When I taught English, years ago now, we used to refer to A-Level English as “the sex and death course”. Antony and Cleopatra; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Wuthering Heights; The Great Gatsby; The Go-Between; Madame Bovary; Hamlet; The Handmaid’s Tale; The Bell Jar … Indeed, it would be quite a challenge to put together an A-Level syllabus that didn’t require students to engage with death or sex or both.
I once read a review which referred to “sex and death: the two great discoveries of adolescence”. That phrase has stayed in my mind. Of course there are children whose experience includes death or sex at a sadly young age, but for those who are untouched the realisation does arrive very powerfully in the teenage years, and, as the phrase suggests, with the sense of entering new territory that can shock, excite and intrigue. Now I Know, by Aidan Chambers, a ground-breaking author for young adults, opens with the main character, Nik, retching into his bathwater as the realisation strikes him that one day he will die. “He had of course thought this before,” writes Chambers. “He is no fool. But that evening it penetrated his consciousness with a terrible clarity. A clarity so pure, so undeniable that, despite the pleasant heat of the water, he turned cold inside.”
Teenage fiction can’t seem to get enough death. (Or sex – but death is the topic here.) Recent novels have been littered with the corpses of parents, siblings and best friends, and there have been several young protagonists in the grip of terminal illness (including Jenny Downham’s Before I Die, an award-winning DFB book). The appeal to authors and readers is understandable. For one thing, it’s universal; we’ll all get there one day, even if it doesn’t take a realisation as powerful as Nik’s to bring it home. For another, the wonder of life takes on a special intensity when death is the frame (it’s amazing, really, that we learn so easily to put it out of our minds for most of the time.) For another, the notion of dying can’t help but provoke the Big Questions. What comes after death? Everything, or nothing? Will we be held to account, or are we as insignificant as single-cell amoeba? How will we feel at the end of our lives – what’s it all been for?
I certainly wanted Greg, in The Shell House, to engage with such things. What I like about fiction for young readers is that although these questions are perennial ones, they can be given a sense of the shock of the new. A Private Eye cartoon by Steve Way shows two writers meeting at a party. One says, “I’m an adult author. I deal with going bald and fancying younger women.” The other says, “I’m a children’s author. I deal with good and bad and is there such a thing as innate evil?” People who don’t know much about books often expect children’s authors to produce sweet stories about talking animals, but – as the cartoon suggests – writing for the young offers limitless scope for questioning and wonder.
It’s the possibility of death, rather than death itself, that builds tension. (Same goes for sex.) That’s why Ellie’s The Last Minute works so well (like others, I read it in a single sitting) – we know that any tiny and apparently unimportant decision by any of the characters could lead to either death or survival. The stakes are high from the start.
I haven’t totted up the death count in my own books, but it may well rival Ellie’s (though not all in one go). The Shell House has, partly, a First World War setting, and Sisterland flashes back to Nazi Germany. A war setting hands a free gift to the author: you’d be surprised if you read a novel or watched a film set in wartime in which no one died. The gift to the author is that death or deaths can be easily introduced without contrivance, and the reader, knowing that, is watching and wondering. So there are certainly deaths in those books, and more than one in Set in Stone. But (spoiler alert!) I’ve also included a sudden death in Lob, my story for much younger readers, in which Lucy’s Grandpa suffers a heart attack. I wanted to convey the sheer incomprehensibility of death – how can someone just go? And where do they go? – which I think we all feel when touched by it, at whatever age.
And an important part of that story is to do with Lob himself, a sort of green man figure symbolising the continuity of nature and the seasons, the cycle of life.
“We’ll sow your seeds, soon,” Dad told Lucy, and she thought of Grandpa and the beans: how dried and wizened in the palm of his hand, but how much life there was in them. She felt a tug of longing, happy-sad.”
Linda Newbery has written over 25 books for children and young adults, including Set in Stone, which won the COSTA Children’s Book Prize and Lob – a beautiful story about journeys, garden magic and growing. You can read what Linda has to say about Lob on her author page and in this Guardian feature, or look around Linda’s website here.