This week I'm taking on a difficult topic: life after death. I have recently read two middle grade books which include references to eternal life. Although not the central theme of Avi's THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS or Jonathan Auxier's SOPHIE QUIRE, protagonists in both books experience the death of important secondary characters.
THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDSIn Medieval England Sybil, a young servant girl, is in bondage to Thurston, an alchemist determined to make gold and procure eternal life. In his quest, he creates green stones that give him magical powers and eternal life when swallowed. After swallowing the first stone, he "dies" but then comes back to life 20 years younger. In fact, he dies three time.
"I must live because I don't want to die," he says. Each time Thurston thought he had outwitted death and was enabled to live life all over again. In an almost contradictory note, the narrator concludes that there is no magic because magic takes away what it gives, but life gives what it takes.
SOPHIE QUIRE AND THE LAST STORYGUARD
I smiled at this reference to the hero's journey:
She had read enough stories in her life to be familiar with the trope in which heroes make a great show of being reluctant when told they must embark on a dangerous quest. They often refuse the call to adventure, only to change their minds at the very last moment. This had always bothered Sophie, who thought that such dithering was both unrealistic and unheroic. But now that she was the hero and she was being told she must embark on a dangerous quest, she suddenly understood just how difficult it was to take that first step. (p. 159)But like THE BOOK WITHOUT WORDS, after important secondary characters die, magic brings them back to life.
LIFE AFTER DEATHIn these novels for boys and girls, both Avi and Auxier are grappling with a huge truth: death happens. In my mind, they unveil the universal fear of one's own mortality. People don't want to die and would rather imagine they can live forever.
Most young people don't think about death as a fact of life, unless confronted by the death of a close friend ore relative. How should writers who are writing for the children's or young adult market take on this subject?
Avi and Auxier chose to provide magical answers. To the question of what happens after death they've answered, "Magic can allow you to live forever." In my estimation, there is only one author and book that doesn't shy away from this tough subject and doesn't offer magic as the answer.
In the gospel of John, there is a record of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Just prior to this miracle Jesus tells Lazarus' sisters, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." (John 11: 25-25, New King James Version)
Jesus went on to demonstrate his power over death by rising from the dead, a miracle that was witnessed by the disciples on several occasions (Matthew 28: 16-17, Luke 24: 13-16, John 20: 1-2, 19, 24, by Paul (Acts 9: 3-5), and by 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6).
I think that layered underneath Avi and Auxier's magical portrayal of characters coming to life is a fear of death itself. The author of Hebrews (most likely Paul) writes,
"Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (Hebrews 2: 14)There is life after death--but it's not obtained through magic.
GIVEAWAYFor those of you who are my friends or faithful blog followers, you know that I don't often reference my faith in my book reviews or on this blog. I had such a strong reaction to both of these books that I felt compelled to write a response from a Christian perspective.
If you are interested in receiving my hard copy of SOPHIE QUIRE (provided by the publisher, Abrams) please leave me a comment by May 6th with your email address if you think I don't have it. I look forward to your comments about this post or your thoughts on other children's books which have tackled this difficult topic of death.