Lately in our family we’ve had a lot of cause to think about death. It’s a troubling, uncomfortable and confusing topic to contemplate—even for adults who’ve had plenty of experience with its parameters. As soon as you think you understand how you feel, what it all means, how you’ll cope, the whole thing shifts and you think something else, feel something else, find yourself coping with a sadness you hadn’t banked on.
I don’t know much about what my 11-year-old daughter thinks of it all. I do know she’s sad. And I know she’s tired of being sad and is coping by trying to avoid thinking about death any further. I also know that in our house, we turn to books for answers and information. My daughter’s read all of these at one time or another. I hope they’ve helped.
Charlotte’s Web is the first book I ever read that dealt with death. And not only dealt with it, but looked at it head-on, confronted its inevitability, and gave permission to its reader to feel utter sadness about it. It also made clear that although the sadness was almost unbearable, we could, and should, go on.
I hated A Little Princess when I was a girl. The injustice of it was overwhelming. Then we listened to it as a book on tape when my daughter was small and I realized it was a lot more poignant and less-untenable than I once thought. Orphans feature widely in Victorian literature for children, no doubt because they were not only common in reality but were also true victims of a society that reviled them. The fact that Sara Crewe, the lovable protagonist of this novel, is adopted in the end, by a man comparable in kindness to her own father, came as no small relief to me the second time around, even though I knew it was in the pipeline. Justice over death? It’s a compelling idea.
Death is everywhere in this YA book by Judy Blume—escaped (sort of) in New Jersey, only to be revisited in New Mexico. How Davey copes as her still-living mother and the rest of her world collapses around her is a biting but beautiful testament to our own ability to keep on, even when we don’t want to.
Finally, this is one of a whole slew of recent books for young readers that isn’t afraid to inject humor into the most morose of topics. A best friend dies, the friend left behind tries to believe that her determination to revisit from beyond the grave is plausible, and is finally is forced to let go. But on her own terms, and in her own time. Which is all any of us can hope for ourselves.