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My sixth grade reading lab students just finished Esperanza Rising and Out of the Dust in their general reading classes. We were discussing those two books in class on Friday, and the general consensus was that most of them preferred Out of the Dust to Esperanza Rising.
During the course of the conversation, one boy spoke up and asked, “How come someone dies in every book we read?” (Previously they had read Among the Hidden and Tuck Everlasting.) We stopped to try and answer that question, and I shared with them that, once upon a time, when I was teaching The Outsiders, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Bud, Not Buddy to seventh graders, one of them had voice a similar question, “Why don’t any of these kids have parents?”
I read a lot of middle grade and young adult fiction, and in a large majority of it, you will find a character with deceased parents or siblings, or losing a friend or family member during the course of the book. In middle grade books, this tends to be grandparents or parents, or an occasional friend or sibling. In young adult novels for the more mature readers, friends seem to be the most common casualties. And forget about fantasy…the battles in those novels almost always leave more than a few people dead. This is not a new trend. Six people die in three days in Romeo and Juliet, and let’s not even start to number the casualties in Hamlet and Macbeth.
What my sixth graders came up with, when it was all said and done, was that death is a part of life, and the death of someone we love can cause such a deep hurt that sometimes it feels like you are all alone. Books are a way to connect to someone on the page who might be going through the same thing, which is easier sometimes than reaching out to someone real.
They are going to start reading The Breadwinner soon as part of a cross-curricular unit with social studies. I didn't have the heart to tell them to brace themselves...they have one more dead person to go this year.