Too Soon: Representations of Childhood Death in Literature for Children



Interest in the history of death and its representation has recently become fashionable in academic circles, generating specialized studies of the art of death, representations of dead and dying women, funeral traditions, death in the medieval and Victorian periods, suicide in early modern England, death and religion, and the relationship between death and culture.2 One strand of this trend has taken root in the field of children’s literature, resulting in surveys of texts about death — including the deaths of infants and young people — in literature for and about children.3 However, even in work specifically concerned with the death of the young, we have found no study which offers any sustained analysis of the social meaning of childhood death. This absence of material is significant since, before the twentieth century, child deaths were more common than those for any other period of life; often they were also highly problematic both in terms of what they signified and how the bodies should be handled.4 What follows is an attempt to begin filling this gap by identifying and interrogating ways in which the deaths of children have been depicted in literature written for young readers. We have chosen to look primarily at children’s literature because, being characterized by high levels of didacticism (which tends to align them with the dominant ideology of any period), children’s texts are particularly valuable for providing evidence of changes through time in sociocultural values.5


Child Death Fairy Tale Young Reader Good Death North Wind 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    From an early-nineteenth-century Sunday School tract quoted in F. Butler, ‘Death in Children’s Literature’ in F. Butler and R. Rotert (eds.), Reflections on Literature for Children (Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publications, 1984), p. 82.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See for instance, N. Llewellyn, The Art of Death (London: Reaktion Books in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1991);Google Scholar
  3. E. Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992);Google Scholar
  4. J. Litten, The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450 (London: Robert Hale, 1991);Google Scholar
  5. P. Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation (London: British Museum Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  6. P. Jalland, Death in the Victorian Family (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. M. MacDonald and T. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  8. J. Derrida, The Gift of Death (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  9. N. Barley, Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death (London: John Murray, 1995);Google Scholar
  10. S.B. Nuland, How We Die (London: Chatto and Windus, 1994),Google Scholar
  11. and S. Webster Goodwin and E. Bronfen (eds.), Death and Representation (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    See, for instance, F. Butler, ‘Death in Children’s Literature’ in F. Butler and R. Rotert (eds.), Reflections on Literature for Children (Hamden, CT: Library Professional Publications, 1984);Google Scholar
  13. J. Plotz, ‘A Victorian Comfort Book: Juliana Ewing’s The Story of a Short Life’ in J. Holt McGarran, Jr. (ed.), Romanticism and Children’s Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991) and ‘Literary Ways of Killing a Child: The Nineteenth Century Practice’, in M. Nikolajeva (ed.), Aspects and Issues in the History of Children’s Literature (Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1995); and M. Walker, ‘Last Rites for Young Readers’, Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 9, no. 4, Winter 1978.Google Scholar
  14. 4.
    J. Simpson writes interestingly about attitudes to dead infants and childrens in ‘The Folklore of Infant Deaths: Burials, Ghosts and Changelings’ which will appear in K. Reynolds (ed.), Representations of Childhood Death (London: Macmillan, forthcoming 1998).Google Scholar
  15. 5.
    For a full discussion of the importance of children’s literature as source material for sociocultural values, see J. Stephens, Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction (London and New York: Longman, 1992).Google Scholar
  16. 7.
    Quoted in L. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-child relations from1500 to 1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 135.Google Scholar
  17. 9.
    A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, [1991]).Google Scholar
  18. 11.
    For a discussion of child prophets see N. Smith, ‘A Child Prophet: Martha Hatfield as The Wise Virgin’ in G. Avery and J. Briggs (eds), Children and Their Books (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 79–93.Google Scholar
  19. 12.
    See M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977) orGoogle Scholar
  20. Power/Knowledge, ed. C. Gordon (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Frederick Faber, Ethels Book; or, Tales of the Angels (1858) quoted in Plotz (1991), p. 178.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    S. Gilead, ‘Magic Abjured: Closure in Children’s Fantasy Fiction’, in P. Hunt (ed.), Literature for Children: Contemporary Criticism (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 96–8.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    See B. Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    J. Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, or: The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1984).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See the first chapter of Donald Thomas, Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background (London: John Murray, 1996).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations