Pain and Loss in YA Literature


I have recently (not on purpose) read a trio of well-written young adult titles dealing with themes of death and grief and loss.

In Noggin (John Corey Whaley), our protagonist Travis Coates struggles with the loss of his body when he wakes up from a cryogenic sleep, saved from the cancer that ate at his previous body by doctors who sewed his once-frozen head to a donor’s body. Travis struggles to adjust to a new (albeit physically improved) body, but he struggles most with the loss of the five years that (for him) passed in the space of a nap but to those around him (including his best friend and girlfriend) mean real growth and change in their lives. This book is an interesting take on the post human experience and shares not a little with the Frankenstein literary tradition, but it’s Travis’ poignant–and more than a little pitiful–quest to restore his romantic relationship with his former girlfriend that drives most of the exploration of loss in this book.

The most conventional book of the three, perhaps, is Where Things Come Back (also by Whaley) which opens with the overdose of Cullen Witter’s cousin but quickly moves to the disappearance of his sensitive and gifted fifteen-year-old brother. There’s a lot of loss to go round in this book, and given that it takes place in a small town, some of that loss is experienced by those who return after having set out into the wider world with dreams and hopes that are, ultimately, unrealized. We see the most meaningful treatment of loss in the way Cullen describes his (and his parents’  and others’) wrestle with Gabriel’s disappearance. There are two intertwined stories in this book that come together in a satisfying way at the end, and both treat with loss in unique and meaningful ways.

My most recent read is Ann Dee Ellis’ The End or Something Like That. The loss in this book is real and present from the beginning as we see Emmy’s intentions to reach beyond the veil to her best friend Kim, who died almost a year before the events of this book. Again, Ellis pushes boundaries a bit in this book as Kim sees and talks with dead people (not in a Sixth Sense sort of way, since Emmy is really trying to commune with the spirit of her dead friend). But the exploration of loss in this book (and, to an extent, in the others as well) is complicated and made more authentic by the fact that Emmy–as we come to find by the end of the book–is wrestling with the consequences of her own human frailty as its connected to Kim’s death. In some ways, I found this book to have the most compelling treatment of loss and our human imperfections in the face of devastating loss.

What I love about these books first off is their sophistication–and that’s true even of Noggin, which at first I thought would be too irreverent and sophomoric to be taken seriously. The loss that each of the characters in these books deal with is real, and the authors take the emotional impact seriously; their characters navigate treacherous waters of grief and healing in authentic ways. (Some of the sophistication, I think, comes from the experimental aspects of Noggin and The End or Something Like That, which is an aspect of young adult literature that I’m consistently impressed with.)

Reading these three books so close together had me thinking about those who read these books and their responses to them. I’ve known plenty of teens that have had to deal with loss in all forms–from deaths of loved ones to loss of their own dreams to loss of a familiar family structure from divorce. I’m grateful that books like these exist–and are so well-written–so that readers might have some help adjusting to the consequences of loss (or at least to know that they’re not alone in their feelings).

However, I also think that adults are drawn to books like these for important reasons. Some of these reasons overlap perhaps with the reasons why adults in general are drawn to young adult lit, but there are important differences here that separate the appeal of these books from that of the Harry Potter and Twilight series. We all have to deal with loss, and I don’t know that we ever get very good at it; each loss can be unique in its significance and its consequences. In some ways, each new loss is a new shock to our system, and even if we’re older, we can sympathize on some level with the teen characters in this book who are, for the first time, encountering significant loss. We see ourselves in their pain and attempts to heal, not because we can remember “what it was like to be their age” but because we, still, feel the way the world seems to turn upside down when we lose something or someone that we care deeply for.

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