Death in children’s fiction

It features in many of the books that have dominated children’s bestseller lists over the past few years – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Maze Runner trilogies all contain it in abundance. But how much should death be present in children’s fiction? And is it OK that at times it is almost brushed over as we are so keen to move onto the next action point in the story?

Winston’s Wish, the childhood bereavement charity, recently released its findings that every 22 minutes a child in Britain is bereaved of a parent, which equates to 24,000 newly bereaved children each and every year. It’s a subject that is difficult to deal with for both the teachers and friends of the affected child, because bereavement is a subject that isn’t commonly spoken about between children.

I would argue that the inclusion of the death of a loved one in children’s books is therefore important, because, if nothing more, it demonstrates to a bereaved child that others have gone through similar emotions. At the same time it can help its peers to understand their situation and hopefully to react to it more appropriately.  

Certainly, books such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece both tackle loss in a poignant way, devoting a lot of attention to the changing nature of the protagonist’s emotions.

You then get into the tricky territory of books in which death is prevalent and the plot is so action-packed that there isn’t time to dwell on the emotions that it generates amongst those that remain. I completely understand why the authors have presented it in the way they have – the narrative wouldn’t work if you slowed it down to examine the grief that follows death. But I feel that it’s important to at least acknowledge it. James Dashner does this very effectively in the first book of the Maze Runner, in which the protagonist Thomas, continues to think about his friend Chuck, long after he has died.

But however well described the reaction to death, most narratives tell only a small part of the story. All too often, dying in fiction is connected with a sense of heroism or a desire for avengement, whilst in reality this is rarely the case, as grief takes over the lives of those closest to the person that has passed away. Of course, there’s no golden solution other than to encourage children to read widely and in doing so, engage with the subject from a range of very different angles.

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Query letters to agents… (pet hates)

I watched a great film at the weekend – About Time directed by Richard Curtis. Have you seen it? If not, I would definitely recommend it, although I warn you that it’s terribly sad!

The idea for this post came from a moment in the film in which the main female character talks about her job as a reader for a literary agency and mentions the vast quantities of manuscripts that cross her desk. Of course, she’s an entirely fictional character (who is magically lucky enough to end up working with Ian McEwan), but it made me think of the hours and hours of time that most writers put into their manuscript and the relatively little time that is given to them by readers.

So what can you do to give yourself a better chance of jumping out of the slushpile (aside from the obvious answer of writing a cracking unputdownable best seller that will make every reader fall in love with it from the very first line)? Well, you can write a great introduction to it – a query letter, if you will. Easier said than done? Yes, but here are some words of wisdom which I’ve gathered from agents at literary events, which might prove helpful.

  1. Make sure that you always use the first name of the agent that you’re pitching to. You have a much better chance of an agent warming to your work, if your query is directed to them specifically. It sounds obvious, but do your research on agents within individual agencies and tell them why you think your book will appeal to them specifically – e.g. ‘I noticed on your website that you have an interest in YA historical fiction…’
  2. Never, never mailmerge – there’s nothing worse than an agent seeing that you’ve done a generic query letter and just mailmerged in the names of different agents/agencies. And if something goes wrong with the mailmerge, you will have ruined your chance with all the agents you’re querying, not just the one!
  3. Sense-check what you’ve written – make sure that you don’t have any obvious clangers. Several agents I’ve met have said that they’ve had email queries from writers who have said that they’ve ‘attached an SAE’ – don’t be that person.
  4. Make sure you have all the right attachments in the format in which they’ve asked for them – every agency is different. Some want the first 10 pages, others the first 3 chapters or anything in between. Follow their instructions carefully.
  5. Remember to include your address and contact details, particularly if you’re submitting by post!
  6. Say a bit about yourself, but keep it relevant and related to your writing career. The query should be mainly about your book, not about you as a person.
  7. Be succinct and to the point when describing your work – many agents say that they are constantly ‘battling against the vague’ and find it incredibly frustrating to be merely told ‘I hope you enjoy reading my novel.’
  8. Don’t be super humble, but also don’t go the other way – Don’t tell the agent that your work is similar to ‘x author’. They want to judge that for themselves.
  9. Don’t say that your kids/partner/friends love your book and therefore imply that it must be great – sadly the above mentioned people are likely to be very biased…
  10. Check all your spelling and grammar!

Do you have any other tips to share?