by Vicki Palmquist
Do you ever time travel to a literature classroom one hundred years from now, intent on finding out what the online teacherbots are telling students about the literature of the first decade of the twenty-first century?
After all, Mark Twain would have done so if he could have found a way. Or maybe he did. That crafty Sam Clemens probably had it all figured out. I’m sure there are literary conspiracy theorists who have reasoned that Mark couldn’t have written A Connecticut Yankee or The Mysterious Stranger without knowledge gained by time travel.
But I digress. What would those teacherbots have to say about our culture’s current fascination with death? Everywhere you go, you find newspaper articles about the goriest details of dying and death and the “secret son” of the recently deceased. Movies bring people back from the dead to watch over their family and friends … and play it for the comedic effect. Haley Joel Osment uttered “I see dead people” and it becomes a catchphrase. Television shows such as Dead Like Me and The Dead Zone and Pushing Daisies script clever lines for grim reapers, the recovering dead, and a pie baker with power over life and death.
In children’s and young adult literature, the preoccupation with death is notable. Titles such as The Last Apprentice (Delaney, Greenwillow), The Graveyard Book (Gaiman, HarperCollins), The Hunger Games (Collins, HarperCollins), Elsewhere (Zaven, Square Fish), Twilight (Meyer, Little, Brown), Keturah and Lord Death (Leavitt, Front Street), Life As We Knew It (Pfeffer, Harcourt), Kipling’s Choice (Spillebeen, Houghton Mifflin) and The Book Thief (Zusak, Knopf) all explore different realms of death and dying in fiction.
Nonfiction titles about the Holocaust, September 11th, wars around the globe and back into history, the interesting tale-outside-the-tale of Angel Girl (Carolrhoda) which was a true story but not so much, The Diary of Anne Frank (Frank, Doubleday), September 11, 2001 (Hampton, Candlewick), 10,000 Days of Thunder (Caputo, Atheneum) … all of these intrigue readers because they are about death or those who are dying but don’t yet know it.
It’s not a new subject for children’s books. We’ve had books that explore death in every decade but I can’t remember a time when so many of the dead walked among us, fascinated us, and landed on the bestseller lists as often. It would be easy to say, “we’re involved in wars,” but this isn’t the first time. Are publishing houses reacting to the prevailing mood or creating it? Reading standards in many states require that students know the difference between reality and fantasy: which of these books will fit neatly into the curriculum? Are more authors writing about death or are more publishers accepting manuscripts on topics of death and dying?
I think it’s worth talking about in our discussion groups. Certainly the teacherbots will be assigning research papers to those twenty-second century students, trying to figure out what we were thinking.
Vicki is a children’s literature enthusiast and one of the co-founders of Children’s Literature Network. She has worked with children’s books since her first job as a page in a library. In subsequent jobs in bookstores and libraries, she found herself straightening the children’s books most often. For the past 20 years, she and her husband, Steve, have worked as graphic designers and marketing consultants for Winding Oak. They live in Minnesota.
Copyright CLN 2009. All rights reserved.