Carrie-anne's Reviews > After the First Death

After the First Death by Robert Cormier
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Apr 08, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: teaching-english
Recommended for: eighth graders

Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, said in an interview with Horn Book Magazine, “Most teenage fiction has an invisible ring of safety built into it. However sticky situations get, however dark the material, little signals here and there give off the message that this is ‘only’ a kids’ book. Don’t worry. Nothing too bad will happen. Things will come right in the end” (Wynne-Jones, 2004, p. 265). Indeed, Curious Incident, though about a teenage protagonist, was published as an adult novel. One reason for that, Haddon said, is that he “didn’t want that invisible ring of safety” that young adult novels provide (Wynne-Jones, 2004, p. 266).

There is no ring of safety, invisible or otherwise, in Robert Cormier’s young adult novel After the First Death. The title itself clues the reader in to the fact that something very bad will happen. Even so, Cormier’s unhappy ending—in which two of the three teenage protagonists die and the only one who remains alive is a murderer—comes as a shock to the reader. Unlike Haddon’s novel, which has a relatively happy ending, in Cormier’s book, things don’t come out right in the end. What does this say about young adult fiction?

For one thing, it says that authors don’t always think of their teenage readers in the same way—if they think of them at all. Cormier wrote his first young adult novel, The Chocolate War, thinking it was a book for adults, even though it has a high school-age protagonist. It was his publisher who convinced him to publish it as a young adult novel. Interestingly, throughout his career, Cormier continued to insist that he was writing about, rather than for, adolescents—even as his novels continued to be published for a young adult audience (Trupe, 2006).

I first read After the First Death as an eighth-grader and hated it. Weaned on young adult offerings like Joan Lowery Nixon’s Babysitting is Dangerous Job—in which the teenage protagonist outwits her kidnappers and saves herself and her charges from certain death—I had come to expect the invisible ring of safety about which Haddon writes. Throughout Cormier’s novel, I never once doubted that Kate would escape her captors or that Ben would, if not reconcile with his father, at least be prevented from killing himself. When the novel ended with those characters dead and the terrorist Miro on the loose, I was angry. In fact, I told anyone who would listen just how much I hated this book.

Half a lifetime later, I again found myself angry at Cormier’s bleak and hopeless ending. But, this time, I had the suspicion that that anger was precisely what Cormier wanted me to feel. Often, it’s not just young adult fiction but all fiction that has an invisible ring of safety around it. Fiction has the ability to give meaning and shape to what, in the real world, would be meaningless and random experiences. But when it’s the intent of the author to point out just how meaningless and hopeless life can be—despite a few individuals’ best efforts to the contrary—the reader is bound, obligated even, to feel anger. Not at the author or the book, as I did in eighth grade, but at the world—in this case, at the political structures at the root of the meaningless tragedy. It’s healthy anger—the kind of anger that drives a person to greater awareness and to action. It’s the same anger I felt, for example, at the end of John le Carre’s critique of the post-Cold War West, Absolute Friends.

But how to get students to understand that? How to get them from point A to point B in a span shorter than the decade and a half it took me? The answer, I think, has to do with respect. Haddon’s comment implies that most young adult fiction doesn’t respect teenage readers, that it doesn’t trust them to be able to handle unhappy, realistic endings. Because “realistic” is key here. At a writing conference I attended a couple weeks ago, a writer asked the editor leading a seminar on plot if it was true that children’s book publishers won’t take novels with unhappy endings. The speaker had been talking about balancing surprise and believability in a plot, and he pointed out that an unhappy ending that’s the believable consequence of the events of the story respects the reader far more than an unbelievable, deus ex machina happy ending.
A post-reading writing assignment for After the First Death could ask students to reflect on the book’s ending as believable and to consider that ending in the context of the debate over young adult fiction. A question might look something like this: “Some people say that young adult fiction should always ‘come out right’ in the end. But Robert Cormier’s novel, After the First Death, doesn’t have a happy ending. In a clear and well-organized essay, explain whether you think the ending of After the First Death is realistic consequence of the characters and events of the novel and discuss what the book’s ending suggests about Cormier’s attitude toward teenage readers.”

To scaffold the skills and ideas necessary to write this essay, I would build up to it through post-reading discussions about the book and its ending, asking students to consider if there might be any other way—any other realistic way, that is—that the book could have ended. In that discussion, I would ask them consider how a different ending (for example, in which Miro repents, spares Kate, and turns himself in) would have changed the message that Cormier is sending. The idea here is not just to prepare students to write the essay but to prompt them to make connections to the real world—particularly, to see how the decisions made by the general and the policy of the military overall played as big a role (or bigger) than the terrorists in determining the ending of the book.

At the same time, I would share with them the Horn Book interview with Haddon and begin a discussion of the parameters of young adult literature. (It might also be interesting to pair this book either with Haddon’s novel or with one of the “safe” YA novels that Haddon critiques.) By the time they reach eighth or ninth grade, most students don’t want to be seen as children, and the implication that certain writers are babying and protecting them is more likely to spur them to reconsider Cormier than any lesson focusing solely on the novel’s “literary” elements could.

The real purpose of this writing assignment—and, I suspect, the purpose of Cormier’s book—is to get students to do what Kate does, albeit too late. To look beyond the surface, to resist complacency, and to start thinking for themselves. In evaluating the assignment, I would, of course, assess my students’ essays on the clarity of their writing, the organization of their ideas, and their use of supporting textual evidence. But my real focus, in both creating and in evaluating the assignment, would be on students’ communication and development of their own original thoughts in response to the book and the ideas it introduces.


Cormier, R. (1979). After the first death. New York: Pantheon Books.
Trupe, A. (2006). Thematic guide to young adult literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Wynne-Jones, T. (2004, May/June). Tigers and poodles and birds, oh my! The Horn Book Magazine, 80(3), pp. 265–275.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
April 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
April 8, 2008 – Shelved
April 30, 2008 – Shelved as: teaching-english

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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aidanadia A beautiful review that's rekindled my love for this book. I'll be sure to read this again. Thank you.

Roland Thank you very much for this professional and insightful review. This kind of writing and effort can make a wonderful site. Great work!

message 3: by Rose Ann (new)

Rose Ann I would have appreciated a SPOILER ALERT. Now the book is ruined for me before I have even read it!

message 4: by Dynah (new)

Dynah Thirst A spoiler alert would have been appreciated.

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