Sad books: Slice of Life #15

Be warned, I am about to rant a little. Yikes and oh my, I think we need to be so careful with how we talk about books we don’t like.

I just read a comment about how books about grief are boring. Okay, sure, not every reader loves every kind of book. Personal preference reigns supreme in the literary world. I just don’t understand why some people bash emotional books. If a book explores death, grief, sickness, pain or suffering, it is painted with a wide sloppy brush saturated in black paint: too dark, too sad, too depressing, to be avoided.

It is “too easy to write about grief” the criticism continued. Grief seems, to me, one of the most complicated things to write about. At least to write well. It is comprised of such a range of feelings: anger, sadness, guilt, confusion, pain. To hit all of these things correctly for a character. Believably. Honestly. This is not easy.

Grief and hope are intertwined. When a character stands balanced precariously between them, that is when the reader feels the most. Achieving that balance in life or in words, is not even close to easy.  But it is truly beautiful.

Sad Books #sol16

Readers seek out what they need. When we find books that allow us to experience emotions we can explore vicariously and from a distance, a book can really be the right book at the right time.

Stories let us choose our vantage point: witness, companion, fully immersed. That choice keeps us safe. That choice lets us have the experience we need.

I know I have avoided highly emotional books out of fear of my own strong reactions. Books that especially scare me? Books where children die, go missing or contract an incurable disease. But honestly, when I finally pick up emotional titles and let myself be surrounded by the story, it is here, where I feel the most human. Sometimes, turned inside out and raw but sharp and clear and wiser.

Not that I am an advocate for only sad books. Hardly! Different readers want different experiences and they seek out books looking for a myriad of things: adventure, action, humour, drama, escape, high fantasy, etc. No one genre makes us more or less of a reader.

For a while I thought amusing stories were fun but kind of forgettable. Then I began sharing silly, funny and absurd stories with my students. There is nothing like the amused joy of a room full of children sharing a story together! Laughing deep and contagiously? It doesn’t get much better.

Lots of books. Lots of genres. Available for lots of readers. This is how it should be. If we are in the business of helping books land in the hands of readers, we should not be painting any genre with a dismissive sweep. Instead, we should be polishing the shelves and helping them all shine.

And since I feel the current need to be champion for highly emotional stories (of the middle grade/young adult variety), I am going to share ten of my favourites.

Read one or all ten.

Cry a little and feel big.

The older I get, the more I realize that every time your heart breaks a little, it heals a little stronger with room for more.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Bird written by Crystal Chan

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart

See you at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

The Summer of Letting Go written by Gae Polisner

The Boy in the Black Suit written by Jason Reynolds

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Each Little Bird That Sings written by Deborah Wiles

Bad Irony: Slice of Life

I am participating in the Slice of Life challenge to write and publish a post every day in March.

Slice of Life is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. I thank them for the community they provide. Read more slices here.

46 thoughts on “Sad books: Slice of Life #15

  1. I was intrigued by your post as you make a strong claim that books are a good balance or match for readers, and sometimes we’re not clear what we need if we don’t crack a book into at least the first chapter. I put down and returned a book to the library at least 3 times before I finally gave it a chance! tell The Wolves I’m Home was that book Nd it filled me up with hope although it made me cry too- don’t judge it by its creepy- Grimm like cover!

  2. “…every time your heart breaks a little, it heals a little stronger with room for more.” Each Little Bird that Sings is one of my favorite books. I read it aloud to a class several years ago. Just read The Honest Truth recently. It’s one of the books we’re discussing at our book club tomorrow. Lots to talk about in this book. I love your advice to polish the shelves and help all the books to shine. We never know when a book will be a perfect match for a certain student.

  3. I’d add Love That Dog to the mix, too. My son’s reading group (an outside-of-school group) read Love that Dog, which I love, but he found it too sad. Still, there is power in the sadness, and as you mention, hope entwined in there, too. We need all sorts of books — different genres, different moods, different voices. That’s what gives us a rich literary life.

  4. Books have always helped walk through all of the parts of my life, including sadness. Thanks for this list. I think of a couple of others, FIG PUDDING, and CITY DOG, COUNTRY FROG, also BADGER’S PARTING GIFT.

  5. I love your book list. I’d like to meet the person who thinks grief is easy to write about! That’s just not true. I like the way your post articulates why readers read what they read.

  6. The joke in my classroom is the students always warn each other, “If Ms. Haseltine likes it, it’s probably sad!” I love books with all kinds of strong emotions! I talk to students about what I like and why I like those books. Respecting differences is vital to create authentic readers! Love this post!

  7. You make some very strong points. Books are there for a myriad of reasons and one of them is to help the reader experience through a character what they can’t allow themselves to experience–like grief.

  8. This is such a great post. I can’t believe that someone would say that grief is easy to write about. It’s not. It is complicated and difficult. I will admit that I am one that will avoid the stories I know will be extra sad, whether books or movies, because of the emotional wreck that I become. My sister, on the other hand, has always been one to choose the sad stories. I asked her why one time and she told me that by reading the sad stories, she had a reason to cry and let out the sadness and depression that gave her tears without a reason. This was so important for her, and may be the important reason others need sad books. Even though this is not the type of book I pick up that often, my students clamor for it. Just yesterday, one of my small groups was discussing what our next read should be and they asked for a sad one. We want to cry again, they said. Huh. Well, we will find a book that they can cry with. Thanks for the recommendations!

  9. Books allow us to feel. Isn’t it amazing that the print on a page can bring a person to tears or belly-rolling laughter. Love your message today.

  10. Grief and hope are intertwined. When a character stands balanced precariously between them, that is when the reader feels the most. Achieving that balance in life or in words, is not even close to easy. But it is truly beautiful.
    These words have been what I have been living for 3 years — I agree different readers need different things and we need to consider all perspectives! Thank you (and I added a few titles to my TBR stack)!

  11. Thank you for the list! I’ve only read The One and Only Ivan so there are many titles I need to check out. Ivan was a truly unforgettable reading experience for me and my class, two years in a row. It’s a story everyone should know, in my opinion. I have to be careful though, because I am a terrible crier, and when a book is too sad, it’s hard for me to read it aloud well. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane was too much for me to read without weeping- I had to have another teacher read aloud the section where Sarah Ruth died. I. could. not. I could cry thinking about it now. There are some books that my soul cannot handle right now, which isn’t to say that others shouldn’t read them. I love all the work you do around reading and promoting books, Carrie!

    • Oh yes, please try some other titles on this list.I recommend all of them! Thank you so much for this comment Kathleen. I love nothing more than sharing titles with others.

  12. I read that comment too, and thank you for responding so beautifully, Carrie. Using picture books to help Ingrid approach feelings that were brand new for such a young girl has been a wonderful thing, for her and for me. First, her grandfather died, and then not too many months later, a dear cat. It felt like too much, and we still read other books about people and pets that die, and talk over how those people tell their stories. I love all those books, and of course there are some lovely picture books that we’ve enjoyed.

    • I appreciate your support Linda. I believe that it is crucial to read books about death and grief to children both when they need it and also just because. Exploring all of our emotions is what it is to be human.

  13. It is so important for people who put books into kids’ hands to remember that readers need different things at different times in their lives. Right now, I’m in need of a humorous, light read, but there are other times I need the emotional pull of a sad book. The book that devastated me (and continues to when I reread it) is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I can’t read that book without ugly crying. Sometimes I read it just because I need to cry, and I know the ending will do that for me.

  14. I love the fact that middle grade books cover the gamut of emotions these days – happy, sad, and in between – it’s all part of life and the human condition, right?

  15. “The Scar” is another wonderful picture book about the complicated nature of grief. As others have said, there is a time and a place for just about every book, and having a wide variety of titles available means that the books that matter will be there for children when they reach that time or that place in their lives.

  16. Windows and mirrors. Sometimes we can’t look in the mirror. It’s too painful. And there are times we need to look in on others. All the more reason to experience them where you can. We are so fortunate to have wonderful books for young adults. The variety allows for all needs and moods.
    Great post, Carrie.

    • Thank you Julieanne. It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about and I scrawled its beginnings while in the lineup for the ferry for our week away. I am pleased it came together and am appreciating all of the thoughtful comments.

  17. I love the line “The older I get, the more I realize that every time your heart breaks a little, it heals a little stronger with room for more.” When I read some of the ‘sad’ books you listed, I did feel grief and sorrow, but I also felt gratitude. I could step out of the book with a greater appreciation for my own life and tribulations. I felt more compassion for others, because we never truly know what those around us are dealing with. Every book is patiently waiting for a reader who needs it. We need to be careful not to do anything that might inhibit those connections. Thanks for a very thought provoking slice!!

  18. Such important ideas here. I think you nailed it. We all look for different things in books at different times. There are times when I just can’t handle a heavy, emotional book because I have my own things going on. There are other times when a funny, lighthearted book just doesn’t cut it. Knowing that it’s ok to seek out different things at different times is a great lesson for kids and adults alike. Great thinking! Oh…See You at Harry’s? I LOVED this book…but it ripped my heart out and made me feel raw for a long time. It’s all about the connections.

  19. I once heard someone say that books like the ones you describe help our students feel those feelings that might be too hard in reality. The buffer of the story is actually very helpful to our children to talk about some of these hard topics. Thank you for this post and sharing these titles. I’ve not read all of them and since spring break is coming up, I’ll be adding a few of these titles to my reader. Have you read Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart yet? It’s another powerful one!

    • Just today I finished Some Kind of Courage. What a book! I have just given it to my son to read I agree that these titles can be all kinds of things for all kinds of kids. Happy reading to you!

  20. So very true! After losing my son books about grief and stories that had characters dealing with grief or adversity were what I gravitated towards. Not because I was obsessed with the bad only because I was looking for answers. Kids are the same. Looking for connections to their every day life. Thanks!

  21. Thank you. I feel validated after reading this post. I read Stone Fox out loud to my children (and husband) in the car on a long trip. As we got to the end, my husband looked at me with startled eyes and inquired “Why did you choose this book?” Obviously, he was emotionally moved by the ending. At first I thought I had made a bad book choice, but now I know there is a time and place for all sorts of emotions and books that evoke them and I am glad my family shared this story.

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