Hello everyone, and welcome back!
So I’ve been thinking for a while now that YA has been having a moment with books about grieving. Or maybe it’s not so much a moment as just…the genre openly acknowledging a big part of what it’s always been about?
There are so, so many dead parents and siblings in young adult literature. On the face of it, it’s pretty weird, but I see how it works: dead parents/siblings give teen protagonists a reason to be distant from their family, which allows them the independence to do all the coming-of-age or genre-heroic things they have to do (that sane and competent parents would never allow).
That, and grief as a formative experience (and tragic backstory) gives our protagonists reasons to feel more “mature” and “adult” than your average teen, while also being sympathetic because their lives are already signalled as, well, sucking on an obvious level.
Books directly about grief are an interesting thing, then, in a genre that’s almost always a little about grief. What do these books have to offer that’s more than your average YA novel?
Generally, they give us more insight into different ways that people grieve, strip away taboo about grieving for “too long” or in the “wrong way,” and give us a look at coping mechanisms (healthy and unhealthy) that we might not otherwise experience in other YA novels. Usually, they start with broken relationships that get mended because of catalysts (usually new people, even more usually romantic interests) that come into the protagonist(s) lives.
Sometimes, this type of book is heartbreaking and lovely and uplifting. (Yes, I’m still thinking about I’ll Give You the Sun.) Sometimes, well…sometimes, it feels like it fits a formula.
Without further ado:
letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer
Letters to the Lost does have a premise I like: a girl (Juliet) who has recently lost her mother is leaving letters at her grave, and a boy (Declan) who is doing community service at the graveyard (for a crime he committed out of grief because of his younger sister’s death) finds her letters and replies. They become anonymous friends, although at school their guarded, angry exteriors keep them from connecting IRL.
This book is definitely readable; the grief that Juliet and Declan feel is deep and relatable, and they both write about it in heartbreaking ways. The issue with this as a book, as a whole, is that two sad people talking about being sad while they have feelings about each other is pretty much all that’s happening in this entire book.
You know how some people refer to certain horror movies as “torture porn,” because they’re not so much about a plot or about scaring you as they are about showing the most shocking, horrific thing on screen as possible? I felt kind of like this was…grief porn? Trauma porn? Like, just when you think it’s max sad, it turns out to be so much worse than you thought. Even Declan’s BFF has a tragic backstory.
And I mean, not that I’m not a sucker for things being sad. Obviously. I chose this book to read, after all. But although I can sit and cry all the tears for things being mega sad, I also want to care about the characters, you know? I feel like I had very little idea who Juliet was beyond…grieving. (A bit perfectionist and self-critical, I guess?) Declan came across a bit more as an individual, but…yeah. Their best friends (Rowan and Rev) were basically composed of “model best friend,” other than that Rev also had a very tragic backstory. (The teachers were also all beyond committed and understanding? Which is nice, I guess.)
Because the characters didn’t have a lot of…who they were in the story, other than all this tragic stuff that piled up, the eventual formula of this type of story (where broken relationships find reconciliation) felt a bit forced. I didn’t really know the people the protagonists reconciled with other than how they’d contributed to the protagonists’ traumas, so I don’t know how invested I was in those reconciliations, or if I understood why the protagonists wanted to forgive. In other cases, it just felt kind of awkward. (Juliet apologizes for being distant with someone who just brushes it off, so…okay.)
For people looking for a grief read re: feeling horrible and even being seen as horrible, but finding a way to try to break out of a pit of despair, this would make sense. The feelings of grief in this book are raw and real, and so are the protagonists’ attempts to find other things to hold onto. A lot of the people who try to nudge them towards happiness are likeable, too, at least insofar as they’re trying to help in understanding and good-natured ways. (Those characters don’t…really have much else going on.)
But in terms of a book with a plot and characters to invest in and…no, this really isn’t a thing, and I can’t even blame it on the book being short, because it’s not particularly short. Juliet is just a person with no interests other than the interest her mother had, which now causes her issues because this book wants everything to be max sad, so she doesn’t really get to be a character? These people only have senses of humour of any kind when the narrative calls upon them to have romantic tension? Yeah.
The premise carries this to some extent, but it’s very obvious from the beginning that these two people will figure each other out and it’ll be messy when they do, etc. Otherwise: I honestly thought this book might go a different way re: reconciliations and romance than you might normally expect because of the nature of the stuff these two went through and their attitudes towards each other, but nope.
Do you have a favourite YA book about grief? (What a morbid-seeming question, but you already know my favourite.) While we’re asking weird stuff: do you have a favourite dead YA parent? (I mean, why not. Katniss’ dad seems like he was a real cool guy.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!