Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 12, 2012

Small Books for the Young about Facing Death

My class recently finished  Peter Pan, where on the first page we read: “Two is the beginning of the end,” and in Chapter 8, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” A bleak tone weaves between the humor and flying. I had to warn my students that even before we get to the dead bodies in The Hunger Game, which we’ll read in YA week, we’ve got to get through The Secret Garden and the less flower-filled spring in Bridge to Terabithia.

Addressing the fact that this wonderful novel has been banned as “inappropriate for ten-year-olds,” Katherine Paterson states the obvious: death comes, appropriately or not, and encountering it first in a novel can be a useful rehearsal. The open spaces and well-chosen words of a verse novel may provide a particularly good rehearsal hall, as the form allows either lingering or moving quickly through, and the fewer words make it easier to trace an arc with hope at the end.

Hard Hit  by Ann Turner is told  from the viewpoint of a star pitcher whose father is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with sections called Windup, Strike One!, Extra Innings, and Three Strikes! Mark’s voice sounds like  that of a real boy with everyday as well as life-changing concerns, while a backdrop of a “star-cluttered universe” is a solace and source of strength. Lying on his back to look at stars at the book’s end, Mark feels the lessons and love of his father’s voice.

This book about a teenaged boy whose father dies might make a good companion to Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, another novel in verse told from the voice of a girl whose mother dies. This book, which recently won the Pura Belpré Award and other honors, tells the story of Lupita, oldest of eight children in a Mexican-American family as she navigates high school, cares for her siblings, and comes to terms with her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Six sections, ending with “words on the wind,” show her finding the strength to honor her own dreams, which aren’t her father’s, by writing under the tree of the title: a tree that can last through drought and adapt to different sorts of ground.

Kindred Souls, the latest book by Patricia MacLachlan, isn’t written in verse, and the loss is of a grandparent instead of a parents, but it’s short with short chapters, each true word well-chosen, and a frame of birds that feels like verse. The kindred souls of the title are a boy and his sick, but vibrant-sounding grandfather, and the quiet plot revolves around the boy and his family building a sod house to surprise the grandfather when he returns from the hospital. The boy thinks the gift will keep him alive, but learns that happiness is complicated, and holding something close may be the key to a peaceful letting go. The seasons and cycles of day and night, and the close families (and cherished dog) we often find in MacLachlan’s books, lend a warmth and peaceful light to a keenly felt loss.



  1. As usual, beautiful! Thank you, Jeannine.

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