I’ve read many reviews lately of children’s books in which the reviewer claims the book’s subject matter “isn’t appropriate for young children.” I’ve even seen people comment that certain story Bibles have “too many violent stories” in their collection. Certainly, there is plenty of subject matter that isn’t appropriate for young children (things of a sexual nature, for instance, come to mind), but I would submit to you that death and tragedy are not inappropriate for young children.
A vast majority of well known fairy tales include the death of a parent, the death of a villain, and/or the death or near death of the protagonist(s): “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Little Matchgirl,” “The Little Mermaid,” …. Children seem completely unfazed by these fairy tale caricatures of death and dying. “But those are fairy tales and aren’t supposed to be real,” you say.
What about some of the all-time favorite books for children and young adults, books grownups come back to again and again: Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terebithia, Old Yeller, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,….. All of these deal with death, dying, or tragedy and seeming injustice. Are these books inappropriate for children and young adults? There are even picture books well worth reading that grapple with these ideas. Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola is an outstanding example.
We cannot hide death from our children; sooner or later, they will experience the death of someone they know, perhaps even a beloved pet, friend, or family member. Instead of shielding your children, read books like the ones mentioned above along with your usual book selections. Read Scripture to your children and don’t skip stories like Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel, the Passover. After all, if you skip all stories of people dying, you’ll skip the Cross and, ultimately, the source for our hope in the midst of death: the Resurrection. You can’t have a Resurrection without first having had a death. Read books that cover the whole array of human experience and, when you and your children come to death and tragedy in a book, discuss our hope in the midst of death! The great books reflect this redemptive worldview; that’s where the term “Christ figure” comes from. Think about this as Easter approaches, and we take special time out to celebrate the Resurrection.