In this month of death in the Philippines and remembrance of death in the veteran's cemeteries (including the one in which my dad lies), I find myself returning to the topic.
Begin with this list from a blog comment by Shiny Red Robocalypse (that blog post has the same topic as this one - some overlap):
It is reassuring to know that I am not alone. Others commenting in this stream recommend additional great middle school titles: Bridge to Terebithia, Tuck Everlasting, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bless Me Ultima, Charlotte's Web, The Graveyard Book... As Zoomba comments, "Great children's books and death are practically synonymous." Ditto tween books and YA fiction. It seems to me that death is absolutely trending.
Why is this so? I can offer up my own theory, but it seems to me that high school students should be addressing this question; the fact is that the synonymous relationship between death and fiction extends into YA and adult book lists as well.
The challenge of answering my question - "Why are so many novels about death?" - would make an excellent PBL unit at the HS level. These students will have read a wide range of mid-level books for background and there are endless great YA and adult titles to extend understanding. Oh, and informational text as well.
Kickoff: a speaker or better yet a panel: a religious, a psychologist or counselor, a survivor, perhaps a courageous terminal patient
Product: What might be an authentic learning product? Perhaps a student designed all-day event on the topic. Perhaps a media product (interviews or i-Journalism would be my choice, but an original video or stage play would be fascinating). Perhaps a counter-death product, such as a comedy, or an investigation of "black comedy" and "dark" superhero movies. It is not, after all, just in novels that we find so much death. For the activist student, perhaps a Twitter-based "Read Something Funny Today" would be interesting.
Assessment: Use the BIE (Buck Institute for Education) free Critical Thinking Rubric for PBL - follow the link to the appropriate rubric (grade level, CCSS aligned or not)
I give you below some of my recommendations for texts. I have not included films, but death and film seems to be a natural fit these days. Some students might want to look at the culture of violence in film and gaming, especially gun violence. I also have not included graphic novels, but I have attached to this blog a page of recommendations in this genre. Many of them are (no surprise) about death in some way.
Day of Death - Google download for Android devices - with your name and birthdate as input, tells you when and how you will die
The Death App - you will need a QR reader to access the URL for this app, which looks promising but does not work on my IOS devices
The Machine of Death - also available in a less expensive edition - This is How You Die is the sequel - all available from Amazon - short story pieces, all with the premise that The Machine of Death has generated a slip of paper telling someone how he/she is going to die, but not when or where or any other important details - darkly delightful work from Wondermark's David Malki and friends.
A Monster Calls - this moving gem from Patrick Ness does not neatly fit into a category
Nation - Terry Pratchett - the recent horrific typhoon in the Philippines is a natural twin for this alternative history novel - death appears early in the story and never leaves it - much fodder for discussion, a different place to find deep loss and, perhaps, hope after disaster
Children's Books - the best children's books are for all audiences - rather than introducing cutesy picture books, I would begin here and perhaps some students will follow up with the cutesy
The Giving Tree - OK, so you can spin it positively, but this is really about death
Pierre - Sendak's "cautionary tale" and his Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life
Rose Blanche - Innocenti's grim allegory of the Holocaust should pair with other Holocaust readings
Klassen's This is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back present death as natural
Realistic Fiction - not that these are totally realistic - students might consider why and how elements of imaginative fantasy appear in each
As I Lay Dying - Faulkner's glorious, difficult walkabout with the family of Addie Bundren
The Bride of San Luis Rey - Wilder's exploration of the randomness of death - a little read classic
The Fault in Our Stars - a bit oozy for my taste, but many teens love it
Going Bovine - running from death? running with death? wonderful Cervantes-style romp across America
The Orphan Master's Son - pulitzer prize-winning novel of North Korea - I have been pummeled by this book, but it should be read
A Holocaust book must also be read - I suggest Night (not fiction, but grouped here as well as below), Once, The Book Thief, and Milkweed - be sure to discuss how style and narrative voice are used to effect in each title
As this article makes clear, suicide is another topic that should fall into this unit - this goodreads listing is a good one for HS (with the exception of Gatsby)
School shootings are well covered in this goodreads listing
And always there is war: Atonement, Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Things They Carried (to list a few great ones)
SF and Fantasy - the dystopian and monster genres walk arm-and-arm with death, but a few titles rise to the top. Some of them:
The Giver - Lowry's classic about both giving death and escaping a deathly life - high schoolers who have not read it, must read it
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Bradbury deals with death in just about all of his work, but this one takes it head on - I like to pair it with Morgenstern's The Night Circus
The Ocean at the End of the Lane - death is both tired and noble in this little wonder from Neil Gaiman
Hoban's Riddley Walker which treats with the death of not just characters, but cultures - ditto A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also has the undercurrent of religious salvation gone awry
Never Let Me Go - powerful dystopian look at death in a high tech, low morality world - The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Unwind are easier on the same topic - any one of these will shock students deeply
Mysteries, Detective Fiction - these genre almost always involve death - I list here my favorites, books that treat death not as curiosity or spectacle, but with sensitivity and cultural understanding
Collin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series - The Coroner's Lunch is the first of these magical mysteries set in Laos - read them in order
Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series - A Test of Wills is the first in this series of a Scotland Yard inspector haunted by the ghost of a battlefield execution
Drama & Other Narratives - I have included a few poems here just to remind you to include them - they are not hard to find
Greek tragedy used to have a place in HS English and death figures in most of them - I perfer Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, or Medea - these treat death differently, but both are deeply concerned with life-taking - The Oresteia is another choice
The Death of a Salesman - Miller seems to have disappeared from the classroom - a tragedy, as Willy Loman is a contemporary figure
Shakespearean tragedy - for the classroom, MacBeth, R&J, Hamlet and Julius Caesar - but obviously most will do, and what is more deeply felt than Lear or more horrific than Richard III - performances (viewed and done) are necessary
Beowulf - it is not really that long and ranges from truly graphic monster-death to the poignant death of the hero - I suggest Ian Serraillier's Beowulf the Warrior
The Iliad - pick and choose from many deaths and contemplations of death - I like Fagles
"Death of a Hired Man" - Frost's matter-of-factness is just the skin on the fruit - "Design" is a more abstract take on the topic
Non-Fiction - the daily news is an endless source of material for the classroom, but here are some print titles to consider
Marley and Me or Marley - it is important to include pieces about the deaths of our pets and other animal companions
"Death of a Pig" - E.B. White's essay/memory piece about a real pig
Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo - almost unbearably blunt recounting - not all of death, but it is the deaths that linger
The Devil in the White City - Larson's intertwined history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a horrific serial killer begins and ends with one of the most poignant contemplations of death's finality that I have ever read
In Cold Blood is Capote's revolutionary documentary of a family's murder - just one of what is now a genre (including The Devil...)
May of the titles I listed in my i-Journalism post would fit into this unit
Brian Piccolo: A Short Season is a classic sports bio turned into a classic movie, Brian's Song
Is this really a good idea? I think that discussion has to be enjoined, especially in light of today's endless reporting of global deaths, teen suicides, gun violence, sports violence, and ubiquitous onscreen/movie death. Why are we so fascinated by death as a culture?
Is it possible to turn this around?