Alex Gardella

The Presence of Death in Children’s Literature

            The only guarantee in life is that, at one time or another, each and every one of us is going to die. It doesn’t matter if we exercise, eat right, and get all our vitamins, there’s just no avoiding it. Doing good things for oneself and one’s body by staying healthy helps prolong life, of course, but there is no escaping the fact that one day we are simply going to not exist. Children have no real concept of death and they don’t grasp that when something dies, it’s gone forever. After they understand death, there’s no going back to being blissfully naïve. The theme of death can be conveyed many ways in literature; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and The Giver by Lois Lowry all deal with death in some way and by comparing the three works a better understanding of how children’s literature presents death can be gained.

            To fear death, one has to be aware of death and to be aware of death, one has to have been affected in some way by death –whether it’s by a family member or pet dying, a violent movie or video game, a roadside accident, or really anything...death is everywhere. Harry Potter was orphaned when he was just a baby and sent to live with his mother’s sister and her family. Lord Voldemort, the main antagonist in the Harry Potter Series, killed Harry’s parents yet failed while trying to kill Harry himself. Eleven years pass, and as Harry starts attending Hogwarts Lord Voldemort begins trying to return (he was greatly diminished in power after failing to kill Harry). In Harry’s world, death is everywhere, yet it doesn’t add a degree of misery to Book One, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Throughout the book, it is a known fact that Harry is at risk and anyone who opposes Lord Voldemort is in danger, but not an over stated one.

            Just as bad as a dark wizard, if not worse, is a society where teenagers fight to the death gladiator style. Katniss Everdeen, her mother, and little sister Prim all live together in the 12th district of the Capitol, where Katniss and her friend Gale have to illegally hunt outside of the city borders in order to keep their families alive. People literally die on the streets from not getting enough to eat. “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” (Collins 19) are the words that Katniss dreads hearing every year. Each of the 12 districts will have one boy and one girl drawn lottery style to be tributes in the year’s Hunger Games, where only 1 out of 24 will survive. For most districts, being picked is regarded as a death sentence because the only choice in the arena is to kill or be killed.

            Harry and Katniss are actually in remarkably similar situations. Harry has lost both parents and Katniss has lost her dad, both have people set on killing them, and death is very prominent in their worlds. The values of the people from Districts 1, 2, and 4 are reflected in their tributes, who volunteer to participate in the Games for honor, power, and to reap the rewards. That is exactly why wizards and witches join Lord Voldemort’s Death Eaters. It’s really interesting to look at characters that are willing to die for raising their social status or getting really rich. Both of these worlds are real; there is no utopia in Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

            Taking all of the negative features out of life doesn’t necessarily make things better. Meet Jonas. In his world, you must apologize for even the slightest offense, lying is not permitted, children gain certain privileges as they get older (such as being allowed to ride a bike at 10 years old or at 12 years old each child is assigned their job) later in life each adult is assigned a spouse, teens/adults take pills to suppress their sexual desires, and there is no sunshine, color, or music, and ‘love’ does not seem to exist. The goal of creating Sameness was to take all evils out and to make all citizens equal. Yet the more memories Jonas receives from the Giver, the more he wishes that the world was unique again and this is evident in a comment that he makes: “But anyway, I was thinking, I mean feeling, actually, that it was kind of nice, then” (Lowry 126). In The Giver, death is referred to as ‘release’; and is regarded three different ways: 1. A cause for celebration and honor for the released elderly adults, 2. Sorrow over released newborns who were not strong enough to survive on their own, 3. As a punishment for individuals who commit a certain offense three times over. Release is the community’s definition as death, yet they do not see it as such.

            All three books address and deal with death in their own way. J.K. Rowling doesn’t shy away from the possibility of death in her novel and nor does she endorse it. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone really only touches on the topic, though. Suzanne Collins adapts a very primal attitude towards death, but then, it’s an uncivilized, wild-life atmosphere that both the citizens of the Districts and the tributes are living in. ‘Eat to survive’ and ‘kill or be killed’ are very prevalent themes in the story. Lois Lowry emphasizes death as a population control and also as a punishment; when Jonas views the release of the smaller of the two baby twins, he sees it as murder. The citizens of Sameness don’t know that ‘release’ really is just a lethal injection in a sterile room. There is no kind of danger in their community, so they do not have to fear death, and have been programmed to believe that if they are released (especially after having a party celebrating an elderly adult’s life before they’re gone) that it will take them Elsewhere.

            There are a couple themes in relation to death that I found while reading these three novels that are worth mentioning. The first is immortality and is explored in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In the Forbidden Forest, Harry, Hermione, Neville, and Draco serve their detention by trying to help Hagrid hunt down a unicorn that is near death/dead. During the trip, Harry meets a centaur who explains what unicorn blood does. “The blood of a unicorn,” explained Firenze, “will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price” (Rowling 258). This doesn’t help achieve immortality, but is a temporary evasion from death. To be able to evade death longer, the Sorcerer’s Stone, which produces the liquid Elixir of Life, is needed. The Stone was owned by Nicholas Flamel and allowed him and his wife to live for over 600 years. Neither The Giver nor The Hunger Games discuss the idea of living forever.

            The second theme, which is religion, I actually could not find an example of in any of the three novels. Many people fear death – a lot. They use the idea of God for comfort, having convinced themselves that they’ll never really be dead if they go to Heaven. The closest thing I could find resembling Heaven was Elsewhere in The Giver, where the people believe they will go after they are ‘released’, or die. I believe that Jonas and Gabriel are alive at the end of The Giver and actually find ‘Elsewhere’ in life, in that other community, but there’s a theory that Jonas and Gabriel have died by the end of the novel and have really gone Elsewhere. Thinking about it, it’s actually really surprising that religion isn’t really mentioned in any of the books. Death isn’t the main topic of each book, but is prevalent enough that a character’s (any character, not necessarily the main character) fear of death should force them towards religion. It really does help make literature more universal to all when a religion is not given; all three authors must have done this on purpose so anyone could relate to their story.

            It’s challenging to discuss difficult topics (such as death) in children’s literature and not scare or scar the readers. It happens that children do not fully understand the meanings behind everything that they read; a lot of people will go back and read a favorite childhood novel as an adult that they simply found to be a good story back when they were young, and find a lot of hidden themes and meanings that went over their head before. Sometimes characters die and that’s not clear to children until they’re older. Even though it is difficult to write about, topics such as death should not be avoided in children’s literature. Harry Potter, The Giver, and The Hunger Games are some of the most popular children’s books available and they all have death present in some way; Harry Potter and The Hunger Games similar in how they present death bluntly while The Giver is more subtle about it. Although death is an adult topic, J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Lois Lowry all do an excellent job of presenting it to a younger audience.