Tricky Topics in Children’s Literature: Death

Death in children’s literature is a heavy topic, and it’s one that teachers understandably often steer clear of. But don’t give up on the subject entirely. If your students are up for it, deaths in literature can be a chance for really good discussion if you handle the subject with pragmatism and sensitivity. In this episode, we take a look at how scenes of death are presented in children’s novels written before and after modern medicine, as well as the differences in how the death of a parent versus the death of a child affect the plot of a story.

Activity: How Do Characters Deal with Death?

This worksheet can be used after reading any story in which a character dies. Students can complete it alone, with a partner, or in small groups. Afterwards the questions could be developed into an essay or used in a group discussion. Questions include:

1. Which character dies in the story you are reading and what is the cause of death?
2. Did the character say anything about how they felt about dying? If not, how do you think the character would feel about their death? Would there be feelings of anger or acceptance? Would the character wish things had gone differently at all?
3. How did the character’s friends, family, or allies feel about the death? What did they do afterwards? Did the death of their loved one cause any of them to change?
4. Were any characters happy about the character who died? What did these characters say or do afterward?
5. If you were the character who died, how would you have felt about your fate? Would you have done things differently or tried to change what happened?

Download the worksheet “How Do Characters Deal with Death?”

Music

“He That is Down Needs Fear No Fall” by John Bunyan. Referenced in Little Women.

Sources

Roser, M. (2019, June 11). Mortality in the past – around half died as children. Our World in Data. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality-in-the-past

Tricky Topics in Children’s Literature: Disease

This is the second in a three part series on tricky topics in children’s literature. Before people knew what germs were and developed sanitation to control them and medicine to fight them, disease was a constant concern. Today people hardly know about diseases like scarlet fever or cholera but they used to be alarmingly common, and this is reflected in the books written more than about one hundred years ago as well as in the attitudes of fictional characters.

Older tales are much more blunt about disease, its effects on those who are ill as well as those around them, and its impact on children. But parents and teachers shouldn’t shy away from the topic, as considering the effects of illness can help students develop empathy and more deeply appreciated the contributions of modern medicine to the well-being of children.

Activity: Diseases in the Past

Provide students with the following worksheet, to be filled out after reading a work of children’s fiction in which a main character becomes ill. The goal of the exercise is to help students understand the nature of a disease which was common or dangerous in the past but might be rare or less threatening today due to advances in civil engineering, personal hygiene, and medical treatment.

Worksheet: Diseases from the Past in Fiction

This worksheet can be used on its own or to begin research for an essay, report, or project.

Some suggested stories with depictions of serious illness:

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Sources

Dycus, Kathryne. “ Children Treating Children: Anne Shirley as Clinician.” Hektoen International Journal, https://hekint.org/2020/07/17/children-treating-children-anne-shirley-as-clinician/.