The Treatment of Death in Children's Literature

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The Treatment of Death in Children's Literature


Methods of how death and issues of mortality are portrayed in literature for children and young adults.


Though death has always been considered a complex and problematic topic for the literature of any age group, the subject is made significantly more trouble-some when raised in relation to literature for children—an audience that may not have a full understanding of such an oblique and potentially dark issue. In the current strata of contemporary children's literature, death is a lightly broached topic, relegated primarily to series of psychological instructional books on how to address the subject with young ones. But as violent images become more readily apparent to children through television and computers and, as simply a necessary force of life, death and mortality continue to serve as integral elements of children's literature, dating back to the earliest publications targeted toward juvenile audiences.

During the Victorian era, death was an ever-present reality due to short life-spans caused by plague, disease, violence, and lack of medical care. As a result, children of the period had an earlier indoctrination to death and thus were presented with death in literature, particularly their schoolbooks, from a very young age onward. By current standards, the aggressive and dark depictions of death in Victorian children's literature may seem grisly and overly graphic, but they were as much a product of such hard circumstances as they were the influence of religious doctrine. For example, the nineteenth-century periodical for children The Juvenile Miscellany contained numerous stories of suffering and death where the survivors were asked to see tragedy as an act of God and beyond our human ken. One such tale, Adelaide (1827), related the sad story of a girl who is able to understand and accept her mother's death, in an apparently adult manner, by asserting that "it was God who had ordered the event." Similarly, Blind Susan (1835) undergoes an operation to repair her severe cataracts but dies shortly thereafter from complications. However, as her parents were reassured, she is certain to be happier in Heaven. Such sentiments were meant to offer comfort to readers, suggesting that the loss of a loved one came from a higher power and was thus unavoidable. But such moral valedictions were also created to reassure the grieving family, particularly the children, that the deceased figure was now better off, enjoying the paradise of afterlife in Heaven. Similarly, nineteenth-century fairy tales presented children with images of death at seemingly every turn. Famed Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, used death as a regular feature in the long-running series of stories for children. From the fantastic landscapes of "The Little Mermaid"—who sacrifices herself for love—to the vaguely realistic tragedy of "The Little Match Girl"—who dies on Christmas Eve of exposure while trying to peddle matches to pay for food—the stories were conceived as moralizing lessons that supplied an introduction to one of the hard inevitabilities of life. Noted author Oscar Wilde also wrote a series of fairy tales for children, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888), which shared the Victorian sensibility stressing a Christian acceptance of the will of God, though his stories are less grounded in realism. In "The Happy Prince," a lead statue coaxes a swallow to stay through winter in order to deliver the precious stones that are affixed to his frozen body to some of the less fortunate citizens of the village. Blind as a result of having given away the rubies that functioned as his eyes, the swallow remains next to the statue, serving as his eyes and eventually freezing to death, a fate he gladly accepts. Ultimately the town leaders melt down the statue, believing that since it has lost its precious stones, it has lost its beauty. In the story's final epilogue, God sweeps up the leaden heart of the statue, which has refused to melt, and the body of the swallow, describing them as the two most precious things in the entire village and taking them to stay with him in Heaven.

The death of an animal, most likely that of a pet, is apt to be a child's initial exposure to death. As such, literature aimed at younger audiences often utilizes animals as a way of portraying a first fundamental presentation of death. In Margaret Wise Brown's classic picture book The Dead Bird (1958), a small group of children find the newly deceased body of a little bird in the woods. In a simple narrative style, Brown shows the children beginning to grasp the finality of what has occurred as the bird's body grows cold in their hands. In an imitation of adult practices, they hold a funeral and bury the bird, returning several times to visit the grave until some time thereafter they stop, having entirely forgotten about the grave. The message is both tender and clear: death is a sad occasion, but eventually life moves on. Other books within the genre have tried to make this message more personal by showing children dealing with the loss of a beloved pet. Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing about Barney (1971) features a little boy trying to grapple with his grief after his beloved cat, Barney, passes away. Just as the children in The Dead Bird did, the boy holds a funeral and lists all of his favorite things about his lost friend. In William Armstrong's Sounder (1969), directed towards a slightly older audience, the nameless child of a sharecropper climatically loses his dog, his one friend who has helped him cope with the events surrounding his father's unjust arrest in the rural South. Oftentimes, the death of animals are meant to symbolize human deaths themselves, the dead animal used as a surrogate for mankind. In E. B. White's classic Charlotte's Web (1952), Wilbur the pig is suddenly confronted with the approaching death of his friend and mother figure, Charlotte the spider. He undergoes the normal stages of grieving—anger, regret, loss of appetite, and a continued feeling of loss—allowing young readers to empathize with his pain.

In young adult fiction, the depiction of the death of animals segues into forms of loss that are fleshed out in a more mature and realistic manner. In Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), death becomes an almost overpowering part of Native American girl's life. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a fictionalized account of the true story of the "Lost Woman of San Nicolas," an Indian girl left alone for eighteen years on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Los Angeles. Its heroine and narrator, Karana, is faced first with the loss of her village through a series of painful and deadly events and then must abruptly deal with the death of her beloved brother, Ramo. After Ramo is killed by a pack of wild dogs, Karana tries to exact revenge on the animals, exterminating several of them until she decides to nurse their leader, whom she names Rontu, back to health. Eventually becoming her best friend, Rontu inevitably dies as well from old age, leaving Karana completely alone until her ordeal finally ends eighteen years later with her rescue by a passing ship. These nearly overwhelming losses may seem too powerful for a young reader, but Island of the Blue Dolphins has become a remarkably popular book for juveniles, indicating that perhaps adolescents have a stronger innate ability to cope than perhaps adults give them credit for, an ability enhanced by the types of exposures such books and others like them provide. However, Island of the Blue Dolphins tends to be an exception in terms of its frank depictions of death; most young adult books choose to portray their inevitable victims in almost saintly terms. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1869) has similarly enjoyed incredible enduring popularity in part due to the traumatic, but well-written death of its sweet and noble character, Beth. But just as these books deal with the loss of siblings, books for children caught in the gap between picture books and longer works of fiction have begun to emerge, such as Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries (1973) and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1977), both of which are concerned with the inexplicable loss of a child's peer and friend. The presentation of death and mortality themes in children's literature has varied wildly from juvenile novels to self-help nonfiction works to the dark, escapist humor of Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies, or, After the Outing (1963), which features alliteratively grisly scenes of children dying such as "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs." While attracting some criticism for their outrageous content, such illicitly dark views of death present children with a way to defuse some of the awkwardness and tension surrounding the subject as well as allowing readers to cope with their inherent fear of dying by directly confronting and laughing at it.

Though fictional works can help prepare children for contemplating death, there are also numerous works of nonfiction and fiction based on true events that give young readers a glimpse of such significant and disturbing real-world issues such as war, terrorism, and genocide. Two examples of these works include Eleanor Coerr's Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (1977), which reflects on the Hiroshima tragedy and one young girl's eventual passing from cancer caused by nuclear radiation, and Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche (1985), in which a German girl discovers first-hand the heinous realities of World War II. Surprisingly intended for younger children, these books are still gentle in their approaches, even though both girls, Sadako and Rose, ultimately pay a high price for events they have no control over. But perhaps the most powerfully evocative work of literature for children regarding death is both a piece of nonfiction and written by a fellow child—Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947). Anne Frank's musings about her life and possible death represent an incredibly effective tool for demonstrating the potential cruelty of mankind as well as helping readers come to a better understanding of how children view death within the context of their day-to-day lives.


Louisa May Alcott
Little Women (young adult novel) 1869

Hans Christian Andersen
Fairy Tales and Stories (fairy tales) 1887

William Armstrong
Sounder [illustrations by James Barkley] (juvenile fiction) 1969

Joanne E. Bernstein
Loss and How to Cope with It (juvenile nonfiction) 1977

Margaret Wise Brown
The Dead Bird [illustrations by Remy Charlip] (picture book) 1958

Carol Carrick
The Accident (juvenile fiction) 1976 The Foundling (juvenile fiction) 1977

Frances M. Cheseboro
Smiles and Tears (juvenile fiction) 1858

Lucille Clifton
Everett Anderson's Goodbye [illustrations by Ann Grifalconi] (picture book) 1983

Eleanor Coerr
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes [illustrations by Ronald Himler] (juvenile fiction) 1977

Sadako [illustrations by Ed Young] (juvenile fiction) 1993

Arnold Dobrin
Scat! (picture book) 1971

Joan Fassler
My Grandpa Died Today [illustrations by Stewart Kranz] (picture book) 1971

Anne Frank
Het Achterhuis [Anne Frank: The Diary of a YoungGirl] (diary and memoirs) 1947

Christophe Gallaz and Roberto Innocenti
Rose Blanche [illustrations by Roberto Innocenti] (young adult novel) 1985

William Golding
Lord of the Flies (young adult novel) 1954

Edward Gorey
Gashlycrumb Tinies, or, After the Outing (picture book) 1963

John J. Gunther
Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir (juvenile memoir) 1949

Mildred Kantrowitz
When Violet Died [illustrations by Emily A. McCully] (juvenile fiction) 1973

John Knowles
A Separate Peace (young adult novel) 1959

C. S. Lewis
The Last Battle [illustrations by Pauline Baynes] (young adult novel) 1956

Jean Little
Home from Far [illustrations by Jerry Lazare] (juvenile fiction) 1965

Toshi Maruki
Hiroshima No Pika (picture book) 1980

Scott O'Dell
The Island of the Blue Dolphins (juvenile fiction) 1960

Katherine Paterson
Bridge to Terabithia (young adult novel) 1977

Phillip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass (young adult novel) 2000

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Yearling (juvenile fiction) 1938

John Skelton
Phillip Sparrow (prose poem) 1508

Doris Buchanan Smith
A Taste of Blackberries (juvenile fiction) 1973

Judith Viorst
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney [illustrations by Erik Blegvad] (picture book) 1971

Jill Paton Walsh
A Parcel of Patterns (juvenile fiction) 1983

E. B. White
Charlotte's Web [illustrations by Garth Williams] (juvenile fiction) 1952

Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin
The Bird's Christmas Carol (juvenile fiction) 1887

Oscar Wilde
The Happy Prince and Other Stories (short stories) 1888

Laura Ingalls Wilder
By the Shores of Silver Lake [illustrations by Garth Williams] (children's book) 1953


Francelia Butler (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Butler, Francelia. "Death in Children's Literature." Children's Literature 1 (1972): 104-24.

[In the following essay, Butler, the founder of the journal Children's Literature, laments the lack of contemporary children's fiction dealing with death and presents examples of how the topic has been dealt with historically in children's literature.]

C. S. Lewis, whose "Narnia" fantasies for children are one expression of his religious philosophy, observed that "a children's story is the best art form for something you have to say."1 Like a parable—or sometimes, an epitaph—the limpid simplicity of the form makes it easier to see into the depths, even of death.

Once upon a time, children and adults shared the same literature and together understood what there was to be understood about death. That time was from the beginning of literature up until the end of the seventeenth century, when a separation began to take place between the literature of adults and that of children. From then on, the treatment of death became part of a larger problem—the commercial and psychological exploitation of children through a special literature aimed at them alone.

Indications are that the separation might have begun with the "Warnings to Apprentices," published by commercial interests in the seventeenth century.

These bear a striking resemblance to the warnings to little children, the "deathbed confessions" of children who disobeyed moral "laws" and reformed too late. Numerous books of these confessions were published in England and America by the Puritan merchant class in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These deathbed confessions and other dire warnings to children were continued in the hundreds of Sunday School tracts which grew out of the Sunday School movement begun by Robert Raikes. Raikes, a wealthy shipowner, acknowledged that he began the Sunday Schools to keep working children from depredations on Sundays.2 These tracts distorted goodness itself by getting children to do the right things for the wrong reasons. Raikes' family ties with John Newbery, who is considered to be the "father" of children's literature, could be one indication that the establishment of children's literature as a separate field had an economic basis.

As a result of the separation, so little good literature for children has been produced that the whole field is not even considered worthy of investigation by most departments of the Humanities.3 This neglect by scholars has resulted in a lack of respected criticism and has led to an indiscriminate lumping of all books for children, classical and commercial, into the category, "children's literature." There is no clear demarcation, as there is in adult literature, between books of real literary merit and books which were designed to sell or those which were written for propaganda purposes. The few great books written primarily for children have been mostly by writers with such deep emotional problems that they have been afraid to express themselves openly to their peers and hence have written simply and honestly to children as their equals.4

Before the seventeenth century, children learned about death in literature shared with adults. They heard Bible stories, fables, legends, ballads, folk tales, or folk plays or read them themselves. Death could be seen in proper perspective because in this literature all the convictions, fears, and hopes of people about many things were gathered up and transmitted.

For the most part, this literature encouraged hope for life after death in some form. Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature abounds with references to restoration to life, either by magical reassemblage of the body's dispersed members, or by administration of the water of life, or by medicines, or in various other ways. Men may come back as women or women as men. People may become children, dwarves, monsters, princes or princesses, stars or angels or gods. They can return to earth as fish, horses' heads, donkeys, cows, bulls, oxen, calves, buffalo, swine, wild boar, goats, cats, dogs, lions, wolves, rabbits, foxes, deer, seals, bears, hyenas, jackals, elephants, monkeys, rats, otters, ducks, owls, hawks, eagles, swallows, cuckoos, doves, pigeons, ravens, quails, partridges, herons, cranes, geese, peacocks, parrots, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, tortoises, or frogs. Or they may come back as bees, butterflies, fleas, weevils, bedbugs, salmon, goldfish, sharks, whales, leeches, scorpions, crabs. Again, they may turn into trees, roses, lilies, lotus, grass, straw, herbs, bramble-bushes, tobacco plants, peanut plants, eggplants, musical instruments, dishes, fountains, balls, wind, stones, salt, smoke, rainbows, minerals, meteors, hills, flour vats, hoes, hoe-handles, mussels, or currants. Or, after a variety of transformations, they may return to their original human form.5 In any case, the possibility of coming back as an eggplant or a fish, for instance, should sharpen one's interest in ecology. The hopeful note in folk literature is that people do tend to come back.

In North American Indian tales, as Jaime de Angulo's beautiful crystallization suggests, life and death are closely related, are at times interchangeable states.6 However, in some American Indian tales, people stay dead:

Nearly all North American Indian tribes offer some explanation of the origin of death. The most widespread tale is that of an early controversy between two characters, either animal or human. One character wants people to die and be revived, the other wants death to be permanent. The second character wins the controversy. Often, a little later, a close relative of his, such as the son, dies and the parent wishes the decision reversed. His opponent reminds him, however, that he himself has already decided the matter.7

A similar matter-of-fact acceptance of death is occasionally found in European folktales, as in Grimm's story, "The Death of Partlet," a story left out of most Grimm collections. As the story ends in Grimm,

Chanticleer was left alone with his dead Partlet. He dug her a grave and laid her in it, and raised a mound over it, and there he sat and mourned her till he died too. So they were all dead.8

Children themselves seem to begin with this same simple acceptance of death. In the still very active oral tradition, in the skip-rope rhymes jumped by children from the age of six on, and chanted much earlier, children treat death quite matter-of-factly:

Little Miss Pink
Dressed in blue
Died last night
At quarter past two
Before she died
She told me this:
When I jump rope
I always—miss.9

By writing the American Field Service, which solicited the rhymes from foreign lycées, and also through writing foreign embassies in Washington, I have made a collection of these rhymes. One contributed by the New Zealand Embassy goes:

There was an old woman and her name was Pat,
And when she died, she died like that,
They put her in a coffin,
And she fell through the bottom,
Just like that.10

Restoration to life is the general rule in children's play, however. "Bang bang, you're dead!" is only a figure of speech.

One of the many stories of restoration to life in the Grimm collection is the famous "Juniper Tree" story. In this story, a little boy who has been murdered by his jealous stepmother and made into a tasty stew for his father, comes back as a bird to reward his loving father and little sister and to drop a millstone on his stepmother's head. As a bird, he sings about what has happened to him:

My mother made a stew of me,
My father ate it all.
My little sister wept to see
Marlene, my sister small,
Then gathered my bones in her silken shawl,
And laid them under the Juniper tree.
Sing, hey! What a beautiful bird am I.11

After the stepmother's death, the bird becomes a little boy again and rejoins his family. When the step-mother dies, however, she dies for good; for the wicked, death often provides irreversible retribution. It brings death or rigidity, turns one to a statue or a stone.

Andrew Lang's Fairy Books of various colors date back to the nineteenth century, but they have always been loved by children and furnish an excellent cross section of the folk tales from all parts of the world. In these volumes, there are at least a dozen stories of special interest which relate to death. In The Orange Fairy Book, there is a story from India entitled, "The King Who Would See Paradise."12 The theme here seems to be that though Paradise may be one's lot eventually, one should not hasten the process, but prepare for the end by performing as perfectly as possible one's duties while on earth. The Pink Fairy Book contains a Spanish story which should comfort the women's liberationists who deplore the beautiful Cinderellas in fairy tales who always marry aristocracy and money. In "The Water of Life," a sister, wiser and more courageous than her brothers, fetches the magic water and restores not only her brothers, but "a great company of youths and girls" who have been put under an evil spell and turned to stones.13 Another folk tale which should delight women's liberationists appears in The Brown Fairy Book. In this story, purportedly from ancient Egypt, a brave and clever princess overcomes three fated terminations of her lover's life. "My wife," the lover says, "has been stronger than my fate."14 The Red Fairy Book contains a Rumanian story which attempts to explain death. People feel impelled to follow a mysterious Voice and are never seen again. When the source of the Voice is finally located, it turns out to be nothing but a vast plain. After that, people don't bother to follow the Voice anymore, but simply die at home.15 The Crimson Fairy Book has a more cheerful story—one of a prince who seeks immortality and gets it. In this Hungarian tale, the Queen of the Immortals and Death himself fight over a youth. The Queen wins.16 The Yellow Fairy Book has a North American Indian story which combines elements similar to those in the story of Pygmalion, and the Orpheus and Eurydice legend. When an Indian's wife dies, he makes a wooden doll just like her and dresses it in her clothes. The doll comes to life, but the husband is under a prohibition not to touch her until they have returned to their own village. He can't wait and she becomes a doll again.17 In The Violet Fairy Book are two Swahili stories in which animals, in one a gazelle and in the other, a snake, sacrifice their lives so that human beings may live.18 The Lilac Fairy Book contains another Swahili tale—this one about a clever monkey who professes to keep his heart in a safe place at home, when he travels. This idea of an external heart or soul is not infrequent in folk tales. It is a means of safeguarding one's immortality by keeping it stashed away—not putting all one's organs in one's body, so to speak. The other tale has to do with a fish who achieves immortality. A tree arises from his buried bones. This tale is unusual because, even in Christ's use of them in the New Testament, fish are expendable . . . one of the innocuous animals that ends up as food for people and the act of killing fish is blotted out, some way.19

Though there are a variety of approaches to the subject of death in these stories, all in all the approach is not morbid. Generally in folk tales, the magic potion which conquers death is love. One sees this in the German folk tale, "Briar Rose," or essentially the same, the French story, "The Sleeping Beauty." As G. K. Chesterton observes in his essay, "The Ethics of Elfland,"

There is the terrible allegory of "The Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.20

Nor does this death-conquering love have to be sexual. Stravinsky's ballet, "The Firebird," has acquainted many westerners with the Russian folk tale of "Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf." Murdered by his evil brothers, "Prince Ivan lay dead on that spot exactly thirty days; then the gray wolf came upon him and knew him by his odor":

Then the gray wolf sprinkled Prince Ivan with the water of death, and his body grew together; he sprinkled him with the water of life, and Prince Ivan stood up and said: "Ah, I have slept very long!"21

In the legends enjoyed by children, the hero has power, even over death. In the Norse legend of "Thor's Unlucky Journey," Thor is challenged to a wrestling match with Utgard-Loki's old nurse, Eli, who, unbeknownst to him, is Old Age or Death: "It was a marvel," said Utgard-Loki, "That you withstood so long and bent only one knee."22

In Caxton's version of Le Morte d'Arthur, from which many children's versions, including Lanier's Boy's King Arthur, stem, Arthur commands Sir Bedivere to throw Arthur's sword, Excalibur, into the water. Bedivere throws the sword far out, and sees an arm and hand reach above the water, take the sword, brandish it three times and vanish. Then Sir Bedivere takes the dying King on his back and carries him to the waterside. Here a barge is drawn up, with many fair ladies in it, all of them wearing black hoods. At the King's command, Bedivere puts him on the barge, and the barge moves away:

Than sir Bedwere cryed and seyde,

"A, my lorde Arthur, what shall becom of me, now ye go frome me and leve my here alone amonge myne enemyes?"

"Comforte thyselff," seyde the kynge, "and do as well as thou mayste, for in me ys no truste for to truste in. For I muste into the vale of Avylyon to hele me of my grevous wounde. And if thou here nevermore of me, pray for my soule!"23

Roland, in all versions of the Charlemagne cycle, blows a note of defiance in the face of death. Here is a version for children:

Count Roland's mouth was filled with blood. His brain had burst from his temples. He blew his horn in pain and anguish. Charles heard it, and so did his Frenchmen. Said the King:

"That bugle carries far!"

Duke Naimes replied:

"'Tis that a hero blows the blast!"24

When The Cid dies, in a current children's version of this Spanish legend, the embalmed body of The Cid leads a victorious charge against the enemy:

It was The Cid himself who led the charge, mounted upon Babieca, his sword Tizone gleaming by his side! This was too much for Yusuf and too much for his army. The legends were all true! This Cid was really a demon from hell! Here he was, raised from the dead, charging relentlessly down on them!25

Best known of the many retellings of the Robin Hood story for children is probably that of Howard Pyle. Here, too, Robin Hood seems to be in control, even of his death:

His old strength seemed to come back to him, and, drawing the bowstring to his ear, he sped the arrow out of the open casement. As the shaft flew, his hand sank slowly with the bow till it lay across his knees, and his body likewise sank back again into Little John's loving arms; but something had sped from that body, even as the winged arrow sped from the bow.26

Universally, in folk plays, which are shared both by children and adults, there is an element of wonder, of fantasy, in the ritual death so often portrayed and inevitably followed by restoration to an even more vigorous life.27 Fertility symbol or whatever it may be, this death and resurrection is accepted both by audience and the players—and these plays continue in some sections of the world.28 In the mummers' play of St. George, for instance, St. George may kill the Turkish Knight (there are many versions of the play), but then the Doctor invariably enters with a special medicine:

It will bring the dead to life again.
A drop on his head, a drop on his heart.
Rise up, bold fellow, and take thy part.29

Also, in the Punch and Judy shows, which in their present form probably date to the eighteenth century but which may date back to the fertility rituals in Greek and Roman mimes, Punch literally triumphs over Death, or the Devil.30

One finds in folk drama the concept of life as a journey towards death, a journey in which children and adults move on together, the morality, "Everyman," being the notable example of this theme. In such plays, the traveler is guided by the various tenets of his faith, his deeds being the mileposts of his progress. Thus, he takes the same path as he takes later in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, particularly in the second half. Here Christiana, with her four small sons, James, Joseph, Samuel, and Matthew, pass through worldly experience such as a good "supper," story telling, games, music and dancing, marriage, and even sightseeing in a heavenly museum until they reach the gates of the Celestial City, where Christiana goes on before. Several versions of this book were published for children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as adaptations.31

The strong dramatic element in life as a journey is found in many folk tales, including those among Indians in the Middle American area, where "The underlying theme is that the soul on its way to the afterworld is confronted by dangers and difficulties which must be overcome."32 Some of these, such as going between clashing rocks or over a body of water, are reminiscent of the Greek or Roman epics. The idea of life as a journey toward death peeps through most notably, perhaps, in children's literature in the nineteenth century in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, where Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth (who is about to die) go on a pilgrimage from cellar to attic—a more realistic journey than that in Bunyan—and later receive small copies of Pilgrim's Progress, in colored bindings, under their pillows as Christmas gifts.33 Andersen's "Little Mermaid" also must make a journey from sea to land and undergo much suffering—must die that others may love—before she wins an immortal soul. Nor is it enough purgation for Tom, the chimney sweep in Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies, to be brutally beaten by his Master and maltreated by everyone in contact with him. Even after he drowns and becomes a water-baby, he still must undergo a long Jungian journey and spiritual purification—must help someone he doesn't like (his old Master, Grimes).34

Besides folk tales and folk drama, another form of literature for children which has ancient roots is the fable. Though there is currently no satisfying popular edition, there are several bowdlerized editions of Aesop published by various companies every year. We know that Caxton's translation of Aesop was read both by children and adults, and John Locke repeatedly recommends Aesop for children.35 Here the relation of all aspects of human experience is quite complete—including sexual experience—complete enough to make spicy reading for Playboy. (But this shouldn't bother us if we have seen the rhymes chanted today by children themselves and recorded in the seventy-fifth volume of the Journal of American Folklore.) To return to the subject, here is one of the "death" fables from Caxton's Aesop:

Many one ben whiche haue grete worship and glorye / But noo prudence / ne noo wysedom they haue in them whereof Esope reherceth suche a fable / Of a wulf which found a dede mans hede / the whiche he torned vp so doune with his foote / And sayd / Ha a how fayr hast thow be and play-saunt / And now thow hast in the neyther wytte / ne beaute / yet thow arte withoute voys and withoute ony thought / And therefore men ought not only to behold the beaute and fayrenesse of the body / but only the goodnes of the courage / For somtyme men gyuen glorye and worship to some / whiche haue not deseruyd to haue hit.36

Alas, poor Shakespeare and Milton, who were limited to reading like this, instead of having the benefit of such current and expensive emptiness as Michael Is Brave (a frightened little boy learns courage by showing a little girl how to go down a slide), or any of the other hundreds of commercial books (we shan't call them literature) by one-message tacticians in the Puritan tradition, who—no matter how they may try to sugar coat the message—talk down to children. Sir Roger L'Estrange's Aesop, which came out two years after Locke had recommended Aesop for children's reading, states specifically in the preface that it is designed for children and has nothing unsuitable for childish ears.37 Yet it is just as explicit about all areas of human experience as is Caxton's.

A newly published book for little children, Life and Death, by Herbert Zim and Sonia Bleeker, also is explicit, but the focus is on factual and scientific information:

Long ago people had the idea that death was like a long sleep. Children think so too. This belief is far from the truth. A sleeping animal or a sleeping person is alive. He breathes, his hearts beats, he moves, dreams, and will react to a touch or a poke. Someone who is dead does none of these things.38

Later on, the book candidly tells the child:

After burial a body, which is composed of nearly three-quarters water, soon changes. The soft tissues break down and disappear first. Within a year only bones are left.39

Such man-in-the-white-coat treatment lacks warmth and beauty and is certainly not sufficient for initiating children to the subject of death. In many commercial books for children now, there is a paucity of imagination, a lack of philosophical reflection, something missing. Their spiritual nihilism is in itself a moral message in the Puritan tradition. Truth, these books imply, can only be determined by scientific testing. Zim and Bleeker stand for no philosophical truth. Instead, they indifferently display various beliefs on a kind of religious lazy Susan: "There is no way," they say, "to know if these beliefs are true or not. They are beyond our power to test or experiment."40

Too many current books for children on death tend to be slight or frighteningly inhumane and impersonal. The inadequacy of these books as literature for children on the subject of death is commented on by Sheila R. Cole in a recent article which appeared in The New York Times Book Review. Miss Cole summarizes her observations as follows:

All of these stories were written with a didactic purpose: to give a child a way of looking at death and living with the knowledge of it. All of them try to diffuse the finality and fearfulness by presenting death as just another natural process. But to most adults in our culture, death is more than just another natural process. It is an occasion surrounded with mystery and deep emotions. Presenting it to a child as just another change we go through is less than candid. Adults often present a prettier reality to children than actually exists. But to give easy answers to a child's questions about death is to deny reality and to diminish both life and death and, ultimately, to turn our children from our counsel.

—"For Young Readers: Introducing Death"

(September 26, 1971), p. 12

In the nineteenth century, the neurotic writers of the classics for children expressed at least some honest emotion. Freud wasn't around yet, and they felt safe in exploding their problems—homosexuality or other—into childish rhymes and fantasies. Filled with guilt, these writers were constantly aware of death. In Lear's limericks, supposedly light rhymes designed both for children and adults, death is a leading topic, as Alison White has pointed out.41 There was, for example, "The Old Man of Cape Horn, / Who wished he had never been born / So he sat on a chair till he died of dispair." Professor White surmises (as Elizabeth Sewell suggested earlier in The Field of Nonsense) that "in his limericks Lear, like all of us, is trying to get used to death, to dull its sting."42

Perhaps Professor White's explanation will also serve for the grim death jokes which critics have noticed in Alice in Wonderland:

"Well!" thought Alice to herself, "after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they'll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn't say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!" (which was very likely true.)43

Children themselves have many grimly comic—"mini-dramas"—about death:

Look, look, mama!
What is that mess
That looks like strawberry jam?
Hush, hush, my child!
It is papa
Run over by a tram.
Ushy gushy was a worm
A little worm was he
He crawled upon the railroad track
The train he didn't see.
Ushy gushy!44

Besides Lear and Carroll, two other writers of the nineteenth century who seem to have given vent to their emotional problems in their writings for children were J. M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde. In Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without, a book published a few years ago, J. M. Barrie is accused of making Peter Pan the vehicle for his triple theme of incest, castration, and homosexuality.45 Barrie is also criticized for his treatment of death in the play. Say the authors:

It's not enough, however, for Barrie to betray children. He betrays art. He does it brilliantly. That superb piece of engineering (the engineering, however, of an instrument of torture), the scene where Peter Pan appeals to the children in the audience to keep Tinker Bell alive by clapping to signal their belief in fairies is a metaphor of artistic creation itself. . . . Peter Pan blackmails the children, cancels the willingness of the suspension of disbelief, and disrupts the convention on which all art depends when he threatens to hold the children morally responsible for Tinker Bell's death unless by a real act—an act done in the auditorium, not on the stage—they assert their literal belief in what they know to be an artistic fiction.46

In Barrie's defense, one can say that he is asking the children to do what many fairy tales do—that is keep the protagonists alive through an act of love.

All five of Oscar Wilde's famous fairy tales for children have death as their theme. In the best known of the tales both "The Selfish Giant" and the little boy he loves die. The little boy is identified as Jesus. "The Happy Prince" (a statue) persuades a swallow to pluck the ruby from the Prince's sword, the sapphires from the Prince's eyes, and the gold leaf from his body and give it to the poor in the city. By the time these acts of charity have been accomplished, it is too late for the swallow to fly South for the winter.

"I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow," said the Prince, "you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you."

"It is not to Egypt that I am going," said the Swallow. "I am going to the House of Death. Death is the brother of Sleep, is he not?"

And he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet.

At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two.47

The saddest of Wilde's stories is "The Nightingale and the Rose." A little nightingale sees a student weeping for a red rose. The student's girl has said she would dance with him if he brought her such a rose. The nightingale seeks a rose for the youth, and is told by a tree that the only way such a rose can be obtained is for the nightingale to build it out of music and stain it with her own heart's blood. The nightingale must sing to the tree all night, with her breast against a thorn (an old English belief, by the way, as to how nightingales sing). The thorn must pierce her heart, and her life-blood must flow into the tree. "Death is a great price to pay for a red rose," cried the Nightingale:

So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and the thorn touched her heart, and a fierce pang of pain shot through her. Bitter, bitter was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb. . . .

"Look, look!" cried the Tree, "the rose is finished now;" but the Nightingale made no answer, for she was lying dead in the long grass with the thorn in her heart.48

The Student finds the rose outside his window and presents it to the girl, but she spurns it as the Chamberlain's nephew, meanwhile, has sent her some jewels. Disgusted, the Student throws the rose down in the street, and a cart-wheel runs over it.

"What a silly thing Love is," said the Student as he walked away. "It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics."

So he returned to his room and pulled out a great dusty book, and began to read.49

Cynically, the Student throws away the emotional and picks up the scientific. "The Devoted Friend" also has as a theme the unawareness of human beings of the sacrifices of those who love them. Trusting little Hans gives his life for his false friend, the Miller. Lastly, and grimly humorous, is "The Remarkable Rocket," the story of an egocentric rocket who explodes into the sky with a dreadful racket and then fizzles out. But nobody notices.

Even though these stories sound like dreams recounted on a psychoanalyst's couch, they do have the ring of honesty, which can be tested by comparison with the Puritan educational propaganda for children, in which death is a punishment for sin. Closely related in theme to the "Warnings to Apprentices" of the late seventeenth century, numerous deathbed confessions of young children stemmed from James Janeway's A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversions, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1671). These continued to be printed in small American towns during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford has a number of these little books50 and several are listed in the A. S. W. Rosenbach catalog of Early American Children's Books.51 Their reflection is seen in The New England Primer, many editions of which contained these verses:

Tho' I am young yet I may die,

And hasten to eternity:

There is a dreadful fiery hell,

Where wicked ones must always dwell.52

As if the poor American Indian children had not suffered enough, even they were subjected to these deathbed confessions, and in 1835, Triumphant Deaths of Pious Children was translated into Choctaw by Missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.53 What is more, these deathbed confessions of children merged imperceptibly with the nineteenth-century Sunday School literature, so that we have, for instance, An Authentic Account of the Conversion, Experience, and Happy Deaths of Ten Boys, designed for Sunday Schools, and published in New Haven (1820).54

As mentioned before, one of the acknowledged purposes of the Sunday School literature was to keep working children off the streets on Sunday.55 Here is a quotation from one of the early nineteenth-century Sunday School booklets published for children by the American Tract Society in New York. Since I have not located it elsewhere, I am quoting from a copy in my own collection:

Why should you say, 'tis yet too soon

To seek for heaven, and think of death?

The flower will fade before 'tis noon,

And you this day may lose your breath.

Then 'twill for ever be in vain

To cry for pardon and for grace;

To wish you had your time again,

Or hope to see the Savior's face.56

This gloomy literature allied itself easily with the sentimental attitude toward death of the mid-nineteenth century, famous examples being Hans Christian Andersen's stories of "The Little Fir Tree," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," and "The Little Match Girl." Then there is the death of Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Often, in the sentimental literature, the child does not die for his own sins but for the adultery of adults—his parents—and the trend here is found in adult literature as well, as in Mrs. Wood's East Lynne.57 Always quick to penetrate hypocrisy, Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer has the boys, supposedly dead, return to witness their own funeral and to hear themselves eulogized as saints by those who hated their humanity while they were alive in the town:

First one and then another pair of eyes followed the minister's, and then almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Jose next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

(Tom Sawyer, Chapter 17)

Thus, the boys have the double satisfaction of getting back at their parents or parent-figures and, at the same time, of witnessing their own "death" and resurrection.

In our own time, one of the best known instances of death as a punishment for a mistake (or at least, death as closely associated with the mistake or sin) is that of the death of the good Thorin in Tolkien's Hobbit. Thorin's greed for the great jewel, the Arkenstone, to which he feels rightly entitled, leads to a fight. Though the quarrel is resolved, Thorin dies and the Arkenstone is buried with him. Thus Thorin (and possibly the readers) learns the worthlessness of material things.

One of the most notable recent treatments of death in children's literature is that of E. B. White in Charlotte's Web. White makes an interesting blend of fantasy and realism: when the little spider dies, she lives on through her 500 offspring, through the memory of the extraordinary web-writing she did above the stable door, and through the love of her friend, the pig Wilbur. White is to be commended for facing a subject which most writers for children now avoid—though not all children are content, I find, with the prospect of a selective immortality for those with children or extraordinary ideas or (short-lived) friends. Still, such lines as these have beauty, pathos, and above all, sincerity:

Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

(Charlotte's Web, Chapter 21)

This same kind of immortality was treasured by Ben Jonson in 1603, who wrote a well-known elegy to his little boy who died of plague at the age of seven: "Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry." At the same time his "best piece of poetry" was all too mortal. This and other elegies on children have been anthologized recently in Sister Mary Immaculate's book, The Cry of Rachel.58

For the fullest treatment of death in children's literature, we must return to the nineteenth century, to the fantasies of George MacDonald, most notably to At the Back of the North Wind and The Golden Key. George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish preacher influenced by Paracelsus, Boehme, Swedenborg, Blake, Wordsworth, Novalis, and negatively, by Calvinism. He in turn exerted an influence on Lewis Carroll, Ruskin, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Since most of his family died of tuberculosis, including four of his own children, MacDonald (who also suffered from the disease) was understandably preoccupied with the subject of death.59

To some extent, his writings combine the various attitudes toward death, for they embody a simple acceptance of death and fear of death and the conviction finally that death is "more life."60 He believed that child-like qualities are eternal; he believed that all life goes through a mystic evolution, each step of which on the way up is attended with sacrifice; and one is tempted to conclude from his fantasies that he believed that through love, faith, and the imagination one can create one's own Paradise and make it real.

Robert Lee Wolff, Professor of History at Harvard, has long been fascinated by MacDonald's writing, and has written a book on it published by Yale University Press. Professor Wolff compares MacDonald's views on death to those of Norman O. Brown in Life against Death (1959) and comments:

Here in the sixth decade of the twentieth-century we find a classical and learned student of comparative mythology making all of George MacDonald's choices: not intellect but pure emotion, not grown-ups but children, not people but animals, a bi-sexual God, and the eager welcoming of death as an essential part of life.61

Might a reader then ask the question E. R. Eddison asks in the introduction to his fantasy for adults, A Fish Dinner in Memison:

But to the mind developed on the lines of the Mahometan fanatic's, the Thug's, the Christian martyr's, is it not conceivable that (short, perhaps of acute physical torture) the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' should be no more painful than the imagined ills of a tragic drama, and could be experienced and appraised with a like detachment?62

At any rate, so death is treated in MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind. Diamond, a poor, Christlike child, makes friends with the North Wind, a mother figure (as the wind is, one remembers, in some nature tales for children such as those of Thornton Burgess). She is all of life, including death. Shortly before Diamond dies, North Wind tells him:

"People call me by dreadful names, and think they know all about me. But they don't. Sometimes they call me Bad Fortune, sometimes evil chance, sometimes Ruin; and they have another name for me which they think the most dreadful of all."

"What is that?" asked Diamond, smiling up in her face.

"I won't tell you that name. Do you remember having to go through me to get into the country at my back?"

"Oh yes, I do. How cold you were, North Wind! and so white, all but your lovely eyes! My heart grew like a lump of ice, and then I forgot for a while."

"You were very near knowing what they call me then."

(At the Back of the North Wind, Chapter 36)

But one must be careful not to be too explicit about meanings in MacDonald's fantasies about death. He is not like Whitman, who flatly states that "to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."63 Rather, his fantasies have a vague quality like that in mystical treatises such as the fourteenth-century Cloud of Unknowing. And what they say is all the more effective because it is not pinned down. One must simply make the leap of faith into his stories. As W. H. Auden says in his Afterword to MacDonald's Golden Key,

But to hunt for symbols in a fairy tale is absolutely fatal. In The Golden Key, for example, any attempt to "interpret" the Grandmother or the air-fish or the Old Man of the Sea is futile: they mean what they are. The way, the only way, to read a fairy tale is the same as that prescribed for Tangle at one stage of her journey.64

And Auden quotes the following passage from the story:

Then the Old Man of the Earth stooped over the floor of the cave, raised a huge stone from it, and left it leaning. It disclosed a great hole that went plumb-down.

"That is the way," he said.

"But there are no stairs."

"You must throw yourself in. There is no other way."65

My own feeling is that the vagueness of MacDonald's fantasies is not a deliberate artistic accomplishment but an accident induced by an imperfect fusing of his own thought with his reading in Paracelsus, Boehme, and Novalis.

I think he wrote the fantasies because he needed deeply to believe them, but that ultimately he did not altogether trust them. The despondent silence of his last five years might serve as evidence. But I also believe that he wrought better than he knew, and that the blurred picture he produced was intuitively good, for it frees the imagination of the reader.

How far can the imagination of the reader extend? In the same introductory essay referred to before, E. R. Eddison also wrote,

It may be asked, Why not suicide, then, as a way out? Is not that the logic of such an other-worldly philosophy? The answer surely is that there is a beauty of action (as the Northmen knew), and only seldom is suicide a fine act.66

Following Eddison's thinking, is there "beauty of action" in the near suicide of the Little Prince in Antoine de St. Exupéry's French fantasy for children? In this work, which Martin Heidegger is said to have regarded as "one of the great existentialist books of the century,"67 the Little Prince deliberately goes out to meet the snake which he knows will return him to the earth, cause his death:

There was nothing there but a flash of yellow close to his ankle. He remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a tree falls. There was not even any sound, because of the sand.68

The supreme act of giving is his death. It washes over him like a great wave and returns him to the cycle of nature. His courageous act of faith is not unlike the leap demanded of Tangle in The Golden Key. And it bears a striking symbolic resemblance to the leap demanded of all human beings in a strange Vietnamese folktale, "The Well of Immortality." In this folktale, the God Nuoc comes to earth and stations himself at the bottom of a deep well. He calls up that those who have the faith to leap down to him will become immortal. But people hesitate. Instead of leaping, they dip their fingers and toes and the tops of their heads in the water. And this is all the immortality they get—their nails and hair continue to grow after death.69

After the disturbing reaches of the fantasies of MacDonald or of St. Exupéry, it is rather a relief to turn to the old-fashioned Christian Platonism of C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, concluded in the seventh book The Last Battle:

"The Eagle is right," said the Lord Digory. "Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all of the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream." His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!" the older ones laughed. It was so exactly like the sort of thing they had heard him say long ago in that other world where his beard was grey instead of golden.70

How is it best to introduce a child through literature to the idea of death? Folk literature, the amalgam of human experience, and some of the great fantasies seem to indicate that the honest and warm human approach is best—not talking down to the child because of his age, for death knows all ages, but simply telling him what we know, what we don't know, what we fear, and what we hope. We find this approach in folk literature, which, as Tolkien might put it, is the very bones of the stock of human experience,71 in which there is frequently a close and friendly relationship between life and death. The predominant attitude toward death is simple acceptance, combined very often with a belief that death is not final, that it is to be accepted, even actively embraced with the sure knowledge that through love, a resurrection will occur.


1. See the editorial Afterword, "About the Author of this Book," to any of the Penguin Books in the Narnia Series (Middlesex, England, 1965).

2. Edna Johnson, Evelyn R. Sickels, and Frances Clarke Sayers, Anthology of Children's Literature (Boston, 1970), p. 1155. And see all of J. Henry Harris, Robert Raikes: The Man and His Work (Bristol, 1899?).

3. Indeed, the Chairman of the English Department of one of the greatest Ivy League Schools has written me that "for various reasons" his Department cannot teach children's literature, but that he deplores the level at which it is taught throughout the country.

4. Yet generally historians of children's literature seem to feel that the separation is a good thing. Some, however, seem not as positive and stress the profit motive.

5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature, Vol. II (Bloomington, Indiana, 1956), pp. 402-517.

6. Jaime de Angulo, Indian Tales (New York, 1969). First edition, 1953.

7. The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, Vol. I (New York, 1949), p. 300.

8. Grimms' Folk Tales, tr., Eleanor Quarrie. The Folio Society. (London, 1965), p. 189. For the matter-of-fact acceptance of death by primitive man, see Paul Radin, Primitive Man as Philosopher (New York, 1957), pp. 97-113. First published, 1927.

9. For "Little Miss Pink," see Francelia Butler, The Skip Rope Book (New York, 1963).

10. The New Zealand rhyme may also be found in Brian Sutton-Smith, The Games of New Zealand Children, University of California Folklore Studies, No. 12 (1959), pp. 73-88.

11. Grimm's Folk Tales, p. 25.

12. Andrew Lang, ed., The Orange Fairy Book (New York, 1968), pp. 24-28. First published, 1906.

13. Andrew Lang, ed., The Pink Fairy Book (New York, 1967), pp. 184-190. First published, 1897.

14. Andrew Lang, ed., The Brown Fairy Book (New York, 1965), p. 244. First published, 1904.

15. Andrew Lang, ed., The Red Fairy Book (New York, 1966), pp. 182-185. First published, 1890.

16. Andrew Lang, ed., The Crimson Fairy Book (New York, 1967), pp. 178-191. First published, 1903.

17. Andrew Lang, ed., The Yellow Fairy Book (New York, 1966), pp. 149-151. First published, 1894.

18. Andrew Lang, ed., The Violet Fairy Book (New York, 1966), pp. 127-147; 263-269. First published, 1901.

19. Andrew Lang, ed., The Lilac Fairy Book (New York, 1968), pp. 42-53; 209-215. First published, 1910.

20. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, 1908), p. 89.

21. Aleksandr Nikolaevich Afanasiev, "Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf," in The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Other Fairy Tales (New York, 1964), pp. 122-123.

22. Johnson, Sickels, and Sayers, p. 447.

23. The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed., Eugene Vinaver (London, 1954), p. 871.

24. Johnson, Sickels, and Sayers, p. 534.

25. Robert C. Goldston, The Legend of the Cid (Indianapolis, 1963), p. 154.

26. Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (New York, 1968), p. 295. First published, 1883.

27. Sir Edmund Chambers, The English Folk-Play (London, 1969), pp. 50-59; 200-210. First published, 1933.

28. One has only to consult the English Folk Dance & Song Society for a current calendar of performances in English villages.

29. Chambers, p. 8.

30. George Speaight, Punch & Judy: A History (London, 1970), pp. 8-10. First published as The History of the English Puppet Theatre (London, 1955).

31. Incidentally, in Bunyan's tale, the role of women as guides to children is extolled because of the good relationship of women to Christ, as well as the role of gracious old men: "Indeed, old men that are gracious are best able to give advice to them that are young, because they have seen most of the emptiness of things."—John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (Penguin: Middlesex, Eng., 1965), p. 321. Many reprints, as well as other versions of Pilgrim's Progress for children were published in America in the nineteenth century. See, for instance, A. S. W. Rosenbach, Early American Children's Books (New York, 1971). First published, 1933. There have also been several versions in the early twentieth century, such as Mary Godolphin's Pilgrim's Progress in Words of One Syllable (McLoughlin Brothers: New York, 19—).

32. The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, p. 300.

33. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Boston, 1919), Chapters I and II.

34. Charles Kingsley, The Water-Babies. University Microfilms (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 222. First published, London, 1863.

35. The Educational Writings of John Locke, ed., James L. Axtell (Cambridge, Eng., 1968), pp. 259, 271, 298, 349, 364.

36. Caxton's Aesop, ed., R. T. Lenaghan (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 98.

37. See, for instance, Sir Roger L'Estrange, Fables and Storyes Moralized: Being a Second Part of the Fables of Aesop . . . (London, 1699). In his introduction, L'Estrange writes, "Now This Medly, (such as it is) of Salutary Hints, and Councels, being Dedicated to the Use, and Benefit of Children, the Innocence of it must be preserved Sacred too, without the least Mixture of any Thing that's Prophane, Loose, or Scurrilous, or but so much as Bordering That way." He then includes stories that would be considered too gross for Playboy. (The writer of this paper examined this copy at Guildhall Library, London.)

Unfortunately, a current edition of L'Estrange (New York, 1967) is so badly bowdlerized that it constitutes merely a poor sample. The publishers nevertheless avoid acknowledging that L'Estrange intended the book for children.

38. Herbert S. Zim and Sonia Bleeker, Life and Death (New York, 1970), p. 20.

39. Ibid., p. 46.

40. Ibid., p. 55.

41. Alison White, "With Birds in His Beard," Saturday Review (January 15, 1966), p. 27

42. Ibid.

43. The Annotated Alice. By Lewis Carroll, with an introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (New York, 1960), p. 27. Here also Gardner refers to William Empson's comments in Some Versions of Pastoral on the numerous death jokes in Alice.

44. Rhymes familiar to Gertrude and Bruce McWilliams of Southend-on-Sea, England, now of Pound Ridge, New York.

45. Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne, Fifty Works of English and American Literature We Could Do Without (New York, 1968), p. 109.

46. Ibid., p. 112.

47. The Best Known Works of Oscar Wilde (New York, 1927), p. 519.

48. Ibid., pp. 523-524.

49. Ibid., p. 524.

50. In the Albert C. Bates and Maria E. Hewins Collections, Library of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford.

51. A. S. W. Rosenbach, Early American Children's Books (New York, 1971), pp. 18, 31, 82, 133, 196. First published, 1933.

52. For instance, in The New England Primer, published by Ira Webster (Hartford, Conn., 1843).

53. Rosenbach, p. 285.

54. Rosenbach, p. 126.

55. Johnson, Sickels, and Sayers, p. 1155. And all of J. Henry Harris, Robert Raikes. The Man and His Work (Bristol, 1899?).

56. A New Picture Book. Series 1, No. IV. American Tract Society (New York, 19—). Arnold Arnold, in Pictures and Stories from Forgotten Children's Books (New York, 1969), shrewdly observes that "the manipulative school of child literature has its counterpart in our own day" in "psychologically manipulative" stories which "tend to be written according to formula and confining, anti-literate, age-grouped vocabularies." p. 2.

57. Peter Coveney, Poor Monkey: The Child in Literature (London, 1957), pp. 136-149.

58. Sister Mary Immaculate, C. S. C., The Cry of Rachel: An Anthology of Elegies on Children (New York, 1966).

59. Robert Lee Wolff, The Golden Key: A Study of the Fiction of George MacDonald (New Haven, 1961), pp. 4, 9, 48, 138, 146, 373-375, 388.

60. George MacDonald, The Golden Key (New York, 1967), p. 71.

61. Wolff, pp. 379-380.

62. E. R. Eddison, "A Letter of Introduction to George Rostrevor Hamilton," A Fish Dinner in Memison (New York, 1970), p. xxviii.

63. Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," Part 6.

64. George MacDonald, The Golden Key. "Afterword" by W. H. Auden, p. 85.

65. Ibid., p. 57.

66. Eddison, p. xxix.

67. Curtis Cate, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (New York, 1970), p. 465.

68. Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince (New York, 1943), p. 89.

69. Ruth Q. Sun, Land of Seagull and Fox: Folk Tales of Vietnam (Rutland, Vermont, 1967), pp. 19-20.

70. C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (Penguin: Middlesex, Eng., 1969), pp. 153-154. First published by The Bodley Head, 1956.

71. J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories," The Tolkien Reader (New York, 1966), pp. 19, 30, 31.

Anne Scott MacLeod (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: MacLeod, Anne Scott. "True to Nature . . . and the Conditions of Ordinary Life." In A Moral Tale: Children's Fiction and American Culture, 1820-1860, pp. 60-8. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, MacLeod discusses the straightforward method in which nineteenth-century children's literature presented death, noting that children of the era were expected to view death as the result of a higher power over which they had no control.]

Like poverty, death was a common feature in the children's fiction before 1860; children were schooled to consider life itself as the least certain of blessings. The literature was studded with reflections upon the brevity of human life, and the consequent wisdom of making the spiritual most of the time available. Norman and his mother, gazing at the mighty falls of Niagara, were moved to observe how "truly, there is but a step between us and death," and when they heard the story of two young people who lost their lives there, Norman's mother pointed out "how many are daily and hourly borne, by the mighty tides of worldliness and sin, over a more tremendous precipice."1

The death of a parent, sometimes of both parents, formed the dramatic base of many tales, which then went on to relate how the children coped with their situation, bereft of the guidance and protection of a parent's care. The frequency with which this one simple plot was used suggests how convenient it was for displaying the moral lessons the authors wanted to convey. The importance of parental love and protection was dramatized by its loss; the importance of parental teaching was demonstrated by how well the orphaned child was able to manage his own. The Christian obligation to practice charity was given point by picturing the desperate straits of an orphaned and helpless child.

Children were not exempt from death in the literature for the young. The children of nineteenth-century fiction did not die quite so frequently as those of eighteenth-century literature, but a child's death was a familiar event in the stories. And here the authors' claim to realism was upheld by statistics. High child mortality was a fact of the period, and few children growing up before 1860 reached maturity without experiencing the death of a brother or sister or child acquaintance.2 What was a commonplace in life was not filtered out of the fiction. Young readers were often reminded that for them, as for adults, death was "always near" and that they must be conscious always of their "readiness for the next world." Such reminders were, of course, frequently employed to underpin didactic messages; the brevity of life and the swiftness of time were reasons to think seriously on the moral conduct of the hour.3

But child mortality was also recorded, simply and sadly, as a fact of human life, and somehow the philosophy offered to children had to account for this, as for happier evidences of God's will. The standard comfort was the assurance that the dead child had gone to a better world, where he would be happy and free of pain. In its best expression, this philosophy carried the conviction of perfect faith. Mrs. Cheseboro's Smiles and Tears, which was largely a reminiscence of her own childhood, recounted an episode probably quite characteristic for the era. In one chapter of the book, a little girl in town died of a "brain fever." Her young friends brought flowers, viewed the body, and attended the funeral. In the telling, at least, the experience was neither morbid nor sentimental; the children were assured that Fanny was "happier in heaven" and that when she is buried, it will not be Fanny herself, but only "the garment of the soul" which is put in the earth.4

Now and then, the surface calm of this outlook cracked a little to show the grief below. The short and stiffly written little tale of Blind Susan told how Susan's cataracts were successfully removed, to the joy of her "affectionate family." But soon after the operation, she "drooped" and declined and, in a little while, died. The special sense of loss at a child's death shines through the conventional rhetoric in the author's comment: "Death comes to the aged like a reaper to . . . ripe grain, but to the young it comes like the scythe of the mower which cuts down the flower." After this, however, there was a swift return to the reassurance that Susan was happier "taken from this dark world to enjoy true felicity in the courts of her God."5

The death of a child was always explained this way. Some stories suggest that children did not always find it easy to reconcile the death of a good child with what they were told about God's love for good children. Nellie Russell asked about the death of a pious child: Did not God love little Susan Ward? She was assured he did. "But isn't it very strange, then, that he should let her get sick and die?" To which her aunt replied, "It may seem strange to you, Nellie, who do not know what a beautiful place heaven is, and what a happy home it has been to Susan. . . . Angels must have considered it as the greatest blessing that could have happened to a little girl like her to be placed so soon where she would never suffer from sin, or sickness, or pain of any kind."6

Nellie was, of course, satisfied with this answer, but other books confirmed the impression that her doubts were by no means uncommon. Early children's books, especially those of the eighteenth century, contained so many holy deaths of good children that apparently some of their readers fell under the misapprehension that the wages of virtue were death. An 1845 Sunday School Union book undertook to combat the "settled opinion" among children that the good die early by assuring readers that it was misbehavior rather than goodness that killed most children.7

In spite of the prevalence of death in the stories, however, and in spite of the authors' undeniable efforts to engage the sympathies of their readers for the orphaned child and the widowed mother, the literary handling of death in children's fiction was, for the most part, surprisingly unsentimental. At a time when adult popular fiction abounded in drawn-out, harrowing deathbed scenes, the same scenes in children's stories were usually treated briefly and matter-of-factly. Early in the period there were, to be sure, some of the lingering accounts of holy and happy deaths typical of eighteenth-century children's tales, but these were relatively rare after 1830. In the '30s and '40s especially, practical considerations generally overrode the emotional aspects of death.

One of Jacob Abbott's Franconia Tales, for example, told of a young woman whose husband had fallen ill. "Mary Erskine stood leaning over him for some time, with a countenance filled with anxiety and concern. She then turned away, saying to herself, 'If Albert is going to be sick and die, what will become of me?'" Abbott also avoided an affecting deathbed scene, remarking merely that "stories of sickness and suffering are painful to read. . . . We will therefore shorten the tale of Mary Erskine's anxiety and distress, by saying at once that Albert grew worse instead of better, every day for a fortnight, and then died."8 In very similar words, the author of Adelaide bypassed the sentimental possibilities of a mother's death: "I shall pass over this scene and continue the story of Adelaide—only remarking that they deeply felt and mourned their loss. But they knew it was God who had ordered the event."9

Even those stories that treated death with a bit more drama than this avoided, for the most part, the deathbed promises extracted and reforms exacted common to sentimental fiction for adults. In contrast to later books, the children in juvenile fiction of this period did not usually convert and reform as they died—they just died. "She closed her eyes, and in a few minutes afterwards, her spirit fled—none knew whither—but it was gone! The body was indeed there; but it was not Mary Wilson. Perhaps Mary herself was already with the angels as she hoped to be. "10

In general, juvenile fiction supported an attitude of acceptance toward death. While the authors certainly acknowledged the pain of bereavement, they neither portrayed nor, apparently, approved excessive expressions of grief. Death was an expression of God's will, and uncontrolled grief was a kind of rebellion. Mrs. Sedgewick's Moral Tales included an unusual story of a clergyman visiting a woman "who murmured very much, on account of a serious misfortune—the loss of a child." The clergyman said all he could to console her, "but in vain; she was still loud in her murmuring. . . . He, at length, became quite indignant. 'Well, Madam,' said he, 'God has seen fit, in his holy providence, to take away your child; and what do you propose to do about it?'"11 It is impossible to know from context whether this curious tale was meant to be amusing or instructive or both, but the attitude was typical, if the statement was more blunt than most. In another story, a young girl's mother made clear to her daughter how the impending death of her father was to be taken. When Ella asked, "May we not grieve for him when he is gone?" her mother answered, "All grief is, in the abstract, selfish."12

The correct attitude was unmistakably identified in many stories. The tale of The Morton Family, which amounted to little more than a narrative of the deaths, one by one, of an entire family, provided ample demonstration. Early in the story, the son of the family, whose besetting sin is uncontrolled outbursts of anger, threatens his sister with a shotgun he believes to be unloaded. She, who is herself less than perfect in loving kindness and humility, still refuses to do what he is asking, and he pulls the trigger. Ann falls to the floor, fatally wounded but cured of her own selfishness, and uttering forgiveness of her brother with her last breath. Such a tragedy might well be expected to leave the mother of these unfortunate young people prostrate with grief, but Mrs. Morton was created to provide a model of Christian acceptance for young readers: "It would seem as if this blow would have been almost overwhelming to Mrs. Morton, but she was a Christian, not in name only, but in practice." Mrs. Morton finds it possible not only to contain her grief, but to be thankful it was Ann rather than Edward who had died, since he is still so unready for death. Her remaining children grasp the principle so well that when Mrs. Morton herself dies somewhat later in the story, "Charles and Eliza viewed with some composure the remains of one who had so well fulfilled the responsible office of a parent." In accordance with the general philosophy of this and many other juvenile tales, the author noted that "it would be the extreme of selfishness to wish to recall her to a world where she had suffered so much."13

Poverty and death were only the most extreme of the hazards common in children's fiction. There were many other afflictions, from physical ailments of various kinds and degrees to moral failures large and small, adult as well as childish. Disease was ever present in stories (as in reality) and much feared. Though the families of children's fiction nearly always seemed to have doctors available to call, their practical efficacy was doubtful. Almost any ailment was likely to be fatal, and the doctor's role often seemed to be confined to offering his opinion on the probability of recovery. Parents of fictional children were anxiously cautious about matters of physical health. Little Susie of a Juvenile Miscellany story, when she was drenched in a spring rain, was not just dried off and given a change of clothing, but put to bed for the rest of the day to prevent her taking cold. Frederick, of Conquest and Self-Conquest, spent three weeks in bed with a broken arm. Susie's mother, in Self-Willed Susie, entreated her daughters to stay home for a proposed walk on a summer day: "I think there is real danger that you will get sick if you do it in such extremely warm weather."14

Nor did the uncertainties surrounding the child of juvenile fiction end with the material and physical. He had also to reckon with the moral failings of adults, sometimes of his own parents. Later children's books have subscribed nearly unanimously to the convention that parents are the firm center in a child's life. If not wholly perfect (and often it has been implied that they are), parents have rarely been shown as the cause of a child's troubles. Until very recently, an alcoholic parent or a deserting father or a shallow, lazy mother was virtually taboo in children's stories. But the fiction written for children before 1860, while it frequently went further than any modern literature in embellishing the portrait of the perfect father or mother, also admitted the existence of those who were less—sometimes much less—than perfect. The drunken father, that staple of temperance literature—children's as well as adult—also appeared in many books not otherwise specifically "temperance." Sometimes a fictional father seems to have abandoned his family for reasons left unexplained; and sometimes, especially in stories written late in this period, fathers were criticized for neglecting their families in their preoccupation with moneymaking.15

While motherhood could be a state as close to sainthood as mortally possible, neglectful or selfish mothers were certainly very common in the books. There were sharp comments on mothers whose indulgence of their children was more a matter of lazy indifference to their welfare than of love, and on those whose lack of firm moral standards undermined all discipline, to the ultimate detriment of their children's characters and careers.

Children could hardly be warned against their own parents, but they were nevertheless strenuously educated by the authors of their fiction on the traits of bad as well as good parental behavior. In a more general way, they were warned against the possible untrustworthiness of other human beings: "Never take the advice of those who are known to be deceitful and treacherous," advised Samuel Goodrich in his Book of Fables, and, "when a known enemy wishes to seem a friend, there is most cause for us to keep out of his reach."16 Very little in this literature encouraged a child to view either the world or its inhabitants through rose-colored glasses. Kindness and benevolence were highly-prized virtues in the stories, but they were not depicted as universal, no more among the adult characters than amongst the children. From the "hard-hearted" woman who refused the little Irish boy's request, to the New York alderman indifferent to an orphaned boy's need for help and guidance in a strange city, adults were shown as morally varied and often imperfect—as was, indeed, the world. "Alas, almost everything in this world is imperfect and incomplete," lamented the author of Self-Willed Susie.17

Taken all in all, the external reality pictured for children by their fiction was far from reassuring. It was vague, yet threatening; dim, but full of danger. Not even in their literature were children exempted from the hazards of life; indeed, the fiction seemed often specifically designed to remind the young that life could be as harsh for them as for adults. Far from seeking to assure children of the safety of their childhood years, authors pointed out the pitfalls of human existence insistently, warning their happiest readers that fortune was fleeting and life uncertain, and that no man—or child—knew what the morrow might bring.

Nor was the human society that surrounded a growing child portrayed as a reliable source of help in time of trouble. The concept of community was blurred in the stories; institutions played no certain role in the life of an individual. Charity, though praiseworthy, was purely voluntary and could be neither claimed nor relied upon with certainty. The few descriptions of community resources available to the needy were so darkened by distaste and disapproval that no child reader could have taken heart from them.

Even the home, that citadel of good constantly celebrated in the period, could offer only limited protection to a child against the outer world. Home was not proof against sickness, death or poverty, and the greatest tragedies, like drunkenness and moral failure, were horrifying precisely because they invaded and destroyed family and home.

Yet the books were not written to frighten children away from taking part in society. No writer envisioned his young audience growing into some sheltered class of adults who would or could keep clear of the social and personal dangers the stories warned of. On the contrary, it was clear in every line that the fiction was written to prepare a generation soon to be active in the affairs of a democratic country, and the version of reality presented in the stories was meant to contribute to that end.

Not art, but outlook shaped these tales. The distortions, the omissions, the characteristic imbalance between inner and outer experience, were all products of the authors' angle of vision. Writers included in their juvenile books those aspects of life they believed children must know and understand, both for their own protection and for the sake of American society. From their point of view, what they told children was realistic, and would serve to prepare them for their encounter with the world. If the world they pictured in fiction was dangerous, it was because they believed that the real world was indeed dangerous for the unprepared. If the accounts of physical and social reality were vague, it was because most of these authors saw significant experience in moral rather than physical or social terms. The single most vivid element in every tale was the moral lesson, for the very good reason that morality seemed at once the quality most necessary to the survival of the Republic and most threatened by the competitive, shifting realities of American life.

The home training idealized in the fiction never offered to teach children how to manipulate the outer environment to insure their happiness or success. Quite the contrary; it suggested that they could hope for little control over circumstance and that they must therefore learn to be independent of events, as far as possible. Children were steadily warned against looking for fulfillment in wealth and worldly praise. These were too fragile, too unreliable, too difficult to attain and hold to make it wise to base one's happiness upon them. For all the noisy rhetoric about success and opportunity rampant in the period, most juvenile fiction was as concerned to prepare its readers for failure as for success. All children, rich as well as poor, girls as well as boys, were urged to develop practical skills that would enable them to manage in the face of financial adversity. All children were told by their books that contentment was neither a product nor a victim of outer reality, but of inner character. Whatever else he found in these stories, the child who read them could scarcely have failed to understand that he must seek his security, not in the outer world, but within his own heart, and that his capacity to deal with an unreliable universe was wholly dependent upon the strength of the moral character he developed in his growing years.


1. What Norman Saw in the West (1859), pp. 18, 211.

2. See Robert Bremner, ed., Children and Youth in America, 1600-1865, 1 (1970): 759-760.

3. See Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Stories for Young Persons (1841), p. 75; Social Visits (1854), pp. 21, 22, 117; The Child's Birthday (1821), pp. 7, 9.

4. Mrs. Frances M. Cheseboro, Smiles and Tears (1858), pp. 98-104.

5. Blind Susan (1835), pp. 15-16.

6. Nellie Russell (1858), p. 39.

7. The Country Schoolhouse (1848), p. 27.

8. Abbott, Franconia Tales: Mary Erskine (1850), pp. 81-82.

9. Adelaide (1827), p. 22.

10. A Juvenile Keepsake (1851), p. 97.

11. Mrs. E. Sedgewick, Moral Tales, p. 86.

12. The Bud, the Flower, and the Fruit, p. 44.

13. The Morton Family (1845), pp. 34, 49-50.

14. Juvenile Miscellany, 3d ser., 2 (1832): 52; C. M. Sedgwick, Conquest and Self-Conquest (1843), pp. 20-21; Self-Willed Susie (1860), p. 11.

15. For the general decline of fathers in the fiction, see pages 000 ff.

16. Goodrich, Parley's Book of Fables, pp. 119, 122.

17. Goodrich, Peter Parley's Short Stories, p. 14; Alfred Raymond (1854), p. 16; Self-Willed Susie, p. 150.

Elizabeth P. Lamers (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Lamers, Elizabeth P. "Children, Death, and Fairy Tales." Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 31, no. 2 (1995): 151-67.

[In the following essay, Lamers utilizes several classic fairy tales—including Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Toads and Diamonds—as the context for reviewing the evolution of death themes in children's literature.]

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Masha Kabakow Rudman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Rudman, Masha Kabakow. "Death." In Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, pp. 329-42. New York, N.Y.: Longman Inc., 1984.

[In the following essay, Rudman provides an analysis of several children's books that realistically and sensitively broach the topic of death.]

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Donna E. Norton (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Norton, Donna E. "Dealing with Death." In Through the Eyes of a Child: An Introduction to Children's Literature, pp. 402-04. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, Norton examines the different approaches that children's authors have taken in exploring death in their works.]

Part of growing up is realizing and gradually accepting the fact of death. An increasing number of realistic fiction stories develop themes related to the acceptance of death and the overcoming of emotional problems following the death of a loved one. As might be expected, different authors treat the subject differently, depending on the developmental level of their intended readers. Differences in cause of conflict, characterization, resolution of conflict, depth of emotional involvement, and themes are apparent in books of realistic fiction about death. Consider how several authors develop these areas in books written for younger readers, preadolescents, and teenagers. For comparative purposes, consider Charlotte Graeber's Mustard and Eve Bunting's The Empty Window written for younger readers; Constance C. Greene's Beat the Turtle Drum and Peggy Mann's There Are Two Kinds of Terrible written for ten- to twelve-year-olds; and Judy Blume's Tiger Eyes and Richard Peck's Remembering the Good Times written for readers in their early teens; and Robert Cormier's The Bumblebee Flies Anyway written for teenagers and young adults.

In Charlotte Graeber's Mustard, a book for young children, members of a family share the sorrow following a fourteen-year-old cat's heart attack and their decision to let the veterinarian help the cat die in peace. Graeber focuses on the importance of the pet to a young boy and encourages readers to understand this relationship to the cat by describing his disbelief in the cat's ailments and his reactions after the pet dies. When Alex and his father go to the pet shelter to donate some of Mustard's things, Alex declines the offer of a kitten because he does not have room at the moment for anything but memories of Mustard. In another year he may be ready for a pet, he says. This resolution encourages readers to understand that healing takes time, memories are worth retaining, and family members can help each other in times of sadness.

Eve Bunting's picture storybook The Empty Window explores a boy's feelings of fear, guilt, and sadness as he faces the death of his best friend. C. G. realizes he has been afraid to see his dying friend when he recognizes that the time spent in capturing a wild parrot who lived in the tree outside his friend's window was an excuse for not visiting him. Joe teaches C. G. something about the meaning of life when he thanks him for the parrot but asks him to release it because "once the parrots were free and then someone caught them and caged them, but they go free again. That's why I like them" (unnumbered). Bunting also makes an important point about people who may be critically ill. C. G. realizes that although Joe is dying he has not changed. They can still sit and talk as they did before.

Two examples of stories written for ten-through twelve-year-olds have more fully developed characters and deal with the more difficult emotions related to adjusting to the death of a family member. Constance C. Greene's Beat the Turtle Drum develops the basis for a girl's reactions to her sister's accidental death by describing the warm relationship between ten-year-old Joss and her twelve-year-old sister and best friend Kate. Kate believes that her parents prefer her younger sister. After Joss dies as a result of a fall from a tree, Kate faces both the sorrow of losing a friend and the inner conflict resulting from her belief that her sister was the favorite. Greene encourages readers to glimpse Kate's inner turmoil when she finally admits her feelings to an understanding relative, who responds:

I bet Joss would've felt the same way. If it'd been you, she might've said the same thing. And both of you would've been wrong. I think when a child dies, it's the saddest thing that could ever happen. And the next saddest is the way the brothers and sisters feel. They feel guilty, because they fought or were jealous or lots of things. And here they are, alive, and the other one is dead. And there's nothing they can do. It'll take time, Kate.

(p. 105)

Kate gradually understands that resolution of her grief and conflicting emotions will take more than a moment, but that she will receive pleasure from her memories of Joss.

In There Are Two Kinds of Terrible, Peggy Mann compares a boy's emotions when he breaks his arm and when his mother dies of cancer. Robbie can recover from the first kind of terrible, but the second kind is irreversible. Still, his mother's death actually brings him closer to his distant father, who is suffering intense grief too.

The believable characters in Richard Peck's Remembering the Good Times help readers in their teens identify with this story about the suicide of a best friend. Peck first carefully develops the distinct personalities of two boys and a girl in their junior-high years. Kate is involved with people and believes in herself; Buck does not know which group he belongs with; and Trav is angry, unsure of himself, and afraid of the future. Peck develops the main person-versus-self conflict by describing Trav's increasing fears as he discusses current events, as he reacts to evidence that he is expected to grow up to be like his very successful parents, and as he becomes angry when he feels that he is not being prepared for the realities of life. The author develops a strong relationship among the three friends. After Trav's suicide, Kate admonishes herself because she did not notice the little things that should have warned them about Trav's approaching suicide. The author explores various responses to Trav's death, as high school administrators blame parents, parents blame the school, a knowledgeable older friend states the community's real responsibility, and Kate and Buck discover that they can remember the good times of their friendship.

The cause of the conflict in Blume's story for older readers, Tiger Eyes, is both the sudden, violent death of a parent and a society that creates such violence. The author develops a person-against-self conflict as a teenage girl, Davey, tries to adjust emotionally and physically to the death of her father, who was a robbery victim. Blume also develops a person-against-society conflict as the characters respond to and reflect about a society in which there is violent death, vandalism, excessive teenage tension, and powerful weapons. The author's characterization encourages readers to understand Davey's turmoil. Blume shows Davey's emotional ties with her father; her physical reactions when she faces peers (she faints at school but cannot tell the nurse her problem); her need for a quiet place to reflect; her interactions with a man dying from cancer and an uncle who will not allow her to take chances but designs weapons at Los Alamos; and her interactions with two friends who are also facing inner conflicts. The resolution of the conflicts requires considerable time, but Davey can finally face what happened, tell new friends how her father died, and consider her own future.

The setting in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, Robert Cormier's psychological novel for teenagers and young adults, is a terminal care facility in which a sixteen-year-old boy realizes that his treatment is only experimental and that he is actually dying. Peck uses symbolism to convey Barney's feelings about being a terminally ill guinea pig: "the complex" is a facility for experimental medicine; "the Handyman" is a doctor who treats the patients and creates illusions; "the merchandise" is special medicines, chemicals, and drugs that are calculated to produce expected responses; and "the bumblebee" is a sportscar in a junkyard that at first appears to be shining and new, but that is actually only a cardboard mockup of reality.

All these stories about death deal with irreversible problems that are very difficult to experience. Consequently, individual children's responses to the books may be very personal. An eight-year-old said he felt better after reading The Empty Window. He had a friend who was very ill; he was pleased that someone else felt like he did. An eleven-year-old, however, began to read Two Kinds of Terrible and then could not finish it. She said she did not want to read a book that reminded her that her mother might die. Several responses by fourteen-year-olds to Tiger Eyes demonstrate how very personal reactions to realistic fiction can be. One reader said, "This is not a good book to read in class. You need to be by yourself so you can cry if you want to." Another child said, "It's great. You get into the story and forget everything. I was afraid Davey was going to kill herself, but I thought, Judy Blume wouldn't kill her main character." A third reader said that the story was sad but its moral was happy: "Take a chance on your talents; planning someone's life for them doesn't make them happy; it's always better to face the truth rather than run from it; life is a great adventure; you can't go back in time. So pick up the pieces and move ahead; and some changes happen down inside of you and only you know about them." These responses indicate that a fourteen-year-old grasped many of the complex themes Blume wove into her novel. It is also interesting to note that the themes the reader identified are positive rather than negative glimpses of life.

Barbara Kiefer (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Kiefer, Barbara "The Disturbing Image in Children's Picture Books: Fearful or Fulfilling?." In Battling Dragons: Issues and Controversy in Children's Literature, edited by Susan Lehr, pp. 51-62. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995.

[In the following essay, Kiefer evaluates how difficult issues such as death are tackled in picture books and debates whether this material is appropriae for the targeted age group of picture books. Kiefer concludes that teachers and parents should not be uncomfortable with such material as it may prove useful in teaching important life lessons.]

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David Rees (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Rees, David. "Timor Mortis Conturbat Me: E. B. White and Doris Buchanan Smith." In The Marble in the Water: Essays on Contemporary Writers of Fiction for Children and Young Adults, pp. 68-77. Boston, Mass.: Horn Books, 1980.

[In the following essay, Rees compares how the death of animals is portrayed in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries, arguing that White's approach to death is both better written and more understandable for young readers.]

Victorian writers of children's fiction had no worries about frightening or horrifying their readers, particularly if they felt it encouraged the young to be good. Death is a common subject in their novels and it is sometimes dwelt on quite lingeringly. Of course death seemed closer to the Victorians than it does to us, not only because of the high infant mortality rate, but because the habit of regular church-going made children aware, at least once a week, of graveyards in which quite probably a brother or a sister was buried. The whole business of funerals was not left, as we leave it, to a firm of faceless undertakers; children would see bodies being "laid out" in their own homes. Catherine Storr said, in "Fear and Evil in Children's Books," that "we are much more squeamish than our forebears were." The Victorians, she added, wrote about death with "loving detail," and "they wrote about poverty, brutality, lunacy, feeblemindedness, alcoholism, gross injustice and various other sordid aspects of life which we would probably hesitate to introduce to children now." With the exception of sex; that is a subject which we can write about in books for young readers, whereas the Victorians left it severely alone.

Death, on the other hand, causes all sorts of problems for us in children's fiction that did not bother them. It is usually an acceptable subject these days in a story for teenagers, though even here there are occasional cries of alarm. Ivan Southall's Finn's Folly was greeted by a generally hostile press everywhere, not just because it was a bad novel—and certainly it's overwritten, strains credulity, piles one Grand Guignol effect on top of another—but because it opened with a car crash in which several people were violently killed. It was a book many people thought was irresponsible. Geoff Fox, however, points out in "Growth and Masquerade" that teenage readers disagree with this assessment; they feel that it would be dishonest of Southall to evade the issue of sudden and violent death, which, after all, happens in some place or other every day of the week. I think the teenagers are right. Hundreds of children each year have one or both parents snatched from them in such a way; why shouldn't there be novels which deal with the subject, which may well help the young to come to terms with bereavement? Writers and publishers, it seems to me, consistently underestimate what is "suitable" for children in matters that are frightening and horrifying. We are, as Catherine Storr says, more squeamish than our forebears.

If death is at times a difficult problem in the teenage novel, it is almost completely taboo in books for younger readers, particularly in fiction for seven-to-ten-year-olds where it is conspicuous by its nearly total absence. The one great modern classic about death, however, is, as everyone knows, E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. The author plunges us straight into the topic on the first page, no holds barred:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

"Out to the hoghouse," replied Mrs. Arable. "Some pigs were born last night."

"I don't see why he needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight.

"Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it."

"Do away with it?" shrieked Fern. "You mean kill it? Just because it's smaller than the others?"

Mr. Arable, of course, isn't the sadistic killer he appears to be here, and the pig, Wilbur, is saved—for the time being: the death sentence hangs over him throughout most of the book. Charlotte, the spider, saves him in the end, but there's no cosy sentimentality about this: she dies herself. It's an interesting risk that White takes, for Charlotte is, after Wilbur, the most important character in the story. We become involved with her, like her, know her as a person. So her death is much sadder than if she had been eliminated in the opening chapter, at a point in the narrative where we were not so involved. She dies as a result of giving birth to five hundred and fourteen baby spiders, and the point that White makes, that death is an inevitable and necessary part of the whole scheme of things, is made acceptable by the emphasis he puts, after Charlotte dies, on the joy and happiness of birth, not only of the spiders, but of all the young animals on the farm. The contrast between these two passages, very close to each other in the text, is striking:

She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn. The infield was littered with bottles and trash. Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.

The snows melted and ran away. The streams and ditches bubbled and chattered with rushing water. A sparrow with a streaky breast arrived and sang. The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte's old web floated away and vanished.

That "no one was with her when she died" is particularly chilling, but, by the end of the second quotation, it seems less so; life continues and there is as much joy as there is grief. The reference to Charlotte's old web floating away isn't chilling at all; everything is in fact in its right place. The resolution of the book is splendid.

But—and it's a very important but—characters in Charlotte's Web, those who are born and who die in the story, are talking animals. It used to be said that this was the only way White could have dealt with his material, that young children could take the idea of death when it happened to a talking spider, but not if he had chosen a human being. This argument, I suppose, is analogous to another commonly held view of the subject, that our lives may be devastated by the death of someone who is close to us, but we remain more or less unmoved by the sight on our television screen of corpses in Northern Ireland or Cambodia or wherever the world's hot spot of the moment happens to be. There is a flaw in the argument, however, when it is applied to E. B. White's book. Charlotte isn't just a talking spider; she may be a spider in appearance and in some of her functions such as web-building, but she speaks and feels and thinks like a human being. To all intents and purposes she is a woman, a comfortable middle-aged aunt, indeed to Wilbur more than that: she's a mother-substitute. Certainly she's not a remote figure in a faraway place, like a dying baddie in a Western film or a Nicaraguan rebel, seen on TV, killed in a civil war. Young children, in reading Charlotte's Web, do experience, therefore, some of the feelings they might well have if someone dies whom they know intimately.

In Rumer Godden's The Diddakoi, which is a book likely to be read by children of the same age as those who would read Charlotte's Web, one of the characters dies: Kizzy's grandmother. But it isn't the central issue, shattering though the death is to Kizzy. The author is concerned with a lot of other things, such as the Romany child's adjustment to a life-style very different from the one she's known; the kindness and antagonism shown by the villagers; the relationship between the Admiral and Miss Brooke, and so on. The impact of the death on the reader is therefore much less strong than is the death of Charlotte, crowded out by other matters; and the event itself is announced in the gentlest possible terms:

Admiral Twiss had found her late that morning lying underneath the wagon and had guessed at once what had happened. Travellers are laid in the open air when they are dying; they do not like to die inside, not even in their wagons, and Gran was peaceful on the frozen grass with Joe quietly cropping tufts alongside.

Admiral Twiss is softening the blow as much as he can for Kizzy's sake, but one can't help feeling that the author is also, to some extent, sheltering the child reader, even if she doesn't spare Kizzy when Gran's wagon has to be burned:

They were burning the wagon; as Kizzy watched, the body sank, came away from the wheels and the roof fell in. "But why?" asked Kizzy. "Why?" The words seemed to be wrung out of her.

But maybe it's easier to dwell on a burning wagon than a dying woman.

In A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, however, we do have a story for young children in which death—sudden and inexplicable—is the main theme, and it is a book in which the characters are not talking animals. It received wide critical acclaim in both the United States and in England when it first appeared, but, interestingly, it does not seem to be a book which librarians and parents hurry to give to their children. As literature, it is not in the same league as Charlotte's Web; it doesn't have the perfection of narrative shape that White achieves, nor has it either the distinction of his prose style, the excellence of his dialogue, the subtlety of his humor. (The conversation in Charlotte's Web between Mrs. Arable and the doctor is a particularly rich piece of comedy, working in several different ways at once.) After E. B. White's achievement, A Taste of Blackberries seems flat, all on one level, and too didactic: the moral of "don't accept lifts from strangers," for example, sticks through the brief thunderstorm episode in glaring capital letters. However, the chief purpose of the book is to write about death in a fashion that young readers can take, and in this Doris Buchanan Smith succeeds admirably.

Jamie, a lively, engaging youngster who is very much the leader of the pack, and best friend of the narrator (it's a first-person story in which the 'I' is inexplicably and irritatingly not given a name), has an allergy to bee stings, but no one knows this. About one third of the way through the story, when the author has given herself enough time and space to establish Jamie's character to the point where we are involved with him and his adventures, he dies—stung by a bee. It seems to the people who witness the event, Mrs. Houser and the children, to be so impossible that they can't take in the information:

Sure enough, it was Jamie, lying still and pale, with his eyes closed. His mother was even paler. She piled into the back with one of the attendants. The other man hopped into the driver's seat and they sped off with a wail. Mrs. Houser stood in the doorway and everyone was quiet.

"What's the matter?" a voice broke the silence.

"All I know is he got stung."

"Stung? Huh! Look at me. I got stung eleven times!" The speaker began to point out his various swollen spots smeared with soda paste.

"Is he dead?"

"Don't be crazy," I said. "Nobody dies of bee stings."

But dead he is; and the nervous, jerky quality of the writing in this extract—even if "piled" and "hopped" sound jarringly wrong—suggests that deep down they know he is dead, but are unable, for the moment, to admit it.

The rest of the book deals with picking up the pieces and coming to terms. Jamie's friend is stunned: unable to eat, unable to accept his parents' sympathy; for a while unable to cry, he withdraws into himself, nursing his grief like a festering wound. The writing here is direct and honest; that adults don't know the answers any more than children do is a point made quite explicit when he asks Mrs. Mullins why Jamie had to die:

"Honey, one of the hardest things we have to learn is that some questions do not have answers." I nodded. This made more sense than if she tried to tell me some junk about God needing angels.

God and angels or not, Mrs. Mullins's answer does make sense and what she says is a lesson a child has to learn. The narrator feels guilty, somehow responsible for the death—an excellent touch this: even for adults there is always the feeling of "if I hadn't done this, that wouldn't have happened" and children feel even more keenly a sense of guilt when a marriage breaks up or a parent or a friend dies. It must be my fault, they think; it would not have occurred otherwise.

In A Taste of Blackberries the boy goes to the funeral, and well done, too, is the sense of detachment, of unreality that funerals sometimes produce in people, a feeling that is really a part of the symptom of shock:

A man got up and started talking and reading the Bible. He had some blue stripes in his tie that exactly matched the flowers on top of the casket. The matching blues held my attention over the droning of his words.

The prose here is deliberately drab and lifeless, almost like meaningless details observed in a dream, and the dreamlike state of the narrator's mind is emphasized again a few lines later:

There was a quiet shift around me. Everyone was standing. Their standing pulled me up too, like reverse gravity.

Slowly and quietly things move back to normal. But the boy does not feel himself on the way to being healed until he goes to talk to Jamie's mother, something he has previously been unable to do, so strong is his sense of guilt. Nothing much is said; he gives her a basket of blackberries and she thanks him. But it's enough:

"How nice," she said. "I'll bake a pie. And you be sure to come slam the door for me now and then."

She understands what he feels and is unable to say, and he senses this; it's the kind of release he has been needing. With this touching, delicately handled exchange the story ends. The pieces have been picked up and mended as far as is possible.

There is absolutely nothing in this story that a young child cannot take in, nor is there any reason to suppose that it would be unduly upsetting—not that we can ever predict what is likely to upset individual children; they can absorb disgusting atrocities with surprising ease and then be terrified by something like the noise of a lavatory cistern. It is often said that if a youngster is put through a frightening experience in a book, then there should be a proper resolution, something to redress the balance so that the reader is not excessively alarmed. But it's impossible to legislate. The story that upset me as a child more than any other was a rather silly tale about a haunted manor house in which the ghost is unmasked at the end by some children: he's the butler, dressed up in a sheet, trying to steal the silver candlesticks. A proper resolution, one might think, but this piece of nonsense terrified me out of my wits in a way that not even the brutalities of Coral Island or the evil and horror of blind Pew in Treasure Island could manage.

Even so, having said that, I think it's probable that the majority of children reading A Taste of Blackberries or having it read to them will be comforted rather than bewildered or frightened. We don't have the same facility for coping with death that previous generations had, and our children need some sort of machinery for helping them to deal with it. A Taste of Blackberries is a quite reasonable start, and so, in a different way, is Charlotte's Web: at the end of the latter book it would be all too easy for the author, writing about the joys of birth and springtime, to forget Charlotte completely, but, very properly, he puts just a touch of melancholy into his concluding lines:

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

Things can't ever be quite the same as they were, he seems to be saying, whatever good times may come; it would be an insult to the dead to forget them completely, to say that what they did and what they stood for is ultimately of no importance. Again this seems to me to be comforting, not depressing. White is telling the child that he is allowed to mourn; that he is allowed to remember with a certain sadness. So is Doris Buchanan Smith. These two authors are saying things that are necessary, and which help children to cope and to grow.


E. B. White. Charlotte's Web. Harper 1952; Hamish Hamilton 1952.

Doris Buchanan Smith. A Taste of Blackberries. Crowell 1973; Heinemann 1975.

Rumer Godden. The Diddakoi. Macmillan, London, 1972; Viking 1972.

Ivan Southall. Finn's Folly. Angus & Robertson 1969; St. Martin 1969.

Catherine Storr. "Fear and Evil in Children's Books." Children's Literature in Education, March, 1970.

Geoff Fox. "Growth and Masquerade." Children's Literature in Education, November 1971.

R. M. Ballantyne. Coral Island, first published in 1857.

R. L. Stevenson. Treasure Island, first published in 1883.



Huse, Nancy. "The Blank Mirror of Death." Lion and the Unicorn 12, no. 1 (June 1988): 28-43.

Examines how death is used by four modern children's fantasy writers to "validate present reality."

Kingston, Carolyn T. "The Tragic Moment: Loss." In The Tragic Mode in Children's Literature, pp. 124-52. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, 1974.

Provides a canonical analysis of children's books with death and loss as their primary subject.

Kunczt, Kim. "Beyond Anne Frank." Educational Leadership 51, no. 3 (November 1993): 35.

Discusses how studying The Diary of Anne Frank can impact the lives of students.

Lenz, Millicent. "Story as a Bridge to Transformation: The Way beyond Death in Phillip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass." Children's Literature in Education 34, no. 1 (March 2003): 47-55.

Assesses the treatment of death and life in Pullman's The Amber Spyglass.

McGeorge, Colin. "Death and Violence in Some Victorian School Reading Books." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 2 (1998): 109-17.

Analyzes the prevalent presence of death in Victorian school books.

Pyles, Marian S. "The Death of a Pet." In Death and Dying in Children's and Young People's Literature: A Survey and Bibliography, pp. 32-62. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1988.

Reviews how authors have attempted to use the death of animals as a way of introducing death to young readers.

Rosenthal, Lynne. "To Be or Not to Be: Suicide in Literature for Young People." Lion and the Unicorn 12, no. 1 (June 1988): 19-27.

Discusses how suicide in portrayed in novels for young adults.

Stallcup, Jackie E. "Power, Fear, and Children's Picture Books." Annual of the Modern Language Association Division on Children's Literature and the Children's Literature Association 30 (2002): 125-58.

Addresses subtextual issues of subversion and empowerment used in modern picture books meant to address such concerns as fear and death for children.

Walker, Maxine. "Last Rites for Young Readers." Children's Literature in Education 9, no. 4 (1978): 188-97.

Walker provides a historical context to how various time periods illustrated death in its literature for children.

Wilson, Jacqueline. "Not in Front of the Children!" Signal 94 (January 2001): 17-28.

Reprints Wilson's lecture regarding how unpleasant issues such as death and mortality are addressed in children's books.

Wooden, Warren W. "Childhood and Death: A Reading of John Skelton's Philip Sparrow." In Children's Literature of the English Renaissance, edited by Jeanie Watson, pp. 39-54. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.

Offers a critical reading of Philip Sparrow, Skelton's late medieval/early Renaissance poem for children.

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The Treatment of Death in Children's Literature

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The Treatment of Death in Children's Literature