Children's column: time to stop killing your darlings

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 20th February 2009

I wonder whether the of this year's Waterstone's Prize winner, Michelle Harrison (for The 13 Treasures ), beside last year's winner, Sally Nicholls (for Ways To Live Forever ), is a symbol that a fashion in children's books has moved on. Way back in 2003, when I was a judge of the Orange Prize, the theme of the submissions seemed to be dead children - as in, for instance, Donna Tartt's The Little Friend , Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved , Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones , and Sonia Hartnett's What the Birds See . (And there were many others.) We concluded that, just as the Victorians consoled themselves for high infant mortality with angelic, fictionalised deaths (Little Nell, Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin ), the same prevalent anxiety that makes us not allow our children to walk to school, the fear of child-killers, was working itself out in fiction. More recently, this preoccupation with child mortality had found its way into children's books.


Children who die are not new in children's fiction, from Beth in Good Wives (not, as Friends would have it, in Little Women) onwards. What has been new is making the child who dies the central character. While finishing off the protagonist is quite common in adult fiction (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, for examples), children's writers preferred to dispatch best friends: Zach in Goodnight Mister Tom, Charlotte in Charlotte's Web (since Wilbur is the hero).
More recently, we have had a fashion for making the narrator the one who dies if three books that come to mind constitute a fashion: Jenny Downham's Branford Boase winner Before I Die, Sally Nicholls book, and Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere. In the case of this last, the death is a device for writing a reassuring idea of the afterlife. But it used to be an unthinkable approach, to turn a fictional character into Anne Frank.
So why did we suddenly come to like it? We still grieve in fiction when the best friend dies, and feel the catharsis. Was that not enough? It is different to identify with the doomed one in the driving seat.
In fact, all the books above have their life-affirming qualities. They celebrate life even as the children (not in fact victims of violence, but of illness and, in Elsewhere, a road accident) face their ends. And they are all admirable pieces of writing, handled with skill. But am I alone in finding the dying narrator distasteful? I am similarly uncomfortable with the impulse that makes us want to watch Jade Goody's wedding. Do we not feel close enough to death to understand it, because we live in an irreligious world that does not have universally accepted ways of describing and coming to terms with it? Perhaps the taste for misery memoirs has filtered down into children's books, and all ages now enjoy the thrill of vicarious suffering. If so, I m not sure it's a good thing.
I am sorry to have more questions than answers in this column, and would be interested to know others thoughts about the appeal of these books, and what they say about our collective state of mind. But perhaps I am not alone in being glad we have gone back to rewarding a fairy tale. Although even that is about a missing child.

View related titles