There's something I've been pondering for a while, ever since I've begun reading more and more YA contemporary. I've been thinking about it as I've encountered some of my all-time favorite books. Books that I've been moved by, that I love, that I've re-read again and again.
The majority of them have a secondary character--often the main character's friend or family member-- that passes away. Frequently, the event occurs before the novel even starts, or near the beginning of a book. A book that begins with death, with grief--it grabs the reader's attention, that's for sure.
And I have to wonder what that means, why it's so common, and what effect it has on us as readers.
I don't mean this post to be a criticism because like I said, some of the best books I've ever read have this element in common. As a matter of fact, I'm starting to wonder if having someone close to the main character pass away is an near-requirement for serious contemporary literature. It's often been said that there aren't any new stories, just new ways of telling them. Even though many of my favorite books include death as a major plot point, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's overdone--it's just seems to reoccur. Looking for Alaska features a protagonist dealing with the death of a friend, Wintergirls begins with protagonist dealing with the death of a friend, The Sky is Everywhere starts with the protagonist dealing with the death of a sibling, Before I Fall deals with the protagonist herself dying, and If I Stay features a protagonist dealing with the death of her family. Books like Cracked Up to Be even venture into the protagonist's feelings of guilt with their role in death.
And I'd strongly recommend each and everyone one of the books mentioned above. They're incredibly moving, poignant, touching, and well-written. A lot of them have death not just on the sidelines, but at the forefront of their premise.
And I have to wonder--does death make a book?
I don't mean to be flippant, but death is a reality, even in a teenager's life. Even the high proportion of girls that perish suddenly and unexpectedly in YA literature isn't unwarranted--it does happen, so I don't think the realism of these novels comes into question. It can even be argued that these books have an added realism: that the author's choice to highlight the grief of the main character in the face of tragedy--and often the character's healing and reaction to this sudden death--is a reflection on life and also a very important theme.
The common modes of death in these books--car crashes and suicide--also correspond with reality. And for the most part, each protagonist in the books mentioned above deals with death differently. Ultimately, the books mostly end with a positive note, a hopeful vibe even when the protagonists' whole life has been torn apart.
And I have to say this: I find these books incredibly moving. They're tearjerking and they hit home and they have depth--I can't stop thinking about them afterwards. I'm not trying to say that death is the reason that these novels have quality--exemplary writing, characterization, and execution play a large part--but does it add an extra resonance to the story? Does it strike a reaction that no other event in a book can?
I say yes. Diverging from the contemporary boundaries, I don't think I've ever been as torn apart as when *SPOILERS* Sirius Black in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix died, or when Rudy and Hans Hubermann from The Book Thief died *END SPOILERS*. But death in the sci-fi/fantasy/historical genres seems--in general-- to be more out of the way. There are casualties that affect the protagonist along the way, but they don't completely shatter their world and remain the sole focus of a book as they often do in contemporary.
Of course, there are beautiful contemporary books out there that don't deal with death as a major event--Melina Marchetta's books, in particular, and John Green's, save for Looking for Alaska--but an overwhelming majority (especially of my favorites) do. It seems reasonable, too--to get the plot moving forward in a contemporary novel--that a drastic event needs to happen. More often than not, it's death. How many life-altering events does a real teenager face? Family and relationship issues, health issues, school issues, and socioeconomic issues are some problems that first come to mind. It's really a combination of several different factors that should drive a protagonist to rock-bottom, as is necessary in a novel.
But is the reliance on death as a plot device a bad thing? Or a good thing? Or does it even matter? Is it even a reliance, or is it a theme that's necessary in most books?
You tell me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
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