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From ‘Death Be Not Proud’ to Death Be Not Permanent: Shifting attitudes towards death in contemporary young adult literature

Author:

Karen Coats

About Karen
Karen Coats is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, where she heads the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature. Her most recent books include The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Teaching Young Adult Literature, a volume in MLA’s Options for Teaching Series that she co-edited with Mike Cadden and Roberta Seelinger Trites.
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Abstract

Death has been a major theme in YA literature from its inception, prompting Roberta Seelinger Trites to theorize that the protagonist of a YA novel must accept death as an ultimate “curtailment of their power” (140) in order to achieve maturity. While her arguments hold true for twentieth century texts, this paper explores how this condition has shifted somewhat in twenty-first century YA. Instead of accepting death as permanent and inevitable, contemporary novels often stage plots that enable characters to deny its power altogether by trivializing it; personifying and romanticizing death as a human-like character deserving of empathy; rendering it as an act of choice for teen characters; or denying it outright through recursive plotting or posthuman fantasies. In addition, deaths caused by social injustices are increasingly used as a rallying cry for activist responses. Threaded throughout these trends is a common denominator of positioning death as a challenge to traditional ways of thinking about the value, meaning, and desirability of human life. This paper suggests that Nietzsche’s concepts of active and passive nihilism are useful to explore the extent to which these ways of denying death’s power are successful in encouraging an active questioning of death rather than a passive acceptance as the condition of achieving maturity in the twenty-first century.
How to Cite: Coats, K., 2020. From ‘Death Be Not Proud’ to Death Be Not Permanent: Shifting attitudes towards death in contemporary young adult literature. The International Journal of Young Adult Literature, 1(1). DOI: http://doi.org/10.24877/ijyal.31
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Published on 02 Nov 2020.
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