Sunday March 3, 2013
Practice run for real life
TOTS TO TEENS
By DAPHNE LEE
HOW do you feel about characters in childrenís books dying? If youíre a parent buying books for your child, you may find yourself steering clear of books in which characters die. If youíre an author who writes for children, you may be wondering if your characters are ďallowedĒ to die.
Personally, I feel children take death (fictional or otherwise) in their stride. If there is any fear or extreme emotional pain as a result of encountering death, I find itís because a child is unprepared for it and/or is not offered any support during or after the event. Talking about it makes all the difference.
I notice something interesting, though. Parents might have qualms about their child reading a book in which the main character dies but they donít have problems with the same children watching a superhero movie in which many people might be destroyed in, say, an explosion or as a secondary result of the battle between the hero and the villain.
A storybook character dying is sad because the reader has established some kind of connection with him, whereas in a superhero movie, the casualties are faceless and nameless, and the viewer doesnít give them a second thought. When a main character dies, itís almost inevitably a villain whom you wanted to die anyway. So ... itís not death per se that is the problem. Itís the suffering of people (characters) you care about and have invested in.
Iíve written in the past that the world of a story is a safe place in which children may experience and learn to deal with painful and difficult situations, death, pain and loss included. Call it a practice run before real life happens. Or, if real life has already kicked in, stories may offer comfort and reassurance.
As an adult whoís had to deal with a seriously ill child and the death of my parents, I canít think of books that have comforted me more than the childrenís novels A Monster Calls and Ways To Live Forever. They are extremely sad and every reading makes me cry buckets but the grief is totally cathartic and cleansing.
Now, if youíre a writer, you probably realise that when death happens in your stories itís inevitable Ė a character dies because that is the way the plot unfolds. You donít kill off a character to teach your readers life lessons or to cause a sensation.
A writer canít prevent the death of a character and neither can she will it. Characters are independent creatures, not, as you might think, controlled by the whims and fancies of their so-called creator, the author. They have lives that must be lived, and their lives sometimes end ... in death Ė not because the writer decides it must be so but because the characters fall ill or into a well or in front of a bus, or gets very old, or is eaten by zombies. This has been my personal experience anyway.
Funny thing is, I started writing this piece because I was thinking about Jon Klassenís I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat, two hilarious picture books that actually have deaths in them, and not just deaths but characters who die as a result of being eaten. So, yeah, itís not death per se that is sad or terrifying. You could say that death is actually, literally, the end of sad. Itís life that may be painful and your kids may read about it and feel like their hearts are breaking, but thatís OK. Hearts break but hearts also mend, in stories as well as real life.
Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Speak to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books.