YA fiction and “the death cliché”

Lately I’ve been thinking: is there a “death cliché” in YA fiction? I mean, there sure are a lot of dead people on the page these days. (And we’re not even counting the undead, just the normally, boringly dead.) Does every character have to have a parent, friend, or first love who kicked the bucket? And what about all these dead or quasi-dead protagonists?

I can’t help asking myself these questions. When I was writing the first draft of “The Beginning of After,” I stayed blissfully tuned out to YA books with themes of death and dying — I didn’t want to be influenced. Later, every time I saw a new book release that touched on similar subject matter to mine, I felt my heart sink a little deeper into that pit of “wow, my novel is so un-original” despair. But I had faith that Laurel’s story, and the way she tells it, was unique enough to survive getting lumped in with what some people might see as an annoying and depressing trend.

Or it is a trend? Death and loss are part of life…in a way, they are life (cue The Lion King”). They’re among the great themes of literature — beyond YA, beyond right now — and art in general. In my case, they became a prism through which I could explore the ideas that really tugged at me: survival and human connection. There’s another theme that transcends time and format because it’s an elemental part of reality: that would be love. But I can’t see anyone talking about “the love cliché” in YA or complaining that there’s just too much hooking up in books about teens. Why is that? Is it because as a society we’re conditioned to associate death with only pain, darkness, and regret? Is our threshold for “negative” subject matter so much lower? Do we tend to resent books that don’t let us completely escape whatever’s icky in our lives? I don’t know. It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to consider, but I’m glad for the chance now.