Part of the Problem (children and books about death)

July 5th, 2011 § 19 comments

Last summer I wrote the following piece about an upsetting interaction I had with a bookseller. It remains one of the posts that readers mention and still ask me about. The topic of children and death must be a touchy subject for most. I guess because I grew up with a mother who was a psychologist specializing in these topics I have never felt uncomfortable talking about them. Let me know what you think.


June 23, 2010

School is out for my three children. At ages 11, 8, and 4, the days are a hodgepodge of activities to allow them relaxing time at home with each other and some physical activity each day. No matter what their summer plans hold (sleepaway camp for 2 of them later this summer), I always make sure they each have a stack of books they are excited to read. Each night they go up to their rooms for at least 30 minutes before bedtime to read.

Yesterday we took a trip to my favorite independent bookstore. The tiny, jam-packed store has many employees who know and love books working there (all women, it seems). The children’s section is brimming with wonderful books for all ages. My favorite thing to do is bring the older children there and let them chat with a bookseller, telling what they’ve just read and whether they liked it or not. The clerks then can make suggestions about what the kids might like to buy/read next.

When we walked in it was apparent my favorite person was not there to help us. Another woman offered, and off we went to the back room. “What have you just read that you liked?” she asked my 11 year-old daughter. “Elsewhere,” (by Gabrielle Zevin) she answered. The woman immediately snapped, “That’s too old for you. It has death in it,” she said. She looked at me quizzically, silently chastising me for my daughter’s book choice.

“I don’t mind that she reads about death,” I said.

“I loved that book… it was so good!” Paige implored.

“It’s not appropriate for a 7th grader,” the woman persisted.

“I think it’s how the subject is handled,” I said. “We talk openly about death and illness in our house, and my daughter is obviously comfortable reading about it,” I pushed.

The subject was over. She was not going to recommend any books that had to do with the death of a teenager or what happens to that character after she dies. And so, she moved on to other books and topics. Eventually, we found a lovely stack for Paige to dive into.

As soon as we left I talked to Paige about what had happened: how the bookseller had steered her away from reading about death and pushed her to “lighter fare.” I told her that I disagreed with this tactic, and fundamentally think it reinforces a fear of death and discomfort with talking about the subject.

While I believe that a teenager’s obsession with death can be a signal of some larger emotional problem, I do not think that reading novels where the main character dies is inherently a bad idea for a mature reader. After all, so many of even young children’s favorite characters in television and movies have absent/dead parents; Bambi, Max and Ruby, and countless others have significant adults missing from their lives.

I don’t believe in forcing children to deal with the topic of death in reading until they are ready. I do believe parents are the best arbiters of what information and topics are appropriate for their children. But if a child is comfortable in reading books where a character dies, I believe it’s healthy for the child to do so. As a springboard for an honest conversation about death, it can even be extremely useful in beginning to have conversations at home about it.

Paige’s grandmother was killed instantly in a car crash in the fall of 2009. She learned that the death of a loved one can greet us at any time, whether we are prepared for it or not. By trying to steer my mature child away from the topic, the salesperson contributed to the emotional shielding that makes death a topic that so many individuals (including children) have difficulty thinking and talking about.

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§ 19 Responses to Part of the Problem (children and books about death)"

  • avidreader78 says:

    Hmm…while it is a booksellers job to recommend books and to keep kids from picking innappropriate books (thinking more Romance etc here) I do not find it to be their place to shield children from books if their parents are present. They may raise the question to the parents but ultimately it is up to the parent of that child to decide. Good piece 🙂

  • craftychicky says:

    Brilliant piece! It’s so true about not sheltering kiddos from reality.& using books as a starting point for conversation

  • angela says:

    When my sons went to jhs it was a requirement to read Newberry award winners during the summer. If you liked books about death,prostitution, crack and growing up in the projects, these were great for you. However I wanted my children to read books they could relate to or dream of aspiring to be. I made my opinions known to the schools and had my children read other books. Every household is different and as parents we know what’s best for our children. That being said, the bookseller should have given your child a similar book like the one she liked.

  • Patrick says:

    I like to see any reader choose what they want, and deal with any subject. I would probably suggest lighter fare, only to provide variety, if I think they’re focusing too much on one topic. But that’s what a bookseller should do – listen to the reader, suggest other topics, but not purposely steer them away from particular books. I recently had a local author, Barbara Jean Van Meter, talk about her children’s book about a 9 year old dealing with the death of his grandfather. Beautifully written book that’s being used by counselors and schools. It’s called, Laughter in Heaven, and I highly recommend it to all booksellers and readers.

  • Becky Sain says:

    I don’t intrude on my two older childrens (15 & 12) reading at all. They read and that’s what I care about. But, I do nudge my 7 year old to specific books.
    I think the goal is to get your kids reading. If you start qualifying WHAT they’re reading then you have list track of the goal, if that makes sense.
    Here’s my autism/teaching example: a teacher wants this student to participate in a book talk in class, the student is fully participating but happens to be standing in the back of the room looking out the window. The teacher then tells the student he must sit down. The student sits down but then stops participating in the discussion. The teacher lost focus of the original goal by adding her own qualifications to the criteria. Make sense?
    So, as far as books and my kids — they read and that’s my goal.
    Great post, as usual. 🙂

  • Becky Sain says:

    Also, to be more specific to your post — I would be very offended and would want to discuss the issue with the manager or whoever at the bookstore if my kids were not allowed to purchase books dealing with specific topics!
    Hello? Judy Blume. Or what about the Bridge To Terabithia? Or what about Shakespeare? Harry Potter?
    Okay, I’ll stop there.

  • Cheryl says:

    I think this is a wonderful piece. So many of us try and shield our kids from death – which I think only adds to the mystery and fear surrounding the subject. It’s an important part of life, and a natural one at that. My youngest daughter (a fifth grader) read Across Four Aprils this year – a book about the Civil War. She was surprised when one of the main characters died, and it was a perfect lead in for a conversation about death AND life. And my older daughter HAD to read a Bridge to Terabithia in sixth grade public school. It was one of the books which caused her to really think about what it meant to be truly alive.

    So I agree with craftychicky. Brilliant!

    • Cheryl… thanks for the rec about Across Four Aprils… my middle one is obsessed with the Civil War so I will look for that. Bridge to Terabithia is one of the best children’s books out there. My mother always pointed to that one as a great example of death being handled carefully for younger readers (at the time there were not many books out there about death for the YA audience). For very young children Aliki’s The Two of Them is a good introduction (it was one of mine).

      I just put up a post about being honest with your children about a diagnosis.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on the books.

  • Pamela Carlson says:

    I agree that there shouldn’t be a blanket rule about what topics or books are ok for all kids of an age group. Each family, heck, each kid in a family, has a different experience/perspective.

    I read anything and everything that caught my eye when I was a kid, and I am so thankful that neither our small-town librarians, nor my parents, ever said “you shouldn’t be reading that.” Some things went over my head, some stuck with me. All of it played a part in creating the avid reader in me.

  • Viv says:

    It’s the adults who fear it more than the kids.
    I was relatively lucky in that I read whatever I wanted from an early age, without parental intervention, except when my dad introduced me to Issac Asimov when I was 9. I suspect that my wide ranging reading may have meant I had a better attitude to death(as well as a faith of my own) than most. When I was 16, I had 3 close friends of the same age die in different ways over six months. I coped; many of my peers did not.
    thanks for writing such good sense. A series of books about a cat called Mog in the uk, finally had its last volume a few years ago with Mog’s death. It was welcomed by most sane people.

  • Kathryn says:

    If a parent is present and thinks a topic is fine then a sales person needs to trust the parent. This gal obviously has never seen a Disney movie, kids have seen death as a toddler so why not make sure it’s talked about in an appropriate and real way?

    My children have been surrounded by illness and things that are life threatening their entire childhood. My oldest son has a heart condition and he cannot do certain sports or activities, sees a slew of doctors and takes medication. It’s not scary, it’s just our life. Honestly is essential because it’s the unknown that is scarier to a child.

  • Thank you for sharing this story. While I agree it’s not the booksellers place (and I am refreshed by your healthy parenting perspective), interactions like this are something on the decline with the closing of so many physical bookstores. When I was young I would be in a bookstore for hours and inevitably end up talking to the staff and other customers because we all had something in common…books. My mom was the one trying to censor my reading material as a teen and while I disagreed with her too, it was more her territory than someone at a bookstore…

  • Bailey says:

    I totally agree with this. Death is something that happens – we’re not going to like it, but acting like it doesn’t happen is more harmful than beneficial. It’s like telling a person not to grieve when they have lost a loved one: preventing someone from dealing with an issue (or ordering them not to) just makes it that much harder, even when it’s meant to be comforting. The bookseller overstepped a boundary. Making a recommendation on a book is fine, but you’re Paige’s mother and know far better what sorts of topics she’s able to handle.

  • Virginia says:

    I hate when people say, “No, you can’t read that.” There are exceptions, of course, books I definitely think aren’t appropriate until a later age. However, I was an advanced reader, my daughter is an advanced reader, so we inevitably read books together and she on her own that are perhaps “too old” for her.

    I want my children to be aware of reality, as appropriate, and I want, and encourage, my children to discuss what they are reading with me–and they do, for the most part. When my daughter was two weeks shy of her third birthday, her baby brother died–and believe me, I was not ready to discuss death with her, but I had to, and did. And we read books about siblings dying, and still talk about her brother, 7 years later. We’ve had another child since then and also discuss with him the brother he never knew–kids are confronted with death, and worse, every day, and we must not hide reality from them. I’ve learned just how unwilling adults are to talk about death to anyone–I’ve been ignored, left out, told to get over it many times since my son died by mature, intelligent grown ups. This is my long-winded way of saying: we need to talk about hard things! And read about them! And be willing to discuss them with our children, and find appropriate books for our children to read–no judging what other children are reading like that bookseller did.

  • Ali B says:

    Had the shop assistant read Little Women, I wonder? Or Judith Kerr’s lovely picture book Goodbye, Mog? All children will encounter death (of a pet, a relative) so where better to rehearse mourning than through fiction?

  • Jacqueline says:

    It is usually the adults who have an issue with talking/reading about death because if death is acknowledged it means that it can happen to them. Let’s not transfer our fears onto our children and let them chose what they like.
    We can offer to be there to discuss any questions, emotions thoughts coming up for them and offer guidance.
    It is not our job to shield children from life.
    My mum died when I was 7 and nobody talked to me about death. It took me 35 years to really deal with my emotions and I had lost my childhood thanks to the adults around me trying to shield. I can certainly not recommend it.
    By not mentioning death to our children we are just creating another generation of adults not being able to talk openly about death.

  • Jason Black says:

    What a great way for an independent bookseller to stay in business! Not selling books! Now, why didn’t I think of that?

    I wonder if she also withholds Beverly Cleary’s _Ramona Forever_ from kids because Ramona and Beezus have to confront the death of their cat? It’s a truly heartbreaking chapter.

  • Katie says:

    Well said! Working in a public library, parents are constantly asking me for recommendations for their children (most of whom are in the 10-13 age range) and I would never consider telling a child/teen that they shouldn’t be reading a book because it “has death in it”. That’s absurd! I shudder to think what she must think of Lemony Snicket’s “Series of Unfortunate Events” or even Harry Potter! I personally recommend Jay Asher’s “13 Reasons Why” to just about every teen I know, primarily because I feel that death and suicide should not be a taboo topic, and because it addresses many other topics that teens should not be sheltered from. By discouraging them from reading that type of material, booksellers like the one you encountered are only doing more harm than good.

  • Jammie says:

    I have been a fairly avid reader since a young age myself. Although given when I was younger I mostly read Harry Potter. I think it is wrong to tell a child or anyone that they shouldn’t read a certain book. Many children’s books have death in them, Disney movies, even in Harry Potter. He has no parents and there are many characters that die. Children shouldn’t be sheltered from reality. These things are going to happen at some time or another throughout their lives.
    I do not think that anyone should try to control the reading habits of children, teens or anyone else. I think that most people have the ability to understand what they are ready for. I mean, when I was younger I’m sure that i would never have read a book that I didn’t think I was ready for. I would have put it down and tried something else. But as your daughter was already familiar with books about death and was comfortable with that, i do not think that the book seller should have been trying to dictate what books she is and is not ready for. I think that she would be old enough, with some guidance if needed from her parents, to decide on what sort of books that she would like to read.

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