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What Do Classic Young Adult Novels Have to Teach Us About Death?
Reading time: 13 min.
Spoiler alerts: Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia
Answer: A lot and that may not be a good thing
I was nine the summer my fears about death were confirmed. My sister and I were visiting my nana without our mother and father. My nana lived with my uncle, aunt, and cousin in an old Victorian in a working-class neighborhood in Brockton, Massachusetts. The wallpaper was fading, and the carpet on the stairs was threadbare at the edges.
After swimming in the neighbor’s above-ground pool one humid afternoon, I snuck away upstairs to read. I sat on the floor of the room I shared with my sister and opened Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die.
Published in 1977, A Summer to Die was one of the first YA novels to capture young girls’ attention. It follows Meg and Molly, two sisters who don’t always get along. Their family has moved to a house in rural Maine for a year for their father to finish writing a book. It seems idyllic. The house is in the country. Molly gets a boyfriend. Meg gets a darkroom in which she happily spends hours developing her photographs. The only downside is that they’re forced to share a room.
A third of the way through the book, Molly starts to get bloody noses. The doctor tells her they’re from the dry, cold weather. They don’t stop. She develops flu-like symptoms and stays home sick from school for a month.
Over the next two days, I remained absorbed in the book. The parallels between Meg’s life and my own were obvious. Like Meg and Molly, my sister and I loved each other but weren’t close. We didn’t look alike: she was dark-haired; I was blonde. Like Meg and Molly’s father, our father had once been a law professor. And like Meg and Molly, my sister and I were sharing a room at my nana’s.
Even before I reached the distressing scene that occurs halfway through the book, I both wanted to stop reading. Still, I sat in the guestroom alone and turned the pages until I reached the fateful scene.
Meg wakes, sensing that something is very wrong with Molly. The room is dark. In a frightened, puzzled voice, Molly tells Meg, “‘Call Mom and Dad quick.” She does. Their father rushes in and turns on the light. Blood has seeped into Molly’s pillow. The blood moves in “streams” from Molly’s nose, staining the sheets and blanket, even “spattering on the wall behind her bed.” Their parents rush around trying to respond to the crisis. They come in with towels and hurry out to make calls to the doctor and hospital. Their father quietly reassures Molly, “‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’” but Molly is choking on the blood.
Meg faces the wall and closes her eyes, trying to shut out the scene, but she can’t. It’s “so bright, so horrible.” Eventually, their father carries Molly to the car. When their mother asks if Meg wants to come, Meg says she’ll stay home alone. The car pulls out of the driveway. Meg goes into her father’s study, sits in his armchair, and cries until she falls asleep.
That night, I lay on my side. My sister slept in the bed next to mine. I stared at her. The scene with Molly replayed itself—first with me as Meg and my sister as Molly. I pictured blood oozing from my sister’s nose and could almost hear her choking on it.
After turning onto my back, I stared at the ceiling. The roles switched. I was Molly, and my sister was Meg. The bloody nose was my bloody nose. The choking sounds came from my throat.
This is what’s referred to as “existential shock.” It isn’t quite the same as an existential crisis, which can lead to depression, hopelessness, and anxiety. Existential shock isn’t just the realization that one day you won’t exist; it’s the startling insight that your body can’t be trusted. Typically, it occurs after one receives a terminal diagnosis. It comes on quickly and possesses you, much the way a panic attack does.
Studies show that reading about an experience can act on the mind the same way that experiencing it does. We’re literally transported into stories. When we imagine settings, characters, and scenes, they appear to us as if they’re really happening. We viscerally respond to words on a page. Just reading words like coffee and perfume ignite the smell center of the brain, the olfactory cortex. When we read an action scene—a car chase, a detective chasing a villain across Manhattan rooftops—the motor cortex area lights up as if we’re in motion, too. Imagining someone being murdered induces intense fear. We can become as emotionally attached to fictional characters as to the flesh-and-blood humans around us.
The following morning, I went downstairs to the kitchen and sat at the wood table with my sister and cousin and ate Fruit Loops as if nothing had happened, as if I hadn’t—in a way—experienced death.
I finished A Summer to Die that afternoon. The doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with Molly. They say it’s just nosebleeds, but it isn’t just nosebleeds; it’s cancer. They try various treatments and drugs. She undergoes transfusions. Then chemotherapy. Her hair falls out.
Meg believes (insists) that Molly will recover, partly because she doesn’t really understand what’s happening and never visits Molly in the hospital. (Supposedly, she’s too young.) When Molly is finally discharged, Meg assumes she’s “perfectly well” and is annoyed with the way their parents cater to Molly. Molly ends up in the hospital again, and Meg blames herself.
Molly’s deathbed scene is ethereal, almost beautiful. Meg finally gets to visit her in the hospital. Their father warns her that Molly is different and not to be scared because Molly’s not in pain and not afraid. But Meg is shaken the first time she sees Molly, bald from the chemo and lying in the hospital bed, looking like “an antique doll.”
A Summer to Die portrays death in a way that our culture doesn’t: dying is an intimate act done alone. Their father says, “‘This is a very hard thing to explain, Meg, but Molly is handling this thing very well by herself. She needs us, for our love, but she doesn’t need us for anything else now…. Dying is a very solitary thing.’”
The fact that I read about Molly’s death didn’t make it any less real. If meeting a character in a book can feel like meeting someone in real life, then I met and lost her. Children are said to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. Still, studies show that fictional characters aren’t effective at teaching children how to interact with and live in the “real world.”
Maybe if I’d been around actual death—seen it, smelled it—I wouldn’t have been terrified by the book. Until that point, my direct experience with death was precisely zero. Only my paternal grandfather was dead, and he’d passed when my father was in high school. I’d never attended a funeral, never seen a dead body.
The bloody-nose scene and Molly’s death never left me. A Summer to Die tells us to enter death alone and unafraid. I remembered only the blood Meg saw and the terror she felt.
The afternoon I learned that death wasn’t just terrifying but also unbearably sad I was nine. My mother and I had just come home. It must have been winter because it was already dark out.
Our house was mid-rehab. We walked from the finished entryway with its new wood floors and beige carpeting into a dilapidated room that had once served as a pantry. The splintering floors creaked as we entered. The lights were off.
A noise came from the small bathroom just off the side of the room. The door was closed. It took a moment for me to realize that the sound was crying. My sister—who must have been thirteen—was sobbing.
It scared me. Elizabeth is sick, I thought. She must be dying.
My mother and I stood there for what felt like a long time. I couldn’t make out my mother’s expression in the darkness. Why wasn’t she rushing to the door to help my sister?
Finally, my mother said, “She must have finished the book.”
“What book?” I asked.
“Bridge to Terabithia.” My mother hesitated. “It’s sad. Very sad.”
“Can I read it next?”
My mother said, “You probably shouldn’t.”
My sister’s sobs grew louder.
“Why?” I asked.
“The little girl—”
“Well, she dies in it.”
“How does she die?”
“It’s not important,” my mother said, turning toward the kitchen.
“How does she die?”
My mother didn’t respond.
My mother must have been wondering which was worse: telling me or leaving me to my imagination. “The girl swings from a rope tied to a tree. There’s a creek below. The rope breaks. She hits her head on a rock. She drowns.”
My sister’s sobs started to slow, which almost made them worse.
“How old is the girl?”
“Let’s let your sister come out when she’s ready.”
I followed my mother into the kitchen. “How old is the girl?”
She opened a drawer and searched for something. “Fifth grade, if I remember correctly.”
I would be in the fifth grade next year. I didn’t picture a fictional girl swinging on a rope tied to an oak tree branch and the rope breaking; I envisioned my fifth-grade self.
My mother was right to keep me away from Bridge to Terabithia. When I finally read it this past week at the age of forty-nine, I could barely tolerate the sadness.
Written by Katherine Paterson and published in 1977, Bridge to Terabithia won the prestigious Newbery Medal. Still, it’s been on the American Library Association’s most frequently banned books list for the past four-and-a-half decades. People don’t take issue with the fact that death is in the book; it’s the fact that the character who dies is an atheist and the other main character isn’t sure about his family’s Christian belief that only the devout go to heaven after they die. (He also takes the lord’s name in vain.)
The book centers on Jesse Aarons, a loner, and Leslie Burke, a new student and a tomboy. They’re opposites. Jesse lives on a farm and has to milk the cow every morning and night, whereas Leslie has just moved from a suburb of Washington with her wealthy, educated, progressive parents, who have gone to the country to commune with nature. Jesse hates to read; Leslie tells him stories and gives him books. Jesse wants to prove himself by being the fastest runner in the fifth grade; Leslie beats him in a race, much to Jesse’s ire.
Begrudgingly, they become best friends. In the woods, they create an imaginary kingdom they name Terabithia. He is king. She is queen. Strictly platonic.
There’s no bridge—not yet. The only way to get across the creek to Terabithia is the soon-to-be-deadly rope that hangs from a tree. It often rains, and the rocks end up covered in slippery mud.
While Jesse is on a trip to Washington, D.C., Leslie goes to Terabithia alone. The rest unfolds like my mother said it did: The girl swings from a rope tied to a tree. There’s a creek below. The rope breaks. She hits her head on a rock. She drowns.
It’s not actually Leslie’s death that makes Bridge to Terabithia so sad; it’s Jesse’s inability to come to terms with her death that’s heartbreaking. In the appropriately titled No! chapter, Jesse denies she’s passed away. He runs and runs to “keep Leslie from being dead.” He tells himself her death was a dream.
Finally, he visits Terabithia. He has a funeral for Leslie in Terabithia and crowns a new queen (his sister). Eventually, he builds a bridge to Terabithia. This could be seen as a moment of closure or an attempt to prevent anyone from dying again.
After finishing the book, I didn’t cry like my sister did that day. My heart started to pound. The room seemed to be at a distance. A panic attack. My thoughts grew more intense: Something is wrong. You’re going to die. I thought not of Leslie but Jesse, running to the point of exhaustion to pretend death isn’t real.
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