The Voice of the Dead – guest post by Mallory Owens

Our first guest poster for 2013 works in a Defence library and presented at the  Celebrate the Book Readers Advisory Conference in Kansas last November. Mallory Owens has some interesting tales to tell of practising RA in her research library, but today she has posted about discovering dead narrators in young adult fiction – the topic she discussed at the conference. Read on…

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Despite growing up and moving on to bigger and better things (or so I like to think), I continue to have a love affair with YA fiction.  Even in my mid-20s, teen angst and melodramatic life conundrums of adolescent characters appeal to me in a way that no other genre has quite been able to.  National sensation brought on by titles like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games sparked a greater interest in this continually evolving field.  YA literature isn’t just for young adults anymore, but can be enjoyed by readers of all ages!  Whether it serves as a reminiscence of good-ol’-days or a thankful reminder of what has been outgrown, YA fiction taps into thoughts and emotions everyone will or has experienced.

So when I decided to speak at the 2012 Reader’s Advisory Conference hosted by the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and the Northeast Kansas Library System this past November, I knew YA fiction would be my focus.  As I began to think over the recent titles I had read, I realized a reoccurring theme throughout: dead people.  Since the release of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold in 2002, dead characters have been making more frequent appearances in YA literature.  Similar to Sebold’s Susie Salmon, many of these characters appear as narrators, recounting their death and observing the impact it has had on the world they left behind.  Included on the handout I made for my breakout session are 16 titles with dead narrators with this similar theme.  Also included are titles with dead characters in supporting roles, narrators that are undoubtedly dying, and those that begin with the foreboding sense of death that will affect the reader’s entire view throughout the novel.  [The Voice of the Dead handout]

Although the titles vary in characters and carry different themes including supernatural, romance, suspense, thriller, and horror elements, they all strive to make sense of death, a subject almost incomprehensible to an age group that often views themselves as invincible: teenagers.  Writing styles also vary widely, from long chapters full of prose to short, insider views composed in verse.  Yet each author targets the emotion of their readers to more fully focus on the elements that make us all human.  All the titles encourage thought on human nature and what we leave behind when we vacate our human bodies.  In a sense, they are all trying to make readers think about exactly what the manager of Our Town was hoping to discover in the quote included at the top of the handout: what is eternal in terms of a human being?  What legacy, if any, do we leave behind?  The biggest common denominator within YA titles with dead (or soon to be dead) characters is that they will leave the reader feeling haunted by the characters who are now haunting their former lives.  Will they leave the lasting impact they believed they would before they realized their short time on earth was complete?

Have you read any titles recently, YA or not, with a dead narrator or deceased character in a supporting role?

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Mallory Owens is a reference and acquisitions librarian at the Combined Arms Research Library in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA.  Although much of her work is of an academic nature, she enjoys participating in reader’s advisory whenever she can and can often be seen cornering people into conversations about what they are currently reading.  When she isn’t devouring YA novels or attending book club, Mallory serves as the president of her local chapter of the Special Libraries Association and volunteers with Make a Wish Foundation of Missouri.  In her few moments of free time, she enjoys perusing Netflix with her husband Elijah and cuddling with her beloved cat Oliver.

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