Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Sad Stories and Why We Read Them


SuperBowl Sunday. We're sitting on the couch, nine-year-old Nick between Mark and me. I'm knitting, Nick is reading; only Mark is giving his full attention to the game. At some point, I look over Nick's shoulder and see the arresting illustration from Bridge to Terabithia: a silhouette of Jess's father holding his shattered son, who has just learned of his best friend's death. I put my arm around Nick.

"It's sad there, isn't it?"

"It is. But you can't really cry when you're reading it to yourself -- it's not like when someone's reading it to you -- you need both your hands. So I can't really cry."

So he said, but the tears started a moment later. Released by my recognition, I think, they trickled -- one, two -- slowly out and down his cheeks. I kept my arm around him.

"It gets better," I said. "I promise, it gets better at the end."

"But why --" I began to prepare myself for the inevitable question. Why does Leslie have to die? Why do children die? Why does anyone?

"Why does he throw his paints in the water?"

There he is, my artist son, lamenting Jess's loss, not fully understanding it but recognizing somehow the import of the moment.

"I don't know, sweetie. I think he just felt bad. And he feels a little guilty, too, that Leslie died while he wasn't there, while he was having fun -- and so he throws away something that is part of that. Does that make sense?"

"Mmm." His head was back in the book, racing to finish.

When he did, he gave the book almost immediately to Mark. "I think you would like this book, Daddy. You should read it."

Mark was skeptical. He's not a big fan of fantasy literature, and the book has just been turned into a movie whose trailers promise special effects to rival Narnia or The Lord of the Rings.

"No, Daddy, really. It's like -- have you read Old Yeller? It's like that, it's real, it's not like those other books."

Old Yeller is the last book that made him cry, a book read aloud in school to the whole class; I imagine them all, their hands free to wipe noses and eyes, sitting in a circle as the teacher -- her own voice breaking -- gets through the painful loss. Nick came home and talked about the book for days, as much surprised by his own reaction as by the dog's painful death.

Why do we read sad books? Why do we give them to kids? The questions come up in articles, books, commentaries -- one author/blogger, for example, noted that the recent Newbery Award-winners are most often (in his words) "serious books," especially books about "overcoming hardship." Author Barbara Feinberg actually got a whole book out of her complaint that her son was too often "made" to read "sad books" in his English classes.

But Nick wasn't complaining. And when I asked him and Mariah (who's older and has a little distance on this) about reading sad books, neither one objected. Indeed, it may be that they're seeking them out.

Mariah, for example, loved Bridge to Terabithia as a child. She has a distinct memory of reading it in second grade (so early?!), crying as she sat in the elementary school library by herself as she finished it. That's a good memory, she hastens to add. Nick, too, in encouraging his dad to read the book right away, was endorsing it, despite (or even because) of its sadness. Yesterday he overheard me mentioning that it's been challenged for its sadness, and he interrupted in outrage: "Life IS sad! How better to learn about it than in books?" (Ah, my child, my child.)

Sad books serve a purpose, after all, perhaps especially for kids whose lives aren't very sad. Mariah recalls sad books teaching her that people survive their sadness, that the things she feared could be survived. I'm not sure children in war zones need sad books, or children in abusive families, or children struggling with intractable sadnesses of their own. Or maybe they do need sad books, just like my kids, just as they also need stories of joy and humor, the zaniness of Ramona Quimby, the absurdities of Amelia Bedelia, the manic energy of a new favorite, Sara Pennypacker's Clementine. Maybe they also, again like my kids, need escapist fantasy where children have magical powers and vanquish the most oppressive enemies. For whatever reason, though, my kids like a good cry now and then. Their own petty frustrations and annoyances pale next to Jess's loss in Bridge to Terabithia, or Travis's in Old Yeller. They know it's only a story, and the story teaches them how to approach other stories, other truths.

And the truth is, the main thing about Bridge to Terabithia isn't how sad it is. It's how realistic a depiction of family life it provides: the work-worn father, too busy to notice his son yearning for conversation, for connection; the mother, tired of scrimping and saving for the small luxuries her daughters don't appreciate. Siblings who hit each other and then regret it. It's also how real the depiction of friendship seems. Jess and Leslie are both, in their way, misfits; their friendship teaches each new things and gives them a sense of belonging, but it's always tenuous, never secure. The painful death that brings Bridge to Terabithia to an end is, finally, only one part of the story, and perhaps that's the best reason to read (good) sad stories: to see the ways in which sadness becomes part of a life, rather than taking it over. I'm not handing my kids trauma-of-the-week memoirs right now, and the stories that begin with the mom's death and then take off from there still bug me. (Maybe they're not sad enough?) But I am starting to think about reading Little Women to Nick next -- if I can make it through Beth's death again myself.

Nick finished the book before the game ended. His tears dried, he handed the book over to his dad, and together they celebrated their team's victory.

Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.

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Great column. My kids are still too young for this, but I loved reading about Nick's response. I do remember hearing about the book when I was in elementary school, but I avoided it then because I knew it was sad. Maybe it's time I read it! On a side note, it was interesting to read the reviews at Amazon, including a kid who says "You'll die if you don't read this book!" and a parent who edited out "objectionable" parts to preserve her child's innocence...
My favorite books from childhood are all sad ones: Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Tuck Everlasting, A Day No Pigs Would Die. There's something cathartic about a good cry, and when you cry over a book, it's sage, as it's not yourself you're crying over.
We all had a really terrific cry the other night, me, my five year old daughter, and my seven year old son, as we finished up reading Charlotte's Web. It felt so good to see that literature can still touch us so profoundly. Even though it's the age of technology, there's nothing like a good book to remind us of our humanity.
Libby, this is so beautiful and also so important. I love sad books and I think they serve many valuable purposes. Check out this essay written by one of my co-workers:
I recently gave Frankie, who I nanny for, a copy of Bridge to Terabithia for Chirstmas. My housemate had her old copy from when she was a kid sitting on her bookshelf and thought that it should be passed on. I wanted to read it first and spent the night in bed alternating between laughing and crying, trying to gague through my tears if it would be too sad for Frankie. It is one of those sad books that like you said isn't about how sad it is. It is about life and how, yes, life can be sad and how we all get through it. Frankie and I talked about it and I told him it was a lovely book that has a sad part. He's a sensitive kid and I didn't want to hand the book over to him without letting him know what kind of book it was. He wanted me to tell him why it was sad so he wouldn't be surprised when it happened. I did--it seemed reasonable enough to me. Some people don't want things "ruined" by knowing what happens in the story but, unlike in life with books and movies we get to cover our eyes when we know the scary man is going to jump out from behind the door. With books, we can pause when things get sad, take a moment to gather our thoughts or just take a break and go outside for a bit. We talked about it a little more and I asked him to make sure that even if he is sad at the sad part that he reads the ending because it gets better. And he did. And I think that that's the important part of books like that -- To know that when something like that happens it's okay to be sad and then things eventually get better and the sadness subsides. It teaches that no matter how sad you get it, in some way, passes. Just like after reading a book. You can read a sad book and be crushed but eventually you move on. I think it is a lesson in how to do that. A little practice for when the unexpected happens. Practice being in the moment and then eventually moving on and letting go.
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