Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dying - not Killing - in YA fiction

I have always found the Ouroboros symbol somewhat frightening because it is hard to get my mind around it.  It is a symbol of death and also of rebirth.  It is an angry symbol but also a smooth, flowing symbol.  It is and it is not possible.

I am not alone.  Because of these dualities, death is one of the most common themes in YA (becoming-adult readers) fiction and all other fiction, with the exception of children's picture books.

The continuing prevalence of quick and dispassionate deaths in YA fiction has caused me to think about the other kind of deaths that can be found in YA fiction - the slowly and deeply experienced deaths.  Needless to say, these are not nearly as common, nor as widely read.  Their tellings are often lyrical and thoughtful - in a dark sort of way.  These are not the matter-of-fact deaths of dystopian and fantasy fiction.  Nor are they the out-of-sight deaths that precipitate much orphan and realistic lit.

Don't misunderstand me.  I am a reader and fan of dystopian, fantasy, orphan, and realistic lit.  In fact, three of my current favorite titles fall under this umbrella (Good Omens, Monster, and The Good Thief).  I have read lots of mystery, WWI fiction, some horror (Stephen King), and adventure (e.g. Ice Claw) and appreciate their appeal as well. Death in any form is compelling.

Right now, however, I am musing about novels that muse - books that live through rather than just tell about death - about a loved one dying, an unexpected death, or one's own death.  These novels are as far away from interactive video games as can possibly be, yet the reader interacts deeply with the dying(s) in them. The dying stays with the reader. For this reason, they are, in my mind, literature.

For adult readers, dying and death have a deep literary presence.  From my own reading life, I immediately conjure up The English Patient, Atonement, Regeneration, The Road, and others.  This is not true for middle and high school students. 

I think fiction about the human side of dying, and grieving, should be read in middle and high school.  In most classrooms, death has happened, is happening, or will happen in the extended family.  Death happens to all of us. And to pets.

But most kids will not find these titles on their own.  Teachers and librarians have to make them available and talk them up.

My only purpose here is to share titles.  Please add to the list. In no particular order:
  • Patrick Ness - A Monster Calls (730) - new short novel (Kindle available) about a boy whose mother is dying - fantasy qualities, but deeply moving
  • Jonathan Foer - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - death of father sends young son on odyssey - highly recommended over movie, but that is a tie-in
  • Libba Bray - Going Bovine (HL 680 - not for MS) - dying teen takes a "trip" - I find similarities with Cervantes
  • Joan Abelove - Saying it Out Loud  (no lexile, 7+) - girl deals with dying mother
  • John Green - The Fault in Our Stars (no lexile, 7+) - teens dying of cancer - and living
  • Paula Fox - Eagle Kite (740) - boy with a father dying of AIDS 
  • Mark Harris - Bang the Drum Slowly - baseball players learn that teammate is dying of cancer
  • Molly Hunter - A Sound of Chariots (no lexile) - girl grieves for father
  • David Almond - Skellig (490) - dying creature found in the attic
  • David Almond - Clay (490) - a Golem story about "life" and death
  • Morris Gleitzman - Once (no lexile, 7+) - begins with death and grieves through a Holocaust summer
  • Sid Fleischman - The Entertainer and the Dybbuk (610) - after WWII, a ventriloquist is possessed by the spirit of a dead boy
  • Melina Marchetta - Jellicoe Road (no lexile, 7+) - mother, lover, friend die; this is a book about grief as much as it is about finding oneself
  • Mary Pearson - The Adoration of Jenna Fox (570 but don't trust that) - a slowly realized grieving for oneself 
  • Shel Silverstein - The Giving Tree - (picture book) - I read this picture book early in every year - it is rich in symbolism, plot, character, etc.  Ur book.
  • Erin Morgenstern - The Night Circus - (no lexile, 8+) - deeply rooted in the idea of endless life and meaning of life
  • Ray Bradbury - Something Wicked This Way Comes (820) - death is integrally connected to the good-evil theme - great pairing with the previous book
  • Brian Fies - Mom's Cancer - graphic novel
  • Ross Mackintosh - Seeds - graphic novel - death of father - I purchased it within the Comics app for iPad
  • John Gunther - Death Be Not Proud - father's memoir of son
  • Marjorie Rawlings - The Yearling - pet death
  • Myth and story: Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Antigone, the Bible, Faust (orally in middle school - it can be done), Beowulf - every culture culture has these stories - Why?
  • "The Scarlet Ibis"  (really fabulous compared to death in King's "Here There by Tygers" and Bradbury's "The Veldt")
Please add to this list.

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