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  • Death in Children's Literature:Taboo or Not Taboo?
  • Lois Rauch Gibson (bio) and Laura M. Zaidman (bio)

Children's literature often mirrors our society, reflecting its complexities, its joys, and its sorrows. Books that present death in a manner understandable to children introduce them to the world as it is perceived at a particular time and in a particular place. In centuries past, when high infant mortality rates were common, death's dark shadow often cast gloom in children's books. As children and adults began to live longer, death as a subject in books for the young became taboo.

When books expressly for children first appeared in English, they were often about death. James Janeway's A Token for Children (1671) is the obvious example. The rest of its title reads An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemphry Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children, and its avowed purpose is to help save little readers from damnation. The American version, published in 1700 by Cotton Mather, adds new tales to Janeway's text to provide compatriot spiritual role models to its very mortal readers. The precariousness of life and the importance of salvation are stressed in these books, both because of the values of the society that produced them and because of the incredibly high infant and child mortality rates. Estimates indicate that, at the very least, 200 of every 1000 babies born during this time in England died within the first year (McKeown and Brown 285-306). In Great Britain today, the infant mortality rate is 8.8 per 1000 ('Infant Mortality Rates" 20). Furthermore, during the eighteenth century, one doctor in Manchester believed that one half the children born in London before 1770 died within two years, while in Manchester, one half died by age five (Wilson 368; see also George Ch. 1, passim, and 406-410, 215-218). In light of such statistics, it is no surprise that preachers and parents used every available means, including children's books, to help save children's souls from eternal damnation.

As infant mortality rates decreased and other social and religious changes occurred, children's deaths became less prominent in literature. Works like Sarah Fielding's The Governess: or The Little Female Academy (1749) and Thomas Day's The History of Sandford and Merton (1783-89) emphasize socialization rather than salvation. While child deaths do not entirely disappear, they gradually become part of a larger context. For example, the Hummel baby and Beth March both die in Little Women (1867), but most of the children in that book survive. Death has become an event that may occur during childhood, but not one that parents must teach children to expect.

At the same time, parents' deaths continue to play a role in children's books; frequently these seem to occur less as a warning about death than as a plot device designed to place children in new, often precarious, situations—or to free them for adventures. One thinks of Little Goody Two Shoes (1765) who shows her resourcefulness after being orphaned and then forced out of a foster home; or of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Sarah Crewe, Mary Lennox, and Cedric Enrol, a century later, whose lives are much changed by the loss of a parent at or just before the start of the stories. Without diminishing these books, one might note that a similar plot device works in animal stories: Babar and Bambi spring instantly to mind. Caroline Hunt notes (in this issue) that, in recent adolescent literature, the death of a parent continues to play a role in the positive psychological development of the surviving child. But, in spite of this parallel, the presence of death in children's books has not remained at a constant level. As death moved out of the home and into the hospital, it also nearly disappeared from children's books. Perhaps it became more comfortable to keep death sanitary if not invisible and never to say the word. As Masha Rudman puts it, in the twentieth century, "until very recently, books dealing realistically with the topic of death were almost in the same category as pornography" (326). We...


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