When we think about children’s books, death doesn’t usually come to mind. But death in children’s literature is so much more prominent than we expect! Especially in children’s fantasy novels. If you list your top ten favorite novels from childhood, it’s likely that at least one of them uses death either as a plot device or a major theme.
But how can stories realistically depict tragedy for kids? Different books have their own set of answers. Famous authors have had to come up with creative ways to balance death and a PG-13 rating. If you’re racking your brain for examples of death in children’s fantasy novels, and coming up with nothing, try one of the most popular book series of all time.
We can’t talk about death in children’s fantasy without mentioning the Harry Potter series. The two go hand-in-hand. From the first prologue (when we learn that a boy named Harry has escaped death) to the last chapter before the epilogue (where, spoiler alert, the same thing happens again), death runs rampant.
Unconvinced? In the first book, Harry Potter finds the “Sorcerer’s Stone”, which causes immortality. In the second book, he is saved by a phoenix, the symbol of rebirth. Professor Trelawney introduces us to “The Grimm”, the symbol of death, in the third. Then there’s Cedric, life-saving unicorn’s blood, nearly headless ghosts, Deathly Hallows, and possibly the most-quoted Dumbledore line of all time:
“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
I could go on.
So we know this concept is the center to all Harry Potter books. How does J.K. Rowling mute the darkness for children?
The Rowling Depiction
The afterlife. Rowling softens death with the idea of the afterlife.
Although (spoiler alert) we don’t really know it until the final chapters, the books always tease readers with the idea that there’s something more beyond life. We know that ghosts exist. We also know that rival wands can produce echoes of the living, wizarding families can live on in portraits, there are voices beyond the veil, and the Resurrection Stone is a thing. And by the last book, the afterlife is confirmed as Harry Potter makes his own journey to the beyond.
It’s significantly easier for children to swallow death if they know that it’s not the end. If the soul lives on, the finality and emptiness of death eases a little. And in a magical world such as Harry Potter’s, the afterlife is always a possibility.
Also, the central message of Harry Potter is that a “true master does not seek to run away from Death.” Lord Voldemort is the most evil character in the series, and his entire schtick is that he never wants to die. With so much negativity around immortality and so much positivity around embracing the end, the Harry Potter series lets kids know that death isn’t such a bad thing.
Of course, J.K. Rowling doesn’t exactly pull her punches, either. Near the end of the series, she writes less and less for children and more for a general family audience. I won’t name names (Cedric, Sirius, Fred, Hedwig), but I’ve sobbed after she’s killed off certain characters. Throughout the series, J.K. Rowling makes sure we feel the emotional burden of loss while still providing enough hope for the afterlife.
If you’re not a Potterhead, you might be a Tolkienist. Also among the most popular children’s books of all time, The Hobbit features death, too. It’s just not as prominent a theme as it is in Harry Potter.
The Hobbit emphasizes very Norse-like values: courage, glory, and legacy. Death is closely tied to all these concepts. Usually, risking one’s life is considered pretty courageous. Miraculously defying death in heroic quests tends to result in glory. And after you die, your legacy lives on.
So naturally, although death itself isn’t really a main theme, The Hobbit needs it (or at least the risk of it) to enhance its other themes.
Also, the adventure is simply more exciting for kids if death is possible. How can it really be an adventure if there isn’t some danger or risk?
The Tolkien Depiction
At the end of the book, an important character (I won’t say who) dies after winning a battle. Before his death, he tells Bilbo Baggins that he is going “to the halls of waiting to sit beside [his] fathers”. Like Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien softens death with mentions of the afterlife.
However, the death itself is already pretty tame. Unlike Rowling, this is the only “good” character Tolkien truly kills off in The Hobbit. (There are others in the Lord of the Rings series, but those are arguably more for an older audience.) Other unnamed villains—like goblins and orcs—die, but they don’t really count. The book limits the emotionally charged death count to one, and it’s a peaceful death that comes after victory in battle and successfully finishing a quest. It did leave me with a nostalgic, bittersweet taste in the mouth, but it wasn’t enough to prompt tears.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians
As a series that revolves around Greek mythology, the Percy Jackson series has to feature death. There’s no way around it. Greek myths were full of horror and tragedy and calamity; to teach the stories properly, Percy Jackson must somehow reflect that.
Some deaths in these books do carry incredible emotional weight, and they influence the feelings of other main characters and the readers. But Rick Riordan uses most of the deaths in this series as a victory count for Percy or for realistic effect.
The Riordan Depiction
The victory count thing sounds horrible, but let me explain. There are two types of deaths in Percy Jackson. There are deaths of mythological creatures, and there are deaths of humans. Deaths of humans are permanent. But the deaths of mythological creatures (like monsters and gods) are temporary; they can regenerate.
So when I say that the amount of kills Percy makes represent his victories, note that Percy only really kills mythological creatures, and these creatures don’t truly die. This way, child readers can feel elation and pride over Percy’s battle victories without feeling too guilty over the monsters’ deaths. These deaths also allow Riordan to represent the tragedy of Greek mythology without turning his entire series into a bloodbath.
But what about the human deaths?
In the first Percy Jackson series (the second is for another day), Riordan usually kills off human characters for realistic purposes. In a war, both sides lose soldiers, and Percy’s story must reflect that.
However, Riordan softens the blow by avoiding major character deaths. Noticeably, Riordan only kills off minor characters, characters recently introduced to the readers, and humans on the “evil” side.
This isn’t to say that these character deaths don’t have an impact on the readers. The deaths at the end of The Titan’s Curse are especially emotionally poignant. However, I’m usually less upset by the actual deaths themselves than I am by the impact they make on the people left behind. I have to watch the main characters struggle to move on, but I didn’t see enough of the dead characters to get overly attached.
Also, there is an afterlife. Usually I would say that this is a comfort, but some heroes can choose “rebirth”. If a hero chooses rebirth, the River Lethe wipes their memory, and they reenter the world as an infant. In this case, their soul continues to live, but they don’t remember their old lives, and they won’t remember their old friends and family.
When characters choose rebirth, it’s more heartbreaking to me than their actual death.
So the comfort of afterlife is a mixed bag. But luckily, with Riordan avoiding major character deaths, the depiction of death in Percy Jackson is pretty tame anyway.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
And if you’re not Potterhead or a Tolkienist or a demigod, you probably don’t like children’s literature. Or maybe you’re in the small, small minority of people that prefer Narnia above all other series.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe avoids death at all costs. If the novel features any kills, they are solely for metaphorical or plot value. And spoiler alert: none of them are permanent.
The Lewis Depiction
Like Riordan, Lewis uses temporary death as a way to depict war to children, and he makes their impermanence obvious. The book was published in 1950, five years after World War II, so actually portraying death might have been too scarring for families and children.
In fact, the kids in the novel only find Narnia because they were sent to their uncle’s house for safety during the war. It’s possible that this alternate world is a way for children to conceptualize their own roles in the war in a safe, protected headspace.
So. The tamer, the better. Instead of using bloodshed and violence, Lewis takes a page out of Medusa’s book and makes the villainous White Witch turn her victims to stone. Even though I might not have realized it while reading Narnia as a child, I was never worried about any of these stone “deaths”. Something subconsciously told me that if magic can turn a person into a statue, then magic can turn a statue back into a person.
There’s only one death that horrified me, and that death belongs to Aslan. Aslan doesn’t turn to stone. The White Witch and her followers brutally cut and taunt him. It isn’t really his death itself that bothers me; it’s the way he dies. He is alone, bound, and humiliated.
Of course, he comes back. His death symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice and return, so the torture was necessary. Otherwise, there would be no emotional weight to Aslan’s sacrifice. If he turns to stone like everyone else, he would be like everyone else. And as a Christ figure, Aslan is certainly not like everyone else.
Out of all the stories discussed, Lewis’s impermanent depiction of death probably protects its child audience the most. Even if Aslan’s death is a little scary, at least he still comes back to life.
And lastly, although it’s not a series, we can’t talk about death in children’s literature without touching on Charlotte’s Web. Like Harry Potter, the central theme to this children’s classic is death. Unlike Harry Potter, it’s not a “secondary-world fantasy”, meaning that there’s no alternate world outside Earth in the story.
Instead, it’s anthropomorphic. The world of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is exactly like ours, except animals have their own human-like characteristics and personalities.
White Depiction #1
White’s depiction of death in Charlotte’s Web is complicated. The book shows some deaths as unnecessary and cruel while showing others as essential to life.
At the beginning of the novel, Fern stops her father from killing the smallest pig of a newly born litter. She cries:
“It’s unfair…This is a matter of life and death…The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?…This is the most terrible case of injustice I’ve ever heard of!”
In the scene, Fern’s father sees animals only as contributions to humanity. Fern disagrees. The book seems to favor Fern, and she eventually convinces her father to let her take care of the pig, whom she affectionately names Wilbur.
And of course, the rest of the novel also revolves around saving Wilbur’s life. In case you’ve never seen or read Charlotte’s Web before: he grows large enough to go to another farm. He learns that he will eventually die and become food. His friend Charlotte, a spider, works to keep Wilbur from slaughter.
So the book seems to establish the following message: not only should humans let “useless” animals live, we should also put animals’ lives before ours. Animals deserve to be more than our food.
White Depiction #2
But then the book disagrees with itself. The spider Charlotte disapproves of the farmers’ plan to kill Wilbur for food, but she also states:
“I am not entirely happy about my diet of flies and bugs, but it’s the way I’m made…Nobody feeds me. I have to get my own living…I have to be sharp and clever, lest I go hungry.”
The book portrays Charlotte as a very wise and trustworthy character, so we can assume it agrees with her opinion. She defends her own diet by deeming that killing others is necessary for her own survival. She can’t help “the way [she’s] made.” It’s just nature.
Maybe the book believes survival is different for spiders. Humans can be vegetarian. Spiders cannot.
Or maybe it reflects humanity’s complicated relationship with animals. We love animals, but we also love our meat. A child might feel an urge to save a pig just as Fern did, but it also might feel a desire to eat bacon. It’s possible that White is offering a secondary viewpoint for his child audience through this passage. If they feel guilty, they can reassure themselves with Charlotte’s words; it’s not their fault, it’s just the way they were made.
White Depiction #3
Charlotte’s Web also touches on loss. At the end of the novel, Charlotte dies. Before she passes away, though, she leaves behind an egg sac.
Her death understandably crushes Wilbur, but he and the book’s readers find comfort in the children she leaves behind. White uses Charlotte’s children as a way to ease the pain of death for his younger readers.
The book seems to suggest that death is essential to life. But to soften the concept, it also suggests that Charlotte’s memories and legacy (represented through her children) live on.
Out of all the deaths discussed so far, Charlotte’s death is likely the most relatable to children. Often times, the first loss a child experiences is the death of their pet. White depicts Charlotte’s passing with the perfect mixture of reality and comfort needed for children in this situation. He doesn’t sugar-coat the idea, but he does provide some solace for their grief. Life goes on, and our loved ones live on in our memory.
more Death in Children’s Literature
So we know that death in children’s literature fantasy is prominent, whether acting as a main theme, a way to enhance adventure, or for realistic effect. But there are even more sub-genres of children’s literature that feature death. (Think: Bud, not Buddy, historical fiction; Spider-Man, graphic novels; Bridge to Terabithia, realistic fiction; etc., etc.)
Clearly, just as we cannot escape death in life, we cannot escape death in children’s literature.
Next time you open a children’s novel, see if death ever appears. And if it does, have fun discovering how the author made this morbid concept not-so-morbid.
Did any of these examples of death in children’s fantasy novels surprise you? Let us know! And just for funsies, tell us whether you’re Team Potter, Team Tolkien, Team Half-Blood, or Team Narnia. Let’s see who wins.