though, and it’s not always what we need to do. Many churches honor All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday of November (All Saints’ Day being November 1) in part by reading a list of everyone among congregation members, friends, and family who have died in the last year. This year’s list at my church included my husband’s grandfather, my uncle, and a childhood classmate, bringing death squarely to the forefront of my mind right now.
As for many other difficult topics, there are tons of YA books that look death squarely in the face. In many cases, it’s just by including the death of a beloved character or having the protagonist face the very real possibility of death (The Hunger Games, anyone?). However, if you, like me, sometimes need to wrestle with death beyond acknowledging that it’s part of life, consider one of the following:
Death stinks. And while I’ve pretty well decided there’s no good way to go, death by cancer, when you’re a teenager, pretty much takes the cake for rottenness. The Fault in Our Stars acknowledges this right off and it shows snapshots of the horror of dying–but it doesn’t stop with these. Even while not skirting around their illnesses or death, Hazel and Augustus still focus their energy on the business of living. One of my favorite scenes in the book is their dinner in Amsterdam, with champagne that tastes like stars and a snowstorm of spring blossoms. It’s these descriptions of the beauty of life juxtaposed with the ugliness of death that make this book so poignant.
Incarnate by Jodi Meadows
A work of fantasy rather than realism, Incarnate introduces a world in which everyone but the protagonist, Ana, has been reborn. Hundreds of times. And instead of being reborn into a different form or a different class of society, people basically wait until they are old enough to take care of their basic needs and then continue on with their previous lives. They may change appearances, even genders, but they remain basically the same person.
What fascinated me about Incarnate was that while a central feature of death–nonexistence–has been essentially removed from the equation for most of the characters, they don’t fear death any less. In fact, having died so many times, it almost seems like Ana’s friend and protector Sam fears death more than Ana, because he knows what’s coming. Additionally, we find out later in the book that reincarnation is not 100% certain, so there is still the chance that when people die, they will disappear forever. If you like Incarnate, you’ll want to continue on to the other books in the trilogy, Asunder and Infinite.
Death abounds in Harry Potter–two important characters are killed off in the first chapter of the first book, not to mention the many battles, deaths, and near-misses that occur throughout the series. I mention the series, here, though, because death plays such an important role in the ultimate conflict between Harry and Voldemort. First, as Harry finds out over the course of lessons with Dumbledore, eluding death is one of Voldemort’s primary motivations. Behind all of his acts of cruelty is his desire to become immortal. Later on, Harry learns that he himself must embrace death in order to defeat Voldemort–and, as turns out–to have a shot at his own survival.
This book returns to a real-world look at death, although admittedly with the added fantastical element of the protagonist, Mia, able to watch and think while her gravely injured body is tended after a car accident. Mia ponders whether to fight for life or surrender to death, considering all she’s already lost (her parents are killed instantly in the crash) and whether continuing to live is worthwhile. Like in The Fault in Our Stars, it’s the vivid details of Mia’s life that makes her potential death–and the deaths of her loved ones–so hard-hitting.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2007 Printz Award Honor Book, 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, 2007 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2009 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, Ultimate Teen Bookshelf)
My last choice for this list features Death in a unique way: he is the narrator of the story, and a much more kindly character than one might expect. Although The Book Thief doesn’t feature humans dealing with death in quite the same way as the other books mentioned here, it reminds us both how encounters with death throughout our lives shape each of us, just as we see them shape protagonist Liesel. Also, Death’s commentary forms a stark reminder of how death is more present and visible for some–in this case, Europeans enduring World War II–than it may be for us.
Since death is something that we all have to deal with, it can be nice to know that it’s on other people’s mind, too. Whether you want to consider the philosophical reality of death and life after, or just know that others wrestle with loss, too, these (and many other!) books can be part of the process.
I know I’ve barely scratched the surface with this list. For a few more books on dealing with death, see Faythe Arredondo’s post on characters who have to deal with a friend’s death. What else can you suggest that fits in with this topic?
-Libby Gorman, currently reading Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles by Katherine Pancol