Death in Children's Literature
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Death 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 [End Page 104] 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...