recent controversy over Netflix's adaptation of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which depicts the aftermath of teen suicide, shows that dealing with death in kids' fiction can be fraught. While some defended the show's graphic depiction of suicide, others argued it was gratuitous and dangerous. This raises the question of whether children's literature and young adult fiction is still a safe place to discuss death. At the recent Emerging Writer's Festival panel, Sex, Death and YA, young adult literature was celebrated for exploring such complex themes. While there may be a trend toward darker themes in literature written for a young adult audience, there is still room for hope.
There has recently been an influx of novels that present death from the perspective of the protagonist. These novels show characters who are terminally ill, presenting a rarely explored viewpoint in young adult novels - the perspective of dying. In books such as Sonya Hartnett's Surrender (2005), Jenny Downham's Before I Die (2007) and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (2012) the protagonist portrays the fear and pain of dying, the challenge of accepting one's own mortality and the guilt of leaving their loved ones to cope after their death. Other recent novels come from the perspective of someone who is already dead. They speak to the reader, and sometimes even their own friends and family, from beyond the grave, such as in Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall (2010) and, although technically not a young adult novel, in Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, which has been widely read by young people. In the beginning of Jay Asher's 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why it is made clear that the protagonist, Hannah Baker, has taken her own life. As the novel continues, Hannah's story and the reasons for her actions are disclosed through a series of tapes, 13 in total, all recorded before her death. The Netflix series also demonstrates the shift of how death is portrayed to an adolescent audience. While Asher's novel leaves the method of Hannah's suicide largely undisclosed, the series, released ten years after the book, portrays the suicide in excruciating detail.
Why is the honest and direct depiction of death in young adult novels often so controversial? Perhaps it comes from a desire to shelter young readers from topics such as war, terrorism, and human mortality - topics that young adult readers not only read about in the news and on social media, but experience. Or perhaps it is because depicting death is seen to be void of hope. But possibly the idea of hope has also shifted, away from a fairytale notion of happily ever after and towards a reality that acknowledges the existence of darkness and light.
There is little research on the possible benefits of discussing death with young people. For those who are yet to be affected by the death of a loved one, reading about it from the perspective of another young adult can offer a way of building resilience. For those readers who have experienced the death of a family member or friend, being able to read about the experiences of others can offer consolation. Death is an indisputable part of adolescent lives, and books can provide a place for them to reflect on its influence on life.Erin Farrow, PhD Candidate and Academic Sessional, Victoria University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.