- Representing Death in Children's Literature:Border Crossings
Borders are material and people made. Borders are constructed and negotiated as humans and environments interact. These four new texts evoke and challenge the border between life and death. The young and adolescent characters deal with the death of family members, a pet, and a friend. The books show how characters observe, experience, commemorate, and, in one case, defy crossing the border between life and death. These books also defy the representation of death in contemporary children's literature by recasting death and grieving as nuanced, complex, and diverse. [End Page 274]
The representation of death in children's literature gained prominence in the 1970s because of its use in bibliotherapy: the practice of using books to heal children from emotional and psychological difficulties (Crago). Adults reached for noteworthy children's books like The Dead Bird (Brown), The Tenth Good Thing about Barney (Viorst), and Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs (dePaola) to support dialogues about death. These iconic texts showcase child characters' emotional responses and emerging ritual practice and afterlife beliefs. Devereaux A. Poling and Julie M. Hupp's 2008 study of death-themed books notes emotional responses, socio-cultural practices, and biological facts are recurring aspects in rendering death in children's literature (166). Biological facts about death include irreversibility, inevitability, and causality. Socio-cultural practices consist of rituals and afterlife beliefs. "Deathways" like funerals, memorial services, and beliefs about heaven commemorate dying and support grieving (Murphy 170). Characters' emotional responses such as sadness, anger, longing, guilt, denial, and acceptance, however, are the most represented aspect of death in children's literature (K. James 10; Poling and Hupp 170). Death is inseparable from life.
Death is socially constructed (K. James 10). Its biological facts, emotional responses, and socio-cultural practices are culturally shaped as characters engage in these plotlines. The materiality—how characters participate and use the networks and resources within contexts—and social practices connected to death offer insights into how cultures work. This review considers four new publications, three picture books and one young adult novel, that engage with these death-related aspects: addressing the illness and death of a pet, the loss of a grandmother, a family funeral, and secret adventures mapped out by a deceased character. We apply this social theoretical understanding of death as we consider the children's books in this review.
Paws and Edward (Dekko) brings the reader up close to the biological processes of and emotional response to an ailing pet's end of life. Paws, a large yellow dog who loves to chase rabbits, cats, cars, and airplanes, is centre stage in this text. The third-person perspective offers an expansive view of Paws's waning energy, while the short exchanges between Paws and Edward show their deep connection. Paws just wants to lie down, rest, sleep, and [End Page 275] observe his boy Edward while he loses interest in eating, drinking, and life. Edward notices these changes and gives him hugs as Paws slips into "sleep without dreams."
Lightheartedness permeates the beginning of this magical realistic picture book. The cover, when opened, is a large poster of Paws with his owner sitting on his back. In the double-spreads of Paws and Edward's life together, we see the last days of Paws's life. The bold hues and simple line drawings exude a deep affection between these two characters. This story was first published in Swedish before it was translated into English. The Swedish book cover renders Paws and Edward in a plausible scale with Paws walking alongside Edward. The author is a puppeteer, an artform that might have informed the representation of this story. The puppeteer manipulates puppets...