Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Death and YA Literature

If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a, bed of roses
Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song

"If I Die Young" by The Band Perry was playing on the radio as I was driving into work last year. When the song ended, the DJ (Minnesota's attempt at a shock jock - a happily married man with college-aged children trying to sound edgy) came on the air and commented that this was a terrible song. I was puzzled, because I thought it was quite catchy. He said it glorified dying young and that was a horrible message to send to teen listeners in particular. The more I thought about it, the more I thought he was right.

When you're a teen, dying somehow sounds romantic. Why else is the phrase "Live fast, die young" so iconic? Not that the innate fear of death or the desire to live is absent. But it seems so wonderfully dramatic. You fantasize about who would go to your funeral. How the boy you've been crushing on for years will break down and confess that he always liked you but never had the courage to say anything. Your friends will be devastated and will sob dramatically. Your enemies will be overcome with remorse.

Most teens ignore the reality of death - or at least gloss over the most significant aspects. There's the part about being dead, of course, which would be lousy for many different reasons. I don't think most teenagers comprehend the complete devastation their families would experience if they died. Realistically, a teenage boyfriend will not spend a life of celibacy mourning your loss. Your friends will grieve, but they will grow up, meet new people, and have different experiences. You will fall back into the recesses of their mind, recalled only occasionally with a twinge of sadness. But your parents and siblings will never recover. Will never be the same. There's nothing romantic about the death of a child or a sibling.

Death is one of the most prevalent topics in YA literature. To be fair, it is an ever-present topic in all genres of literature, both modern and ancient. We need look no further than Romeo and Juliet to see a tale lauding the beauty of dying for young love.

In the modern YA realm, far too many novels romanticize death, but a surprising amount also realistically describe the devastation of a teen's death. In a sweeping over-generalization, the romanticizing books can be broken down into two categories: (1) Fatal disease and (2) Self-sacrificing.

Sentimental Treatment of Death

Fatal Disease

The best representation of the fatal disease category is Lurlene McDaniel, but many other authors have written similar books. How I lapped those books up as a teen! These characters had cancer, diabetes, heart defects, AIDs, and plenty of other problems, but they all had such drama filled lives. Even when they were suffering and dying, the pain seemed uplifting and hopeful. And there was always a handsome, sensitive boy involved. It made me lament that my body was so stubbornly healthy.


The self-sacrificing category sends a much more troubling message. I'm not talking about teens who risk their lives to save the good of mankind or stories about people taking incredible risks during wartime. I'm talking more about teenage girl characters who are willing to die to save their boyfriends. As a fantasy, throwing yourself on a pyre for love is laudable and certainly makes for an enticing story. But few of these books focus on the harsh realities that the departed heroine would leave behind.

Let's consider Twilight, for example. Bella does all sorts of stupid, dangerous things over the course of the series, including being willing to sacrifice herself to save Edward (and also her mother). She rarely thinks about the effect her death would have on Charlie or her mother (other than the time she's thinks she's saving her mother). It's all about helping the love of her life. Similarly, in the Iron Fey series, Meghan disappears into the Never Never. Granted, she is going in there to save her little brother, which is admirable. But the series focuses barely touches on the horror her mother and stepfather must have felt at her absence.

Realistic Discussion of Death

In some cases, YA novels deal with the aftermath of death quite well. Generally, these are books where a sibling has died (or a parent). One of the best examples I can think of is The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. Ms. Nelson's skillful prose portrays a forever changed family after the death of Lennie's sister Bailey. If I Stay by Gayle Forman is another heartbreaking book. We feel the horror and grief of Mia's potential death and the loss of her parents and little brother. I haven't read Where She Went yet, but I imagine it also deals with the hard reality well. Another book that I presume is a realistic portrayal of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher which I have not read.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is getting a lot of attention lately. Everyone, including me, loves it (my review). In some ways, it glorifies cancer through Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac's frequent gallows humor that makes cancer and death seem funny. But by the time you finish the book, you won't think cancer or death is "cool" at all. Unlike most books, the characters' physical and mental pain is never sugarcoated. It strips away your dignity, your hopes, your simple pleasures. Mr. Green also painted a visceral portrait of how the characters' illnesses impacted their families. What happens when "you're not a mother anymore?" When you see your friends die? The readers' hearts are torn apart in this book. You wouldn't wish this life on your worst enemy.

The treatment of death as a theme in YA novels is mixed. While I dislike an unrealistically romantic view of death as a message, I would never advocate censoring novels or even discouraging a teen from reading such a book. These books are a wonderful opportunity to broker a discussion about what death really means and how grief will effect one's life. It would be a fascinating topic for a book club or English class - to read one book portraying death sentimentally and one showcasing its aftermath.

How do you think the YA genre generally handles death?

What books over-sentimentalize death? What books portray death realistically?/


  1. You are so right, regardless of the perspective a book provides on death it is indeed a great opportunity for discussion. I think one reason that dying young is made into a sort of martyrdom is because of the lost potential ...

  2. Interesting post. For the most part YA uses death (usually of a parent) to isolate the main character to make them vulnerable or show why a boy is so guarded. (not always)

    What stuck out to me in your post though is that stories rarely show how the hero/heroine's actions effect those around them. I always wonder about how everyone else is feeling but it's rarely shown on the page and I think we're just supposed to accept that it works out in the end so it was for the best no matter who it may hurt.

    It always makes me think a little less of the main character though. I know I'm not really supposed to think about all that but I can't help it.

    13 Reasons Why and Where She Went really do address and deal with death in a beautiful/honest way. They both show the consequences to people's actions.

  3. You make some good points, but I don't see "Romeo and Juliet" as a beautiful, tragic romance. In fact I don't see R&J as a romance at all, but rather the stupidity of two hormone driven teens. They don't die because of love but of the ever-consuming hatred and are collateral damage.
    As a Tw fan, I never saw Bella as self-sacrificing. Yes, she does protect her mother in bk. 1 but it always seemed as if it was an added bonus and secondary to the higher importance of showing Edward his humanity. I still think Bella is very selfish and BD shows it unerringly.
    I do agree that If I Stay shows the painful discussion of grief and death, but it also beautifully demonstrates the ability to persevere. "Where She Went" deals much more of the aftermath and the sense of guilt that comes with losing the one you love and mourning.
    13 Reasons Why discusses suicide and I'm not sure if it's a good realization of death per se but rather how much an influence people can have each other's lives.

  4. It all depends on the author. Some glorify it and whatnot, but the majority I've read have done a decent job at being realistic about it. Like 'Revolution' by Jennifer Donnelly. The main character's little brother died and the story follows he family in the aftermath. The family is going through Hell. It all depends on how the author presents the aftermath.

  5. "I'm talking more about teenage girl characters who are willing to die to save their boyfriends."

    I agree that this type of romanticized notion of death can be troubling. Majority of the time, I remember that it's a work of fiction and therefore things are going to be a bit more dramatic, but there have been a couple instances where I've gone "NO!". I don't like it when something happens to a male character and the female character is convinced she can no longer go on living and contemplates ending her own life. I've read a couple YA books where this has happened and I'm like what are you telling young women? That a boy is so important to life's happiness that you literally can't live without him? Yikes.

    Like I said though, most of the time I think you have to acknowledge the difference between reality and fiction, and I think most YA fiction gives due gravity to the issue.

  6. This is a post that made me think.

    I have serious reservations about Bella's actions throughout the twilight series. She is almost obssesive.

    A book with a fatally ill teen that I found really realistic was Before I die. Yes, there is a sensitive boyfriend. But through the course of the book, you can also feel the girl's life and strength draining away.

    Is it only me or is majority of the glorified death scenarios surrounding girls?? I mean I am yet ot find a book where a boy jumped into ocean to have delusions about his girl friend.

  7. The YA Genre, I think, handles it pretty well, to me, because people are always grieving and depressed afterwards, but at the same time because if the amount of paranormal content out there, people make the people who died having died with a sort of "dignity," I guess. And the people you love (like romance choices) never really die, either, except in some cases.

    The Fault in Our Stars handles death pretty well, actually, because I think that it shows how the person you love and want to be with won't always live through a tragic ending, even though I really hate some authors who decide to do that, and trust me, I've read two different paranormal books this week that did that. -.-

  8. This is a great discussion post. Like you, I feel that when death is glossed over as an abstract concept it doesn't really help anyone. I'm not saying teens or anyone should think about death all the time, but I much prefer when it is handled realistically.

    I haven't read The Fault in Our Stars and I don't think I will. Just reading about it in your post made me tear up. But really, it does sound like the author handled the subject well.

  9. Your right. There is death in a lot of YA books now that I think about it. And yeah sometimes I think it can be too much. Buthte death that affects me the most are realistic death. Authors like Lurlene Mcdaniel or Megan Bostic. Real deaths that like that always get me in the heart.

    The other stuff like Twilight and stuff, I don't really chaulk that up to anything cause well it all fantasy to me.

  10. Gah! I wish I had time to read and comment in depth--but I'm overwhelmed this week. Will have to bookmark and come back when I have a bit of time. Great topic!

  11. Death and YA certainly isn't an easy topic to tackle, but you've done an outstanding job, as usual Alison.

  12. I grew up reading SF and fantasy, where the death of a parent is a field promotion to adulthood. First you get orphaned, then you go on adventures! At some point, you say, "My name is Inigo Montoya..."

    In contemporary YA, I have a pet theory that authors just need a way to raise the dramatic stakes. They don't have dragons, spaceships, time travel, or nifty thought experiments about future societies, so...somebody has to die and then we have to talk about it for 200 pages.

  13. I actually haven't really paid much attention to it in the books I've read. You've mentioned Twilight and I do see what you're saying. I haven't read any contemporary fiction about death unless you count an LDS fiction novel by Jack Wayland and that was at least 20 years ago so I don't remember much.

    I'll have to pay more attention to it and see what I think about it.

  14. Great post! And I love If I Die Young. As you said it's really catchy, and it does NOT make me want to kill myself. :D
    I usually don't like death in my book, but I just read If I Stay, and it was fantastic.

  15. Great post. When I was an actual YA- I don't think death was a common feature in the books that were available to me. They were all pretty positive (and boring). I don't think that death is glorified in YA necessarily, it's just more present.

  16. I love that song, and since I first heard it around the time some of my friends died in a terrible car accident and another of leuchemia, I never saw it as glorifying death, rather a reminder that death happens to young people as well.

    I just finished reading One Moment Kristina McBride, it's contemporary YA about with how a single moment can lead to a tragedy, and for the most part focuses on the aftermath of a teenager's death. I highly recommend it :)


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