Friday, 20 April 2012

Death and the teen reader by Keren David

Death is a favourite subject for YA authors. Dead boyfriends, dead siblings, dead friends. Teens hovering between life and death. Murder. Suicide. Terminal illness. And that's not even going near the paranormals.

I think it's natural and good that teens would want to read and think about death. It's sad but true that most of us will suffer bereavement  in our teen years. My husband's dad died when my husband was 17. His teenage years were scarred by his beloved dad's illness and loss. Books which tackle big subjects like death, illness, suicide and bereavement help teens understand what they or their friends might be going through. It should never be a taboo subject.

But when I read a lot of teen books, I often worry about the way I see death and bereavement portrayed. In fact I find it bothers me far far more than anything to do with sex or drugs or violence. And those are the subjects that invite debate and controversy. The messages that YA books give about death are less likely to be challenged.

Here are some things that concern me.
 - Suicide as a device in which a troubled teen gets lots and lots of attention for their grievances. Isn't that potentially encouraging vulnerable young adults to think that suicide may be their only way to get a hearing?
 - Bereaved parents who fall apart. Of course, some do. Losing a child is one of the hardest things to live with. But in teen fiction it is now so common to find a bereaved parent slumped in hopeless depression, going into a mental hospital, abandoning her family (I'm sorry, but I struggle to believe in the mother in Annabel Pitcher's Carnegie-shortlisted My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece who responds to one daughter being killed by terrorists by leaving the other two), or becoming consumed with xenophobic hatred, that I long to read about those who have managed to become stronger, more loving and more compassionate as a result of losing their child. A notable exception is John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. The conversation between Hazel and her parents about their plans for when she dies is an important, cathartic and deeply moving scene, and it rings far truer than almost any other portrayal I've read of parents in this situation.
 - Sentimental afterlifes in which dead teens can spy on their friends, seek revenge on their killers, comfort their parents, snog good looking boys and generally carry on as though they are still alive. Of course there are exceptions (Tamsyn Murray's brilliant Afterlife series gets away with lots of post-death snogging because it blends laughs with real sensitivity). I mean a gluey Lovely Bones type of afterlife.

I once saw a press release for a new paranormal series which read 'All the cool kids in town are dead'. That's obviously just silly, and most teen readers recognise that. But sometimes the subliminal messages in teen books are surprisingly un-life-affirming, and sometimes the messages about bereavement are almost undermining.
 Am I right to worry about this? And am I alone?


  1. Interesting post Keren and one that definitely made me think. I think in many ways you are right. Jandy Nelson's The Sky is Everywhere, in my opinion, deals with bereavement in a sensitive away allowing for guilt, anger and anguish. Thank you again for such a great and informative post on The Edge

  2. I've been meaning to read that one! Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. I think that YA books - that is, books which are being sold (not necessarily written) with a teen audience in mind - should show some 'due diligence' and care in the way they deal with certain topics. Otherwise it's an adult book - which of course, a teen should be free to go and read. So,yes, I agree with you Keren, the treatment of death should be life-affirming (although that will mean different things to different people - would Noughts & Crosses be interpreted as life-affirming for most teens? Maybe.)

  4. Keren, just finished The Sky is Everywhere and can totally recommend it, also consider Should I Stay by Gayle Forman. I personally find the topic fascinating but from a completely opposite view having had three near-death experiences. My current WIP (which is taking a long time in the making) looks at death but from a very altered and what is probably 'left of field' perspective. The trouble I find, however, is that people find it hard to see death as anything other than a negative, and that is entirely down to cultural perceptions of death. I think western society needs a far healthier view of death, given the fact that is so fundamental to life per se.