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Ferndale panel examines death and dying in children’s lit

Cover of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ novel by John Green.
Cover of ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ novel by John Green.

Two experts in children’s literature join an educator who specializes in death and dying for what organizers hope will be an informative, if not uplifting, discussion.

“Not If But When: Books For Young People About Death and Loss” is free at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2, at the Ferndale Public Library, 2125 Main St.

“Death is a complex and complicated subject to understand,” said Thom Barthelmess, youth services librarian at the Whatcom County Library System and one of the presenters. “We serve our children well when we help them understand that.”

Other panel members are Sylvia Tag, curator of the Children’s Literature Interdisciplinary Collection at Western Washington University; and Marie Eaton, director of WWU’s Palliative Care Institute.

What we need to do is to have a culture where kids are exposed to and process this issue before there’s an emotional emergency.

Thom Barthelmess, youth services librarian at the Whatcom County Library

Barthelmess said each panel member will speak for about 10 minutes, discussing how Americans grieve as a culture and listing books that address the subject.

“We hope what happens is that we have an open discussion; our hope is that it’s much more conversational,” Barthelmess said.

Not every children’s book on death and dying is a “Fall of Freddy the Leaf” or “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney,” which pointedly address childhood loss. Children’s literature confronts death, dying and grief in varied and creative ways, such as in John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” which is a romance between two terminally ill teens, or “The Outsiders,” S.E. Hinton’s classic study of teens from opposite sides of the tracks who face both heroic and senseless death.

“What we need to do is to have a culture where kids are exposed to and process this issue before there’s an emotional emergency,” Barthelmess said.

Works such as Lisa Graff’s “Lost in the Sun” and Erin Entrada Kelly’s “The Land of Forgotten Girls” approach death and grief in fascinating ways, Barthelmess said.

In other stories, such as “The Book Thief” or the nonfiction “Boys Who Challenged Hitler,” death becomes a character itself, or looms as a constant presence in the story.

“All of us recognize that this isn’t a topic that people line up for” he said. “We would love to have an audience of parents and family members.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-715-2805, @bhamMitty

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