By B.J. Epstein, University of East Anglia
English and American children’s literature differ from Scandinavian when it comes to the depiction of death. Verbal and visual differences range from the type of characters portrayed to the messages offered about who dies and what happens once they are dead. This may be explained by the disparate religious impact on people’s lives in the English-speaking and Scandinavian-speaking countries respectively, senior lecturer B.J. Epstein, University of East Anglia, England, argues in this article, which is the result of NBI-stipendet in 2020.
An Analysis of the Portrayal of Death in English-Language Picturebooks, with Comparison to Swedish and Norwegian-Language Ones
“Children are often treated as completely ignorant of intense experiences they live through. These include sexual feelings, loss and grief when someone close to them dies, and outrage at social injustice. Yet experiences in childhood can be very powerful, even when children do not have the language to express this other than in difficult behaviour or withdrawal, and we should learn to give them loving understanding and share with them accurate information. They do not live in a world of their own. They live in our world.” (Kitzinger, 2015, p. 205, italics original)
This article starts with Sheila Kitzinger’s quote because the concept of whether children should be exposed to death through children’s literature and, if so, how is the basis for this article on English-language picturebooks. Children live in the world and they cannot be completely sheltered from its realities; even if they could stay protected for a period of years, at some point they would have to be exposed to facts and truths, such the mortality of living beings, and they would have feelings and questions about these topics at that stage. The growth of, for instance, bibliotherapy as a field suggests that adults are becoming more aware of the pedagogical and emotional benefits of using literature to explore various issues with children; examples of subjects include eating disorders, bullying, being the new kid, and much more. As Kitzinger makes clear, we need to give children “accurate information” and “loving information” (2015, p. 205) to help them learn to cope with life.
I decided to analyse the way death is depicted in picturebooks; my hypothesis was that it might be something of a taboo in English and that, if it were written about and portrayed in illustrations, it might be in a euphemistic sort of way. I find that there is a dearth of death as a featured subject in English-language picturebooks, except in the case of “problem books”, the purpose of which is often intended to be educational and beneficial rather than high-quality pleasure reading. Also, books in English rely on ideas of heaven and do not often depict human characters, especially not young ones.
Why does death both stay silent and silence others in English – why does it seem to be “the ultimate taboo” in English (Clement, 2015, p. 5) As Clement notes, “Despite – or perhaps because of – the silence that frequently surrounds death in western cultures, children, naturally curious about the world around them, become even more curious about death.” (2015, p. 4) What might it look like to satisfy this curiosity?
I will argue that the region of northern Europe in general, and Sweden and Norway in particular, is much more honest with children about the facts of life and death, and therefore more willing to include death as a topic in picturebooks and to depict it bluntly – as well as, at times, movingly and/or humorously – in both words and images. This stems, I suggest, from differing cultural attitudes and perspectives relating to children, childhood, and religion, and I will focus here on a discussion of the latter.
A Brief Note on Methodology
It is worth briefly mentioning my approach to both finding and analysing the books. I carried out research in Norwich, England; Stockholm, Sweden; and Oslo, Norway, over the course of several years. To find books, I used keyword searches at libraries and on the websites of online bookstores, I read newspaper reviews and blogs, and I asked librarians and others familiar with children’s literature, such as colleagues or parents, for suggestions. I purchased books and I also spent time in the main Norfolk branch library in Norwich, at the Svenska Barnboksinstitutet (Swedish Institute for Children’s Books) in Stockholm, and at the Norsk Barnebokinstitutt (Norwegian Institute for Children’s Books)In 2020, received a grant from the Kari Skjønsbergs Fond to carry out research at Norsk Barnebokinstitutt (Norwegian Institute for Children’s Books), and I gratefully acknowledge their support, … Continue reading, and while at the latter two institutions, I was lucky enough to receive suggestions and support from specialist librarians. I was also able to browse the shelves there and to review recent publications, searching for any mention of death I could find. In the end, I reviewed 14 books in English, 20 Swedish books, and 13 Norwegian books. For the sake of comparison, I also looked at several translations to English that I had found, such as from German, but I do not discuss those here.
In terms of exploring the texts themselves, I focused on what the words said about death, thereby carrying out textual analysis, and also on how the illustrations depicted dead humans or animals and also the process of mourning. In terms of the images, I considered the colours used, the framing, and the style, among other things, although only some of this is mentioned below due to word count limitations.
I must acknowledge that this research is probably not comprehensive; it is likely that I have missed some texts. Also, given the space constraints of a short article, I have chosen to look at only three texts from each culture. But I do believe this is a representative sample from all three cultures, and that I have been able to explore enough texts in my larger corpus in order to be able to draw some general conclusions.
English-Language Texts: Protecting Children
I will start by exploring the English-language picturebooks that I found. As Clement notes, “Death was certainly not ‘the ultimate taboo’ in children’s literature before the twentieth century. The myths, legends, and fairy tales that constitute the genre of children’s literature before literature was actually being written for children are saturated with death.” (2015, p. 5) Death was, in other words, commonplace in early books or tales meant to be read to children. However, as Clement continues, “[t]he gradual purging of death from children’s literature both in sanitized fairy tales and the newly emerging children’s literature at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is at least in part a consequence of the surfeit of dead children in Romantic and Victorian art and literature.” (2015, p. 7) Where we seem to be at right now is that death is seen as something of a frightening or inappropriate subject for children. Gibson and Zaidman remark that “[a]s children and adults began to live longer, death as a subject in books for the young became taboo.” (1991, p. 232)
In the picturebooks that I found in English, there were certain commonalities. First of all, in the library, most of these books were in what I call the “D” section of the library. This means the shelf of books focused on supposed problems or issues: among others, this includes going to the doctor or dentist, disease, difference (such as sexuality or race), disability, divorce, and, of course, death. This shelf is away from the other picturebooks and finding the works in this section requires that a parent search for them or actively ask a librarian for help.I have not looked in other libraries in the UK to see whether the placement is the same, but I can note that the Norfolk Millennium Library is the busiest library in the UK, so it can be considered … Continue reading This implies a belief that there is a need to protect children from these works unless the topic is somehow directly relevant to them.
The way the works are written likewise suggests protection. The authors tend not to be children’s authors but instead are frequently therapists or other “experts”, which gives the impression that a specialist is required in order to explain death to children in an appropriate way. Furthermore, the dead/dying characters tend to be elderly in these books, and the plots often focus on how death is necessary for them at this stage because they are old, tired, and/or ill. Their death is peaceful and usually not depicted on the page. These characters are also frequently animals or other “natural” items, such as leaves; it is rare to find a dead or dying human in English. This suggests a certain discomfort with the subject of human mortality.
Finally, the books often feature a heaven or afterlife, and show the dead character helping others live on, such as by watching them or even actively intervening in their lives. There tends to be a focus on the living characters trying to remember the dead character and their good memories with them or the educational or emotional gifts they had given while alive. This can both help young people learn to mourn while also in some ways shutting down the mourning process, because there are seldom discussions of deep anger or sadness in response to death in these works. There is gentle sadness and then a swift move towards positivity.
In short, in English, the picturebooks assume little knowledge about death, they employ old, non-human characters to explore it, imply a heaven/afterlife, and generally seem aimed at comforting and protecting young readers. Salisbury and Styles write that “[a]pproaches to the subject of death have been many and varied. Most commonly perhaps, it is dealt with through a much-loved pet dying and a reassuring representation of heaven, where everyone is having a lovely time and looking down benignly and comfortingly on our worldly travails.” (2012, 122) This is indeed what my corpus bears out.
Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr (2002/2007) is the last in the series of Mog books, about a cat. The book begins: “Mog was tired. She was dead tired…Mog thought, “I want to sleep for ever.” And so she did. But a little bit of her stayed awake to see what would happen next.” (Kerr, 2002/2007, n.p.) Here, there is a non-human character who is tired and wants to simply go to sleep. When Mog dies, she then watches over her family after her death, and she intervenes in their lives by fixing a problem they have with their new kitten. The last page reads (and the image shows): “And she flew up and up and up and up right into the sun.” (Kerr, 2002/2007 n.p.) This suggests an afterlife, with Mog up in the sky, where heaven is said to be, perhaps continuing to watch over her former family.
In The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia (1982), the protagonist is a leaf who has lived for a season and now, somewhat like Mog, is tired and ready to die. He has a non-violent death (i.e. it is the right time for him to die, and it is not that he is picked by a child): “He felt himself float quietly, gently and softly downward. As he fell, he saw the whole tree for the first time. How strong and firm it was! He was sure that it would live for a long time and he knew that he had been a part of its life and it made him proud.” (Buscaglia, 1982, n.p.) Freddie the Leaf does not have an afterlife in the same way as Mog, in that he does not go to a sort of heaven, but he does help his former tree and the world more generally live on. It is written: “He did not know that what appeared to be his useless dried self would join with the water and serve to make the tree stronger. Most of all, he did not know that there, asleep in the tree and the ground, were already plans for new leaves in the Spring.” (Buscaglia, 1982, n.p.) The author was a teacher and motivational speaker, not a writer for children, and his focus appears to be on explaining that death is natural and takes place at an appropriate time (a wise leaf explains this to Freddie in the story). And Freddie contributes to life even after his death.
In both these examples, there are non-human characters who die because they are old and have lived out their lives. The pictures do not, for example, show ill characters or stiff or bloody dead characters, nor do they depict funerals or mourning rituals. Instead, there is an emphasis on the vibrancy of those who remain and on what they did gain and continue to gain from the dead.
A Rare Exception
The exception in my English corpus is Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen, with illustrations by Quentin Blake (2004). Based on Rosen’s own life, the dead character is Rosen’s teenage son. Rosen notes: “What makes me most sad is when I think about my son Eddie. He died. I loved him very, very much, but he died anyway.” (2004, n.p.) This is already very different from most other English-language books in that not only is the character a human, but it is a child as well, while it is an adult who is left to grieve. A series of images from Eddie’s life ends with an empty frame, making it clear that Eddie is gone and has no more future. The pictures show Rosen looking low, shaded in darkness. Passages discuss how sad he feels and imply that everyone can have these deep feelings, sometimes for no reason at all, as in: “Who is sad? Sad is anyone. It comes along and finds you.” (2004, n.p.) Rosen does go on to suggest things he (and by implication, the reader) can do when feeling sad, such as doing something he can feel proud of, talking to someone who might understand, singing in the shower, participating in enjoyable activities (such as watching sports), and so on. There is an acknowledgement that the emptiness brought on by someone’s death never ends, but that there are steps that can be taken to alleviate some of the pain by someone grieving. There is room in the book for sharing memories of the dead character, but there is no message that the dead person is still around in some way.
About this book, Salisbury and Styles write that it “takes a painful and honest look at depression, death and grieving…The low-key but devastating darkness of parts of the written text is brilliantly mirrored in Blake’s illustrations; overwhelmingly grey with a few telling, scratchy pen-and-ink lines, they depict utter misery. Blake is also good at lifting the mood with a touch of yellow, an exuberant child character, a toy raising an eyebrow to the reader, a flickering candle flame. From its murky cover with bits of rubbish strewn around a city street, to its unrelentingly grey endpapers, the book’s treatment of some of the toughest emotions human beings ever suffer is frank, straightforward and true to life. It was critically acclaimed in the West and may have gone some way to breaking down the barriers”. (2012, 124)
Rosen’s counter-example reveals by its difference how common the previously mentioned traits are in children’s literature in English, i.e. that the characters tend to be old animals, that they are ready to die, that death is sad but the dead character is still watching and participating in life in some way, that death should only be approached in coded ways when talking to children, and that there is no room for big feelings, at least not beyond a short mourning period.
In an analysis of a Swedish-language middle-grade book, Penni Cotton writes that shielding children from difficult subjects is an injustice and that “[o]ne injustice is the lost opportunity to develop empathy” (2015, p. 161). She argues that northern European literature was earlier than English-language literature to take on difficult subjects, including death. As noted above, fairy tales did not shy away from death as a topic, although later, more sanitised versions do, perhaps in part in relation to their adaptations to film. But as Cotton points out, some of the fairy tales were from the Nordic countries, such as those by Hans Christian Andersen from Denmark, and they “feature death prominently as its presence reflects a pervasive reality and provides a suspenseful threat for the storyteller.” (2015, p. 162) More recent authors have continued to feature death, such as Barbro Lindgren in the 1960s and Astrid Lindgren (no relation to Barbro) in the 1970s (Cotton, 2015, p. 163-4) and Cotton suggests that perhaps films such as by Ingmar Bergman influenced the culture here (2015, p. 168).
My overall findings with regard to death in Swedish children’s picturebooks are quite different from what I found in terms of the English books discussed above. In Swedish, there are many books, both fiction and non-fiction, whereas I primarily found fiction in English. Another difference is that there are many more human characters, so it is not primarily animals, leaves, or other types of living beings that die.
In addition, the plots often show children exploring grief and considering how to mourn, somewhat as in the book by Michael Rosen. Such a pragmatic an approach also extends to the practicalities around death, in that Swedish-language books feature death notices, psalms, and funerals, and the images not only depict these things but also show the dead bodies themselves. As an article about preparing for death in Sweden notes, Swedes are often “very, very rational and unsentimental” when it comes to death (Meltzer 2019, n.p.).
As is perhaps already clear, the books tend to be open and realistic in their approach to both words and images. Although some do suggest that people usually die when old, that is not the only type of death featured. They rarely refer to an afterlife or show a dead character watching over their family or friends.
Finally, these works are found in the general picturebook section of the library, and not in a special area, what I deemed the “D” section earlier in this article.
Deep Feelings Allowed – Usually
Vem är död (Who is Dead) by Stina Wirsén (2010) does have animal characters and in this case, it is an “old and tired” grandpa who “had lived enough” (2010, n.p.)“Mamma tröstar: Det var skönt för farfar att dö nu. Han var så gammal och trött. Han hade levt färdigt.” All translations to English are my own., but when asked “Where is Grandpa now?”, the blunt answer is “No one knows.” (2010, n.p.)“-Var är farfar nu?… -Ingen vet.” There is no implication that there is a life after this one and the book is rather brutal in its realism, as when the bird kills and eats a butterfly. Cotton notes that “[v]isual strategies can achieve empathy for the elderly facing imminent death more effectively than verbal strategies because they represent the silent emotions experienced in real life.” (2015, 164) I would argue that this is the case for Wirsén’s book and some of the other Nordic-language texts I discuss in this article, because they do not hide the truth of what it might feel like to be elderly, sick, and/or exhausted.
A book that is similar in its depiction of death is Dom som är kvar (Those Who Are Left) by Karin Saler and Siri Ahmed Backström (2014). It features human characters, including, unusually in my corpus, non-white ones. The reader is told: “When life is over, then you are dead…Don’t exist/are not there/are dead” (2014, n.p.).“När livet är slut då är man död…Finns inte/är inte med/är död”. As in Rosen’s work, there is a recognition that the survivors have feelings about the death that has occurred: “Those who are left/they continue to exist…They grieve/maybe cry” (2014, n.p.).“Dom som är kvar/dom fortsätter finnas…Dom sörjer/kanske gråter”. The book gives suggestions for what one can do while mourning, such as talking, being silent, watching television, and so on, and while there is the idea that doing those things can help, there is no overarching comfort. There is no implication that there is a life after this one; the reader is told that survivors have to “Learn/to live with/the fact that those who are dead/are dead.” (2014, n.p.).“Behöver lära/sig leva med/att dom som är döda/är döda”. Realistic and open, the book allows readers to explore their experiences with and emotions around death. It accepts that people have strong feelings when they have lost someone and that claiming that the dead person was ready to die and is now in heaven is not always enough of a help, if it is one at all.
The exception among Swedish-language books is Uppe bland molnen (Up Among the Clouds) by Matilda Salmén (2016). The title itself reveals that this book features an afterlife, which is unusual in my corpus of texts from Sweden. Early in the book, the reader is told: “Sometimes it happens that a person dies. There’s a poof, and then the person is gone. It’s the saddest thing that can happen and everyone cries.” (2016, n.p.)“Ibland händer det att man dör. Poff säger det, och så är personen borta. Det är det sorgligaste som kan hända och alla gråter.” Although there is a clear recognition that the death of someone can be incredibly sad, the book swiftly moves to describing heaven and saying what a wonderful place it is. For example: “Time passes super-fast in heaven. Much faster than on earth. It’s wonderful not to miss them so much, your family and friends. Because you’ll see them soon again anyway. Nice.” (2016, n.p.)“Tiden går superdupersnabbt i himlen. Mycket snabbare än på jorden. Härligt att slippa sakna så mycket, familj och kompisar alltså. För man träffas ju liksom snart ändå. Skönt.” According to this book, heaven is a great place, with good food, school, fun activities, and more. Those who are dead can even spy on the people they have left behind on earth, which is a message more in common with English-language books than the other Swedish-language ones. The book is quite silly in some ways, and even though Cotton talks about humour being a useful strategy for picturebooks as a way of creating distance and developing empathy (2015, p. 162), I would argue that this book does not use humour in this way. Rather, the depictions of heaven and the silliness in both words and images (i.e. the language in heaven is “heavenish”,“himmelska”. the dead eat cotton candy and play croquet, and there are many puns on words related to heaven) obfuscate the reality of death. It provides comfort to the living, but only inasmuch as it suggests death is not the end. It does not discuss how to deal with a death, only how to pretend that death almost does not happen. It is about heaven, as many English works are, and yet it is silly, not taking death seriously, so although it is an exception in some ways in comparison to other Swedish texts, it also is playful, which does fit in with Scandinavian children’s literature more generally.
Cotton writes that “Kübler-Ross suggests that for children to accept death, they must….” understand it, have comfort, have a way to remember the person, and have something to remember them by (2015, p. 174). Many of the Swedish-language books provide help with this, by explaining death openly, exploring ways of finding comfort, and not denying the facts.
I had assumed that the situation for Norwegian-language books would be similar to that for Swedish-language ones, based on their related languages and cultures. Indeed, that is what I found, to a great extent. There were many picturebooks about death, mostly fiction, but some non-fiction, and they were open about what death involves and how it feels to be left behind. They were also to be found in the regular picturebook section, not a separate area, which emphasises that the topic is completely accepted when it comes to a young audience. One difference is that Norwegian books sometimes contained the message that life and death are inseparable. A couple of the books have been translated to English now, perhaps showing there is a growing recognition of a need for these books in English and that authors are not yet producing works of a high-enough quality in English.
Death as Part of Life
In Farvel, Rune (Goodbye, Rune) by Marit Kadhol (1987) two children are playing that they are fishing and when one child goes home to change her shoes, she returns to find that her friend, Rune, has drowned. The text states: “Now he is dead. He will never talk again. Never see or hear. He cannot walk or run or play again. Never smile at Sara. Never hug her anymore. Sara will never see Rune again. Because he is dead.” (1987, n.p.)“No er han død. Han kan ikkje snakke meir. Ikkje sjå eller høyre. Han kan ikkje gå eller springe eller leike meir. Ikkje smile til Sara. Ikkje klemme ho fleire gongar. Sara ska aldrig få sjå … Continue reading There is no hint of an afterlife or the comforting idea that Rune is watching over Sara; rather, Sara’s father tells her, “Rune will never wake again now…He’s just sleeping and sleeping. Forever.” (1987, n.p.)“Rune vaknar aldri meir no…Han berre søv og søv. For alltid.” Sara is told that Rune’s body is turning to earth (1987, n.p.). The images are black-and-white after Rune dies, as though reflecting Sara’s depression at the death of her best friend, and colour only returns at the end, when Sara and her mother bike to the cemetery to visit Rune.
Tone Birkeland, Gunvor Risa, and Karin Beate Vold write that the book is about “children’s friendship, sorrow and death [and] has made an impression on several generation of children and adults.” (2018, p. 348)“om barns vennskap, sorg og død – har gjort inntrykk på fleira generasjonar barn og vaksne.” Regarding the illustrations, they note that “the illustrations [depict] the great loneliness that always accompanies grief. The psychological content is expressed in a strong and expressive artistic language. The illustrator focuses closely on Sara and uses portraits with large expressive eyes as one of her tools. The landscape also changes character according to the mood. With the watercolour’s wet-in-wet technique, Øyen paints the experience of the accident into the landscape with woolly, black shapes. The grief is most strongly expressed in the spread that shows the churchyard without any colours. ” (347)“Det psykologiske meiningsinnhaldet blir uttrykt i eit sterkt og ekspressivt formspråk. Illustratøren rykkjer tett inn på Sara og bruker portrett med store uttrykksfulle auge som eit av … Continue reading
Farvel, Rune has been translated to English, and while space precludes me from analysing the translation in any depth, I can note that there were significant changes, such as lighter colours in the illustrations in the English version, a change of tense, an added fanciful love story (instead of two opposite-sex children simply playing, as they were in Norwegian, in English they pretend to be married), some changes of gender, warnings about going into the water, more text, additional details, and also some removed text, including a clear statement in Norwegian that Rune is dead and another about how Sara will never see him again. These changes can be seen to strengthen my claim here that English-speaking cultures are more protective of children and much less comfortable discussing death.There is much more to say about all these changes, but for now I can sum them up as making the English version more romantic, perhaps even sexualised, and slightly less focused on the death of Rune.
The main character of Jeg er Døden (I am Death), by Elisabeth Helland Larsen and with illustrations by Marine Schneider is Death, who looks almost like a girl on a bicycle. Death visits everyone eventually and “no one can hide from me” (2015, n.p.).“Men for meg kan ingen gjemme seg.” Death acknowledges that she/he/it/they most often visits “those with wrinkles. Those who have lived the longest. Those who are tired of life, as though they were tired of food. I hold my arm under theirs, and we support ourselves against one another.” (2015, n.p)“Jeg kommer som oftest til de med rynker. De som har levd lengst. De som er mette av livet, som om de var mette av mat. Jeg holden min arm under deres, vi støtter oss mot hverandre.” But Death also says they visit young people, animals, and the unborn. The book emphasises how important death is, because without people dying, there would be no room for new people to be born. Life and death go together here, in one and the same body, because everyone must die, and Death is an important part of “life, love and you.” (2015, n.p.)“Jeg er Døden, en del av livet, kjærligheten og deg.” As with the previous Norwegian example, this book accepts death and shows that it is part of life, even if it is sad.
On the other hand, there are books such as Stian Hole’s Annas Himmel (Anna’s Heaven) (2013) features human characters and some surrealistic elements, the title and the story suggest an afterlife. Anna and her father are getting ready for her mother’s funeral. Anna longs for her mother: “If only Mum could return and plait my hair.” (2013, n.p.)“Om mamma bare kunne komme tilbake og flette håret mitt”. At Anna’s instigation, she and her father imagine – or perhaps really visit – the heaven where her mother has presumably gone. They see interesting things and people, including Pablo Picasso, Elvis Presley, a giraffe, and more, but Anna cannot see her mother. Anna suggests that perhaps her mother is seeing a friend or is in the heavenly library, and there is reference to a god who might be grateful to have her mother there. Although Anna and her father return to the real world and the funeral, they are comforted by this visit and brought closer together, with the implication being that now they can get through this together. The heaven they visit, or imagine, helps them. Although the book allows for sorrow, restlessness, and confusion, the depiction of an afterlife potentially closes down the discussion about what happens after death, both to the dead and their survivors. Also, in this book, it is Anna who has to help her father and make him smile again, rather than him being the adult.This book has also been translated to English, but it has not been dramatically changed as the earlier book was. She has to comfort him; this may be realistic for some family situations, where children take on the more typically adult roles. Her sadness is apparent, but considering her mother in heaven brings back a certain level of cheer. This book can be said to have a Christian perspective, although not one as overt as many of the English-language texts, and the style is completely different as well from English-language death-related picturebooks.
Tone Birkeland, Gunvor Risa, and Karin Beate Vold describe Hole’s art style as follows: “His illustrations are digitally manipulated collages, composed of countless pieces from widely different sources. Photographs and drawings where the copyright has expired are combined with digital photos that he has taken himself, and which he layers in Photoshop and ‘sews’ together into seamless montages. … He plays with sizes and perspectives and this makes the real and the unreal merge into a kind of surrealism that is both disturbing and fascinating. ” (2018, p. 352)“Illustrasjonane hans er digitalt manipulert kollasjar, sette saman av tallause bitar frå vidt ulike kjelder. Fotografi og teikningar der opphavsretten er utgått, blir kombinerte med digitale … Continue reading The surrealism might be helpful for some readers and might provide a sort of comfort when someone is mourning, although some of the images might also be “disturbing” or distancing.
Norwegian picturebooks, like the Swedish ones, do not avoid death as a subject. Although Penni Cotton only references one book in her article, she summarises her findings by saying “[b]ooks such as these demonstrate the openness of Scandinavian countries to exposing young children to complex social issues through non-patronizing literature that can ultimately enable them to hone their empathic responses to characters and situations imaginatively conceived.” (Cotton, 2015, p. 164) In addition, Salisbury and Styles clearly differentiate between northern European children’s literature and English-language children’s books, noting, “Many people, particular in the English-language publishing world, may see books [about death for children as] indicative of the different, northern European attitude to death, and published to win awards for artistic brilliance and sensitivity. It certainly provides an extreme contrast to some of the over-sentimental picturebooks published in the English-speaking world. Opinions differ over whether such a book has a place in a children’s bookshop.” (2012, 123) From such analyses, it seems inarguable that there is a significant difference between English-language and northern European approaches to death in picturebooks.
Differences in Religious Activity
The foregoing analysis reveals that Scandinavian and English picturebooks have different approaches to death. It has not gone unremarked upon in my own and others’ research that Scandinavian and English-language cultures differ and that that influences the production of children’s literature. When it comes to death, differing views of what is appropriate for children and why will impact the writing and illustrating of picturebooks, and in turn religion may play a significant role in regard to this.
It is certainly possible to argue that religion affects how American and British versus Swedish and Norwegian children’s books depict death. Sweden, Norway, the US, and the UK are all nominally Christian countries, but not necessarily all actively religious ones. Actively Christian countries, one could say, might have such a firm belief in a life after this one that there might seem to be little point in writing much about death for children. Perhaps it is thought that children get all the information they need from Sunday school or other religious classes or from sermons or reading the bible. It may also be that people think that discussing death with children is something that parents ought to do; as mentioned before, findings about sexuality and gender identity in children’s literature suggest a similar discomfort with featuring honest, open conversations with children in English-language texts (Epstein, 2013).
Statistics could back up the idea that religion is a foundational reason for different views about death. For example, “the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith” (Pew Survey, 2015, n.p.). And in the 2011 census, 60% of British people identified as Christian (ONS, 2011, n.p.). Meanwhile, a “Gallup Poll in 2016 found that 18% of Swedes self report as atheist and 55% as non-religious” (Gallup Poll, 2017, n.p.) and “just five percent of Swedes are regular church goers” (The Local, 2015, n.p.). And in Norway, although a majority of people belong to the Church of Norway, “[o]nly 2% of the Norwegian population regularly attend church, and around 70% are members of the Church of Norway. Up to 25% of the population is non-religious and do not believe in either God or other higher powers, and have no everyday rituals related to religion” (Christensen, 2018, n.p.).
In other words, 60-70% of people in the US and the UK consider themselves Christian, while a majority of Swedish and Norwegian people belong to the Christian state religion but do not feel religious or go to church. A belief in a god and an afterlife – or a lack of such a belief – would definitely impact how people write about and illustrate death for children.
Unfortunately, I cannot offer a clear-cut explanation of the differences I have found within my corpus, but I believe that religious belief might be one reason. The more religious cultures that believe in an afterlife would, understandably, be more likely to depict it in literature for children, as both propaganda and comfort, while those who believe life ends with death would understandably focus on portraying issues of how to cope and mourn when a beloved friend or relative or pet has died.
As this overview has revealed, there are similarities and differences as to how the varying cultures depict death. Across the corpus, it was most common to have dead animals or elderly people, not young people, but it was much more likely to have human characters in Swedish and Norwegian versus the animals seen in English. Books in all languages emphasise being “old” and “tired” as reasons to die, but with few exceptions, it is only the Scandinavian languages that depict dead young people.There is no space here to discuss this, but it is important to note that books about war often do not focus on death, instead treating the war, or being a refugee, as the primary subject. This is … Continue reading Some books in all three languages discuss strategies for handling death but English books focus more on memories and the idea of the dead one watching over those alive, while Swedish and Norwegian books discuss emotions and practical matters. As for the images, brighter colours and more matter-of-fact images, such as dead characters and bodies in coffins, are found in Scandinavian books. I have suggested that religion may be a reason behind such differences.
Salisbury and Styles (2012, p. 122) and Clement (2015, p. 14-5) both emphasise the curiosity of children and the need for young people to know about life, so they can be educated, resilient, and ready for the world. Advice from psychologists about talking to children about death includes: “The most important thing is to not shy away from the topic – don’t ignore a child’s questions or try to change the subject. Instead, see them as an opportunity to nurture their curiosity and contribute to their gradually gaining a better understanding of the life cycle.” (Panagiotaki, Seeley, and Nobes, 2018, n.p.) They add that, “[w]hatever the circumstances, children try to fill in the gaps in their knowledge if truthful information is kept from them. Often their imagination can be far more scary, and potentially far more damaging, than the reality.” (2018, n.p.) This would imply that the Scandinavian approach is the healthier and more helpful one. Perhaps the song is right and if heaven is simply a place on earth, then that is what children need to be taught through picturebooks.
America’s changing religious landscape (2015) Pew. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape
Birkeland, T., Risa,G., & Vold, K.B. (2018) Norsk barnelitteraturhistorie [History of Norwegian Children’s Literature] (3rd edition). Det Norske Samlaget.
Buscaglia, L. (1982) The fall of Freddie the leaf. Slack.
Clement, L. D. (2015) Introduction. In L.D. Clement and L. Jamali (eds.), Global perspectives on death in children’s literature.Routledge.
Clement, L. D. & Jamali, L. (2015) Global perspectives on death in children’s literature.Routledge.
Cotton, P. (2015) Old age and death in Northern European picture books: Achieving empathy through textual and filmic images of Sweden’s Kan du vissla johanna. In L.D. Clement and L. Jamali (eds.), Global perspectives on death in children’s literature (pp. 160-176).Routledge.
Christiansen, A. (2018) Most non-religious Norwegians are members of the Church of Norway. University of Agder news. https://www.uia.no/en/news/most-non-religious-norwegians-are-members-of-the-church-of-norway#:~:text=Urstad%20has%20concluded%20that%20most,of%20the%20Church%20of%20Norway
Epstein, B.J. (2013) Are the kids all right? HammerOn Press.
Gibson, L. R. & Zaidman, L.M. (1991) Death in children’s literature: Taboo or not taboo? Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 16(4), 232-234.
Global Report on Religion (2017) Religion. Gallup Poll. http://gallup.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Global-Report-on-Religion-2.pdf
Hole, S. (2013) Annas himmel [Anna’s heaven]. Cappelen Damm.
Hole, S. (2014) Anna’s heaven. (D. Bartlett, transl.) Eerdmans Books for Younger Readers
Kadhol, M. (1987) Farvel, Rune [Goodbye, Rune]. (W. Øyen, ill.) Den norske bokklubben.
Kadhol, M. (1987) Goodbye Rune. (W. Øyen, ill.; M. Crosby-Jones, transl.; C. Maggs, adapt.)
Kane/Miller Book Publishers.
Kerr, J. (2002/2007) Goodbye Mog. HarperCollins.
Kitzinger, S. (2015) A passion for birth. Pinter and Martin.
Larsen, E. H. (2015) Jeg er Døden [I am Death]. (M. Schneider, ill.) Magikon forlag.
Meltzer, M. (2018) How death got cool. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/12/how-death-got-cool-swedish-death-cleaning.
Panagiotaki, G., Seeley, C., & Nobes, G. (2018) What young children understand about death – and how to talk to them about it. https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/wellbeing/young-children-death-conversation/
ONS: Religion in England and Wales (2011) Office for National Statistics.https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/articles/religioninenglandandwales2011/2012-12-11#:~:text=The%20Annual%20Population%20Survey%20data,less%20than%201.0%20per%20cent%20.
Rosen, M. (2004) Sad book. (Q. Blake, ill.) Walker.
Saler, K. & Backström, S. A. (2014) Dom som är kvar [Those who are left]. Urax.
Salisbury, M. & Styles, M. (2012) Children’s picturebooks: The art of visual storytelling.
Sweden ‘least religious’ nation in Western world (2015) The Local. https://www.thelocal.se/20150413/swedes-least-religious-in-western-world
Salmén, M. (2016) Uppe bland molnen [Up among the Clouds]. Opal.
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|1||In 2020, received a grant from the Kari Skjønsbergs Fond to carry out research at Norsk Barnebokinstitutt (Norwegian Institute for Children’s Books), and I gratefully acknowledge their support, and thank the staff at the Institute and the National Library of Norway for their help. In addition, in 2019, I received a grant from the Helge Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse in Sweden, which enabled me to both carry out more research in Stockholm and also to present my preliminary findings on this subject at the IRSCL conference.|
|2||I have not looked in other libraries in the UK to see whether the placement is the same, but I can note that the Norfolk Millennium Library is the busiest library in the UK, so it can be considered representative for the approach to displaying books.|
|3||“Mamma tröstar: Det var skönt för farfar att dö nu. Han var så gammal och trött. Han hade levt färdigt.” All translations to English are my own.|
|4||“-Var är farfar nu?… -Ingen vet.”|
|5||“När livet är slut då är man död…Finns inte/är inte med/är död”.|
|6||“Dom som är kvar/dom fortsätter finnas…Dom sörjer/kanske gråter”.|
|7||“Behöver lära/sig leva med/att dom som är döda/är döda”.|
|8||“Ibland händer det att man dör. Poff säger det, och så är personen borta. Det är det sorgligaste som kan hända och alla gråter.”|
|9||“Tiden går superdupersnabbt i himlen. Mycket snabbare än på jorden. Härligt att slippa sakna så mycket, familj och kompisar alltså. För man träffas ju liksom snart ändå. Skönt.”|
|11||“No er han død. Han kan ikkje snakke meir. Ikkje sjå eller høyre. Han kan ikkje gå eller springe eller leike meir. Ikkje smile til Sara. Ikkje klemme ho fleire gongar. Sara ska aldrig få sjå Rune meir. Fordi han er død.”|
|12||“Rune vaknar aldri meir no…Han berre søv og søv. For alltid.”|
|13||“om barns vennskap, sorg og død – har gjort inntrykk på fleira generasjonar barn og vaksne.”|
|14||“Det psykologiske meiningsinnhaldet blir uttrykt i eit sterkt og ekspressivt formspråk. Illustratøren rykkjer tett inn på Sara og bruker portrett med store uttrykksfulle auge som eit av verkemidla. Også landskapet skiftar karakter etter sinnstemningane. Med akvarellens vått-i-vått teknikk målar Øyen opplevinga av ulykka inn i landskapet med ulne, svarte former. Sterkast kjem sorga til uttrykk i bildeoppslaget som syner kyrkjegarden utan fargar.”|
|15||There is much more to say about all these changes, but for now I can sum them up as making the English version more romantic, perhaps even sexualised, and slightly less focused on the death of Rune.|
|16||“Men for meg kan ingen gjemme seg.”|
|17||“Jeg kommer som oftest til de med rynker. De som har levd lengst. De som er mette av livet, som om de var mette av mat. Jeg holden min arm under deres, vi støtter oss mot hverandre.”|
|18||“Jeg er Døden, en del av livet, kjærligheten og deg.”|
|19||“Om mamma bare kunne komme tilbake og flette håret mitt”.|
|20||This book has also been translated to English, but it has not been dramatically changed as the earlier book was.|
|21||“Illustrasjonane hans er digitalt manipulert kollasjar, sette saman av tallause bitar frå vidt ulike kjelder. Fotografi og teikningar der opphavsretten er utgått, blir kombinerte med digitale bilde som han sjølv har tatt, og som han legg lag på lag i Photoshop og “syr” saman til saumlause montasjar. … Leik med storleikar og perspektiv får verkeleg og uverkeleg til å smelte saman i ein slags surrealisme som både uroar og fasinerer.”|
|22||There is no space here to discuss this, but it is important to note that books about war often do not focus on death, instead treating the war, or being a refugee, as the primary subject. This is worthy of further research.|