Death and Children’s Entertainment
Even though everyone has to experience it at some point, the death of someone is a subject often tip toed around when talking to children about. Many feel their developing minds will not be able to comprehend the idea and often feel it’s best just to brush over it. But there have been those who have decided to tackle the subject head on with children, feeling it best to approach the subject in a way they can understand not to frighten them or scar them for life; but to educate them and help them understand.
The show that set the precedent for this was the show that everybody watched and grew attached to during their childhood, Sesame Street. In 1982, Will Lee, the actor who played the shop owner, Mr. Hooper passed away suddenly leaving the show runners scrambling to figure out what to do about it. It would have been all to easy for them to recast the role, or even pretend that Mr. Hooper never existed and hope that all would forget about him, and nobody would blame, being a television show for children they would be able to get a pass from parents and critics. Instead Jim Henson and his crew decided not insult their young viewers and to openly talk about what had happened to the beloved character. In one of the most tear jerking moments in television, history Big Bird had to learn what had happened to his friend Mr. Hooper. The topic of Mr. Hooper’s passing was approached with sincerity and honesty and in such a way that their young viewers would understand it and not be troubled.
But that was not the only time a Jim Henson show would tackle the tragic topic of a loved one passing away. In the spring of 1990, the beloved entertainer, Henson himself passed away leaving a confused and saddened staff in his wake. But Henson himself would have been upset if those who worked for him had given up and shut everything down, he would have wanted the show to go on. In the television special, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, Kermit the Frog is mysteriously missing, leaving the buffoonish comedian Fozzy Bear in over his head with the task of organizing the tribute to their creator, whom is apparently a mystery to them. The group of felt creatures scramble trying to learn everything they could about Mr. Henson and they turn to the letters of sympathy that fans had sent in. An overwhelmed Fozzy tries to cancel the show upon learning how loved Jim Henson was, but the other Muppets encourage him and a chorus of one of Jim Henson’s favorite songs, “Just One Person” just as they had at Henson’s real life funereal. At the end Kermit, for the first time not portrayed by Jim, walks in and tells them that he knew that they could pull off the show without him, which was their way of showing that they had Henson’s blessing to continue with the show and to keep it as funny and entertaining as possible.
Ask any child what his favorite part of the newspaper is, and they will tell you the only part that is not boring, the comics. For many children their love of a particular comic strip continues on into adulthood, Calvin and Hobbes, a series about a imaginative child and his stuffed tiger who interacts with him it is loved by young readers who as they grow older gain a love of the wisdom they did not notice in the strip as young readers. Part of that wisdom was from the way that creator, Bill Watterson had our six years old protagonist learn about death. Twice during the decade long run of the series Calvin had to deal with the subject via, poor innocent animals who had died. Watterson approached death with the same philosophical approach that he had with many other serious topics. Death was seen as something inevitable that comes to all, yet it was nothing to be afraid of it was something seen as natural.
Another take on death from the printed page comes from E.B. White’s beloved book, Charlotte’s Web, a story all of us should know by heart, of a little pig and his barn full of friends including a wise spider. Rather than show death as something absolute in it’s finality, White showed death as part of a cycle something that needed to happen in order for life to continue on. The death of Charlotte was also a way to express that there comes a time when the parent must step away from their children and let them have their moment when the time comes. But the book, The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson looks at death from another perspective; from the point of few of the loved ones left behind. When the protagonist, Jess loses his adventurous best friend, Leslie he is overtaken by grief and guilt. The book perfectly builds up the innocent friendship between the two children so that when Leslie meets her fate we feel like Jess does, like their is something that could have been done to stop it, rather than learning that somethings are beyond our control and we must accept it and take what lessons we’ve learned from those no longer with us, to make us better people.
In the world of film, when the subject of teaching kids about death comes up, one movie sticks out above all others, Bambi. I defy you to find a child who was not affected by the main character’s mother being gunned down coldly and brutally. It is in that harsh moment, when the young deer’s world is forever changed and he is forced to grow up and learn that the world around him could be cruel and harsh. Yet, these lessons force Bambi to grow up and become a wiser adult because of it. Many decades later another Disney film broached the subject of death in a tear jerking and memorable way, Up. In a period of a few minutes, the movie allows the viewers to grow attached to couple of Carl and Ellie as we watch them grow and fall in love with each other; we watch their high points and their low points until death claims Ellie, leaving the anti social Carl all alone. Afraid of experiencing that sadness again, Carl refuses to grow attached to anyone again, until a series of adventures forces him to learn that the best way to remember a loved one is to honor what they believed in and allow yourself to be happier for having known them.
Approaching the subject of death in a more metaphysical and spiritual sense is, The Iron Giant, the story about a lonely misunderstood kid who finds friendship in the form of a robot from outer space who is just as misunderstood and alone as he was. When the mechanical giant is introduced to death, by seeing a deer shot by hunters, he is highly upset and it is his young friend Hogarth who is forced to explain the subject to him. But Hogarth also tells his mechanical friend about the idea of the soul, the true essence of a person and something that can never die, but lingers on forever. This idea gives the robot a moral core which adheres to throughout the rest of the movie.
Death is inevitable and no matter the age young people are bound to learn about it sooner or later. We can cover it up and hide it from them, or explain it to them in a way that they can understand. Throughout the years many aspects of pop culture for children have tackled the topic in a variety of ways; rather than hiding it and covering it up they embraced it and portrayed death as something, not to be afraid of but as a natural occurrence that we must all endure.