The Dead Girl Genre

You book folks know exactly what I'm talking about. What's with all the dead girls lately? Do you know how many times someone has recommended a book to me and I have caught myself saying, "Another dead girl book?" What's up, publishers (including the one for which I work)?

But you know what happens? I end up reading each one. And I end up loving each one. Thus far, each book I have read has given me a new, fresh perspective and each book has made me feel something different, has provoked me in a different way. Rather than getting tired of the dead girl genre, I'm getting more and more excited by it.

It all started with Before I Die by Jenny Downham (David Fickling, 2007). Tessa is dying of cancer. I'm not giving anything away - the reader knows right off the bat how it will end. Heck, even the title gives it away. What I loved about this one was that the main character wasn't likable. But she was real. There was a rawness and a roughness to her that made you love her in spite of (or because of) all her imperfections. And what this story captured best was the struggle to die with dignity and grace, especially for a teenage girl who still has so much living to do.

Last year, I went to a librarians' preview at Penguin and heard about If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Dutton, 2009). This was the first time I remember thinking, "Another dead girl book?" But it was so much more than that. It was about family and love and choices. And what I loved most was the idea that we can decide, that it may seem like it's all random and out of our control...but we really do have a say in our ultimate destiny. Loved that. And in my GoodReads review, I wrote that this book successfully avoids the "three Ms: maudlin, manipulative, and melodramatic." Such a gorgeously written, beautiful book.

Then I started at HarperCollins and one of the first books presented to me was Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall (HarperCollins, 2010). Despite it being another dead girl book, you know what happened. Read it. Loved it. Again, this book had something new to say. Lauren's book isn't about a girl who has died. It is about the little things we do every day that affect others. Dying is the impetus for Samantha coming to this realization, and watching the ways in which Samantha changes and grows based on every single decision she makes on a single day is riveting. It changes your own life because you look around at your own world differently, wondering how your own actions and words are affecting those around you.

And it keeps going! I just finished reading the sky is everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Dial, 2010) and, again, I was floored. Lennie's older sister has died and this book examines the aftermath and the ways in which joy and self-discovery can arise from tragedy. I've never experienced great loss in my life so I can't attest to what heartwrenching grief truly feels like...but I imagine it feels like this book describes. Nelson makes grief so palpable until it becomes a living, breathing monster, threatening to consume everything in its path. It makes for a very intense read. But that aside, this story examines how sometimes we have to lose something to gain something. It is only through her sister's death that Lennie really lives. In the best, most beautiful way possible.

As an end to this discussion, I went to a birthday party last night and was talking about the dead girl genre with some friends. Molly made an excellent point: she said that teenage girls love this genre because each of these books, in some way, makes a case for being in control, even when we're not in control. Teenagers are accountable to everyone: friends, teachers, parents, siblings. They feel (and I remember this all too well) that they aren't in control of their own lives. But what these stories have in common is a theme of empowerment. Yeah, the shit may hit the fan but, ultimately, you decide what you're going to do with it. How will you react? What will you say? What choices will you make? What impression do you want to leave? In the midst of chaos, you can decide how it all plays out.

Don't knock it before you've tried it. Pick up a dead girl book for hope, joy, and inspiration.

And three other fantastic, critically acclaimed dead girl books I didn't discuss in this post (13 Reasons Why being the only one I haven't read yet):

The Everafter by Amy Huntley (Balzer+Bray, 2009; Morris YA Debut Award finalist)
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (FSG, 2005)
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Razorbill, 2007)


Parenthetical Sam said...

Alternately, you could read some quality Lurlene McDaniel! What I think I loved about these terrible terrible books (talk about three Ms!) when I was a kid wasn't the control, but the comparative sense of safety. I could have a good cry about the nice Christian girl who died of leukemia before her first kiss and then go back to my life where nothing that upsetting ever happened.

Librarian Cheryl said...

and, of course, The Lovely Bones (though not recent)