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Death in Children’s Literature

20 Jan 2017Psychology Essays

What comes to our minds when we think about children? We are in a varying flux whether to regard children as pure, innocent, bestial or corrupt.  Sometimes we even view them as our adult selves. We often wonder if they think and reason out as we do, or do they have more clarity of vision than we credit them for? We do think that the world of a child remains oblivious of tragic details and that situations such as war, death or crime are adult concerns towards which a child has no understanding.  But the constant exposure to media has turned the children into precocious beings and one thing is for sure, that children do feel that deep sense of loss and insecurity when someone close to them dies. It can start with a pet, or at times unfortunately, a parent.

There are many children across the world, who are facing the fears that we think only adults face; such as crime, death and witnessing war at early ages. It leaves a deep impact on their minds and it is the task of a counselor, a teacher or parent to help a child cope with such fears.

By this essay we will see how reading stories from children’s literature has a feasible effect on a child’s psyche. The purpose of this article is to discuss how children’s literature on death would help a child face his fears of death and teach them coping skills, through Bibliotherapy.

Death in Children’s Literature And The Effect It Has On Children

There are many children in this world who are facing terror in their homes and country.

The war ridden countries such as Burma, Afghanistan, Iraq etc have had constant violence, crime and death going on a daily basis life.

Young children in these countries witness such tragic and volatile situations everyday.

There are working children, warrior children, and soldier children forced to serve the army in a war-ridden country. It leaves an intensely adverse effect on the tender psyche of these children. The exposures to media coverage of violence and constant cultural changes have a profound effect on what these children fear.  

 In America a child is reported abused or neglected every eleven seconds, is arrested for a violent crime every four minutes, and is killed by guns every ninety-eight minutes.

   The society’s reckless and numbing reliance on violence has left many children across the world vulnerable to brutality and violence. Children often grow up with anger and depression suppressed deep inside their psyche. Their mental and physical growth suffer harmfully due to such influences.

Milind Kundera in an interview with Ian McEwan, memorably said:

“People always see the political and personal as different worlds, as if each had its own logic, its own rules, but the very horrors that take place on the big stage of politics resemble, strangely but insistently, the small horrors of our private life.” (Reynolds1995, p.218)

  An event such as terrorist attacks, like the one happened on September 11 and news stories about death and violence heighten the sense of vulnerability amongst children.

  The insecurity and fear that begins to take place in their hearts has a very corrosive effect on their minds. The parents and teachers often have to think about coping strategies and its implementation, to save the child from its harmful effects. Watching the news on terrorism and war leaves a deeply unsettling fear of death in the mind of a child.

 It is a conventional fact that children are victims of fear. One cannot separate fear from a child as he grows with it during the periods of his development. Childhood fears are often the common one such as fear of strangers, some large monster, fear of darkness, loud noise, mystical creature or sudden changes in appearance. Often a child outgrows these fears as he grows and if the parents have taken care about implementing the healthy attitude of helping the child over come his fear.

 However fear does not go away completely, rather it is overtaken or replaced by different fears as a child grows into adolescence. These fears change into fear of dangerous persons like muggers, robbers, murderers etc. Often when faced with fear, children cope with the fear factor in their own specific way, and this later becomes their intrinsic coping skill for fears that they face as adults.

  The reaction could be anything from escapism to standing and facing the situation upfront. Clinging, withdrawing and direct confronting are some of the coping skills they learn while facing their fears.

   Books and literature are a good source of teaching coping skills to children and helping them overcome their fears. There are several books in which the authors have broached upon the subjects of death and dying and have dealt with it in a realistic manner.

A child suffering from fatal illness can also be suffering from an acute fear of death.

  Reading literature on death and catastrophe where other children can be shown as example of getting over their sufferings and coping with fears of death, create a desire for valiant effort in a child and he would be better equipped to handle his fears of death.

Books also form the basis of bibliotherapy in children. Death in literature is gaining more visibility than it was earlier. The authors are no more treating death with kid glove

(no pun) or skirting around the issue.  

   Now the numbers of such books have increased considerably and the topic of death is handled with a realistic calm. They teach the acceptance of death and the emotional adjustments that are required following the death of a loved one.

  Reading creates a sense of relating and bonding and often acts as a catharsis to pain and sufferings. This sort of bibliotherapy is exceptionally essential to help a child come out of his dungeon of dark and foreboding thoughts.

   When children read such literature, they realize that they are not alone in their sufferings and there are others who share their pain and tragedy. This feeling of belongingness helps a child a great deal in coping with a sense of loneliness and insecurity. They feel less isolated and also realize that such tragedies are common to all

and that they are not the most unfortunate ones, or especially picked out for the misfortunes. As readers of such literatures they experience a vicarious comfort in knowing that others too suffer the same kind of troubles. Children also feel less embarrassed about their lonely state of affairs when they read books and stories of death and difficulties happening to other people. They feel that there are others who suffer as they do and just as others have coped with it, they would cope with it too. Reading helps in purging out their anger, pain, fear, grief and other suppressed emotions. It also helps in inducing tears, and tears are the greatest tools of catharsis.

  There are many books on serious illness and death among young children, that helps a young child to relate to the sufferings of someone who is of their age and who is having the same kind of illness. It helps them a great deal in finding insights by reading such stories. Children often grow with a secret fear of the big bad world outside. It is perceived as a dangerous place to be and for them strangers who are a threat to their safety inhabit the outside world. It is not quite untrue as a child is most vulnerable target for sexual abuse, attack, physical and emotional abuse. It is odd but their own peer group also poses these threats. A child is likely to receive such abuses from another child.

  It is a myth that children are incapable of violence or crime. They resort to crimes when they are exposed to it at very early age and are never counseled or protected by guardian or teacher. The lack of enlightenment in treating the children and failure in giving them right coping tools early on; often ends up in ruining their lives.    

 There is a powerful book by Blake Morrison, As if (1997) in which he writes about the murder of a two year old child by two ten- year old boys. He feels that children are no less than adults in their behavior and understandings. This proves that given the right books and literature along with proper counseling will teach them to manage their emotional and mental needs quite efficiently.

  As Morrison says, “You don’t have to grow up to be cynical. You don’t have to be a teenager. As if, my children say, as I used to say at their age, but the phrase doesn’t mean what it did. We will be sitting around the television together, The Nine O’ Clock News on

With its cries of pain from other countries, (Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda) and every two minutes or so my son (who’s twelve) will be there with his four letters., his two blunt words, coming down like a brick against anything that is wishful or implausible.” (Morrison 1997, p.13)

 So there are violence among children, violence in children and violence against children. Any child who has fears of death or violence can also be the perpetrator. Reading books helps him gain perspectives. It gives a direction, like a map, and an example to follow.  Books that relate to death often have a sobering effect upon children. He feels that the world has something to offer him in the form of a connectivity and belongingness. When a child reads book on another child coping with bigger catastrophe than bullying or abuse, he feels a sense of security, which in turn brings down some of the threats and fears from his heart and mind. The reading and learning from fictional characters have been used as technique to help children cope with death. Although literature has always been the best way of passing on stories and teaching life lessons to children, the subject of death is handled with a lot of care to keep the environment safe for children.

The method of using Bibliotherapy to help the child heal and overcome is the most effective technique to use in healing and teaching children struggling with catastrophic situations.  Bibliotherapy has many benefits, and it is an effectively powerful tool to help children identify external and internal sources and develop coping strategies, subsequently.

One of the processes in bibliotherapy is identifying with the main character’s needs and frustrations, which is followed by catharsis and later finding an insight into the problem by locating and identifying the characters coping strategy.

Stories have a strange power of affecting the mind and also working on a deep subconscious method. When a child is subjected to bibliotherapy, he absorbs the characters, understands the subject of the story and on a conscious level tries to follow the theme. But on a subconscious level he is relating to the troubles and tragedies of the characters, while learning about their coping strategies. Stories facilitate emotional expressions and teach them to apply what they have learned from the fictional characters in the literature. After the reading sessions if the children are made to take part in the discussion about the story then it proves to be a very effective method to teach them coping skills. The interactive questions circle around which character they identify most with, and what would they do in the place of that character.

After discussing characters the question could revolve around their own feelings, emotions and thoughts in relation to the book’s characters. It also helps a lot if the books have pictures and illustrations. Even scary stories have their purpose, as reading those stories help a child overcome their own deeply ingrained fears. It acts as a catharsis and helps a child connect to his braver self.  

 Teaching a child to draw and teaching through pictures and illustrations have proved to be effective tool in subjecting the child to bibliotherapy and getting finer results.

As Francelia Butler points out in her book, “ Death In Children’s Literature. “Death in children’s literature is usually linked to ideas of restoration of life, or resurrection, spiritual purification and sacrificial offerings (death to save other lives).”(Butler, 1971).  

Works Cited Page

  • Butler, Francesca, Death In Children’s Literature.1993

  • Jenks, Chris, Childhood. Routledge: New York. 1996.

  • John, Mary, Children’s Rights and Power. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London. 2003

  • Reynolds, P. (1991b) ‘Youth and Trauma in South Africa: Social Means of Support’. Paper presented at the International African Institute Conference on Healing the Social Wounds of War, Windhoeck, Namibia.

  • Rosenbaum, M. Children and the Environment. London: National Children’s Bureau. 1993.

  • www.savethechildren.net - The International Save The Children Alliance (ISCA)

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