Young adult books deal with death

Here’s the next in my continuing catch-up battle.  This piece was originally published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Sep. 24, 2014


John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin Books, Brilliance Audio read by Kate Rudd; ages 13 and up) won fans of all ages when he courageously wrote about two teens dying of cancer who fall in love. Probably the factor that skyrocketed this book to fame (and into movie theaters) is that it provides equal measures of tears and laughter. It will undoubtedly send teens looking for another book that’s similar.







They’ll find similarity of situation and style in Hollis Seamon’s Somebody Up There Hates You (Algonquin Books, Highbridge Audio, ages 13 and up). The hero and narrator, 17-year-old Richie, is quick to tell those who wonder at his condition that he’s suffering from SUTHY (Somebody Up There Hates You) Syndrome. As the book opens he’s in hospice and not expected to live longer than a month. Seamon captures Richie’s black humor. Readers and listeners will be drawn in by the novel’s strong voice and Noah Galvin’s expression of it.
From the very beginning Richie has a hard time with a floor mostly devoted to elderly patients. He defines himself as “The Incredible Dying Boy” and from this snarky narrator’s view he sneers at the sappy, sweet harpist whom he later comes to call “the Harpy.” Her music “seems a bit premature” and he finds it strangely amusing to watch visitors who “are hit with the music, stumble and wobble, and fear they’ve gone straight to heaven and claw at the elevator button to escape.”
Dying is boring, but living is fascinating as Richie’s story proves. For in the deep hollow of despair and bitterness, Richie falls in love with 15-year-old Sylvie. Galvin doesn’t hold back on Richie’s dark tones, and yet when 15-year-old Sylvie tells Richie she doesn’t want to die a virgin, a smile hovers in Galvin’s voice as Richie realizes it’s never too late to turn into the popular guy and life is ”all about surprises.” Galvin provides an excellent portrait of the tender Sylvie, her parents, his mother, his wild uncle, and the nurses who care and sorrow for the two teens. All of these provide a strong emotional backdrop, but Galvin keeps Richie in the foreground, noting his wonder, and anger with heartbreaking intensity.


 Noah Galvin also narrates Matthew Quick’s Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (book from Little Brown/Hatchett Audio, 6 hours and 19 minutes; ages 13 and up) and again, gives apt expression to a teenage boy who hovers between life and death and is sarcastic regarding his situation in life. While this book has the intensity of a life-death situation, Leonard suffers from another condition. He feels so miserable, he plans to kill classmate Asher Beal and then himself.


Leonard Peacock is a complicated character and Galvin portrays his disturbing emotions right from the start. The story begins on Leonard’s 18th birthday. His mother has forgotten to remember the occasion and sadly this is typical for she is busy juggling work and her new boyfriend. So Leonard sets out for school with a P-38 WWII Nazi handgun in his backpack and gifts for the four people who improved his “worthless” life. Wondering what Asher has done and what Leonard will do creates some of the tension which doesn’t end until the book’s finale.

From start to finish Galvin accents Leonard’s quick changes from hot vengeful anger to cold distant remove, with a few flashes of longing and sadness added into the mix. Galvin presents Leonard’s mix of self-loathing, tenderness, and regret during the present, flashbacks and future imaginings. Galvin’s success is in unifying the many facets of the book. He integrates the book’s narrative and multiple footnotes seamlessly and more importantly connects the many feelings into a powerful whole with a haunting ending.


2 thoughts on “Young adult books deal with death

  1. It’s good to see YA books dealing with that taboo subject–death. When I was about 12 I read Death be Not Proud. It scared the blood out of me but I was never able to talk to anyone about my feelings. I just ran into door jams and was convinced I was dying of a brain tumor. But no one knew. Maybe it’s different for young teens now. Hope so.

    • Susie Wilde on said:

      We can all be grateful that a children’s book can so often reach a child who’s not getting the message he/she needs; or is afraid to speak up! Book on anxiety would be interesting to write about as well!

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