Books That Make Us Cry (Part One) Collected by Donalyn Miller
Last spring, one of my fifth-graders, Heavenly, spent all of recess sitting under a tree finishing the final chapters of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys. Strolling around the playground, I gave Heavenly a wide berth when I walked near her reading spot. I knew where Heavenly was in the story and I didn’t want to intrude.
When Heavenly finished the book, she found me on the playground. I could see as she walked toward me that her eyes brimmed with tears. Remembering the ending and my own emotional response—and seeing Heavenly’s forlorn face—I began to sniffle a bit, too.
Heavenly wrapped me in a limp hug and cried. While I patted her shoulder, Heavenly and I whispered back and forth about the book’s conclusion and our hopes for the main character, Carley Conners’ future.
“Mrs. Miller, why do you always recommend sad books to me?” Heavenly asked.
I gave her a tiny smile, “Because you like them.”
She laughed, “That’s true, but I don’t think I can read two sad books back-to-back. I’m going to check out Fake Mustache next!”
Like Heavenly, and many of my students over the years, I enjoy stories that make me cry—books that take me to heartbreaking places and bring me back again. As much as I love sad books, I often avoid reading them because I fear the overwhelming emotions that such books evoke. I am convinced this is why I didn’t read Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh until I was 45. There’s a dog on the cover—you have to know sadness sits inside, waiting for you. It should come with a Kleenex bookmark.
Talking with my husband, we discussed the saddest books we’ve read and why we loved them. Sharing titles instantly brought us back to those hard places—life’s endings big and small. Heart-wrenching loss. Failure. Broken hearts. Regret. Goodbyes.
It’s hard to capture the appeal of sad books. I think we just want to feel things. As Hazel says in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” We want to laugh. We want to love. And sometimes we want to feel pain, and walk away from it.
Teri Lesesne captures why some books resonate strongly with readers at a personal level, “Sad” is a relative term when it comes to books (and probably movies, music, art, etc.). It seems to be in the “heart” of the beholder. For instance, Tomie dePaola’s Now One Foot, Now the Other touched me more deeply following my stepfather’s stroke than it did beforehand. But there are scenes and lines that reduce me to tears each and every time I encounter them. One is the final line from Bridge to Terabithia when Jess takes Maybelle to the kingdom he created with Leslie and declares, “Terabithians, behold your queen!” The simple one word phrase, “Manchee!” does it time and again when I reread The Knife of Never Letting Go. And I do not think I have ever made it through a reading of The Tenth Good Thing About Barney without a catch in my voice caused by the lump in my throat.
Sending out an open call to readers who enjoy sad books, I received an overwhelming response. In today’s and tomorrow’s posts, we will share some sad books that will no doubt bring back your own reading memories and bring a few new tearjerkers for you to read.
Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman
A timely and important story about the lead up to and aftermath of a cyberbullying incident that ends with an attempted suicide. This is a story that is important for adolescents to read, and is written in a way that will be engaging for them, so they will want to read it. There is a lot of emotion, drama, and family issues dealt with in this one book, but it deals with all of the repercussions of the actions and choices of the involved parties.
One of the things I liked the best was that the book is told in multiple perspectives, so we have the bully and the victim (high schoolers), and then both of their younger (middle school) siblings. That choice leads to a well-rounded story and ability for the reader to see all sides of the issue. And although it made me angry and sad to know that kids are making these choices and things like this happen, because of that, Backlash is a strong addition to a classroom and school libraries.–Jillian Heise
Dash by Greg Armamentos You know how it is. You’re in the middle of a heart-wrenching book about a young boy or girl with cancer. Far enough in that you have developed sympathetic feelings for the characters, especially the one with the disease. The author has done their job. They’ve written a few expository chapters to define the relationships among the characters. They’ve tugged at my emotions with the brutal, yet expected diagnosis. They’ve demonstrated why this character matters in the world, and now I need to prepare myself for the possibility they might just die. Dash (Dexter) is that character, and yes-he has cancer. That fact alone guarantees that I will cry at least once while reading this book. However, I found myself reflecting more on his sadness and desire to make a difference. Dash wants to be remembered for something. Don’t we all?
No matter the outcome for this book’s main character, I was saddened at the possibility that I might leave this world no better off than when I entered it. In the hospital, Dash meets another cancer patient who hasn’t done anything grand, yet leaves an impression on everyone she meets. This book made me wonder if I was making each day matter instead of waiting for that one big accomplishment that would scream, “I was here!” Do I look around and notice my impact on a small scale, or do I only see what I have yet to achieve? I guess the real sadness in this book is the possibility that a person’s death could happen before they realize the value and impact of their life.–Sandy Otto
Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voight
For me, the best sad book of all time is Dicey’s Song, by Cynthia Voigt. It’s the story of three children abandoned by their mom in a parking lot, now adjusting to a new life with their impoverished grandmother. Dicey, the oldest sister, struggles on a teeter-totter of trust and self-reliance. She’s wary, hypersensitive to the younger kids, and incredibly fierce. But what makes this book astounding is that there’s a huge capacity for love in Dicey too, a hunger for beauty, and the desire to settle, to rest. That tension in her character is so true to life, so conflicted, and so utterly real. This book breaks my heart each time I read it, but it does so in the service of something greater. Dicey’s Song is a reminder of how strong children can be, and how complex. It’s a book about how we find strength by admitting weakness.–Laurel Snyder
Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles
First I should say that I am not a “crier” in real life, but with books I can tear up quicker than anything. I guess it’s my vivid imagination that got me into trouble as a kid. For Comfort Snowberger, growing up above a funeral home is perfectly normal. Death is just another part of life. When a stray dog the family named Dismay shows up, Comfort has the best friend she could have. Her “people best friend” Declaration is growing away from her and isn’t afraid to tell Comfort exactly why. When great-aunt Florentine dies in her vegetable garden, Comfort is expected to attend to her cousin Peach Shuggars. Comfort’s plans for a peaceful funeral are overturned as Peach is full of drama. As the family moves the procession to the grave site a flash flood catches Comfort, Peach and Dismay off-guard and Comfort must make some quick decisions about who to save and the repercussions her decision has on the entire family.
**This book made me UGLY cry. I read it first alone, and when my husband came into our room and saw me sobbing he asked what I was reading. My reply was “the best book ever!” His response was, “it doesn’t look like it.” I then read this aloud to my 4th graders. My big, tough boys were crying right along with me, one even handing me tissues while I read. The crazy thing is that these kids are now seniors in high school and I’m friends with them on Facebook. Most of them chose this book as the one that made the most impression on them out of all the novels we read that year. On another note, last year we lost both our family pets—one due to old age and the other very unexpectedly. The last one was 2 days before I left for TLA. I got to meet Deborah and tell her how much that book impacted me. It was a pleasure meeting her. –-Amanda Maslonka
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
I assigned and read Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, as one of the high school-level texts for my Literature for Children and Adolescents class, specifically because The American Library Association gave the book a 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor. There have been many Romeo and Juliet-esque books recently published for teens. While Rowell’s book is described as such, it is not overwhelmed with obvious similarities. Like Shakespeare’s classic, however, it embodies melancholy overtones that poignantly match the teenage years.
Park is from a loving, two parent family – one that has called Omaha, Nebraska their home for a long time. He should fit in, but does not connect with the “morons at the back of the bus,” the all-white students who populate his town, or his own father, who seems to always be disappointed in him. Park is not like everyone else, especially in the unique things he enjoys: comic books, indie music, Eleanor. Eleanor is as different as anyone could be. She is a large, red-haired, awkward girl who “dresses like… like she wanted people to look at her.” Her life is a mess. She is estranged from her family. She struggles against bullying and abuse. Her life feels lonely and devoid of hope, except for her honors classes, her stationery box, and Park. Their love for each other gives each of them courage to face each day.
Eleanor & Park is a heart-breaking story of betrayal, trust, beauty, and the ugliness that can be in the world; it kept me turning pages, wishing that these “star-crossed misfits” would catch a break. I was completely transported through Rowell’s words to that magical, painful time of high school, with dreams, first loves, and secrets. This book will not disappoint those looking to have a good cry and to fall in love with two authentic characters facing some of life’s ugliest trials.—Aileen Hower
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
It’s a bit of a family joke that a book that makes me cry also makes me happiest. And we’re not talking a few tears out the edges of your eyes crying here; I’ve been known to do the ‘ugly cry’ quite a few times over a great book. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson was the first book that taught me the amazingly powerful experience of having a cry-until-your-nose-runs, embodied experience from reading a book.
I was 9-years-old the first time I read about Gilly–the smart-mouthed, horrifically behaved foster child who torments her foster family, pining away for the idealized world of living with her ‘real mother.’ Gilly is not an easily likeable heroine, but we also know that Gilly has had an incredibly difficult life, shuttled between foster homes, schools, and with little knowledge or love from her biological mother. She mistreats the vast majority of the characters in the book—her teachers, foster mother, foster brother, and neighbors all receive her wrath.
Yet, she also wins our hearts, this scrappy, mistreated little girl who learns just a little too late what true happiness might look like. The Great Gilly Hopkins is a book that first taught me that the notion of a ‘happy ending’ may not be a realistic conclusion to a story as troubled as Gilly’s; but Paterson also leaves us with that hopefulness we cling to, that maybe Gilly’s inner resilience will be enough.—Marie Lejeune
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Though I’ve loved every other one of DiCamillo’s books, for some reason I never read this 2006 award-winner. Something about the “adventures of a china rabbit” didn’t quite grab me. Maybe I’ll read it to my kids one day, I thought. Surely there’s nothing in there I’d connect with. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Yes, this is a book about a china rabbit who goes from one owner to the next over decades. But what that synopsis doesn’t tell you is that DiCamillo taps into something so fundamental to being human — the desire to love and be loved, and losing love — that the characters’ emotional journeys will have you empathizing, reconsidering your own mistakes, and perhaps even making promises to live life differently, less selfishly, and with a more open heart. This book is filled with moments of tragedy but also moments of hope, and DiCamillo’s writing style seems to accomplish a sort of melancholy throughout. –Jennifer Serravallo
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
A Monster Calls is, quite simply, the most beautifully written and saddest book I have ever read. Having read the back story about the original idea for the book, I went into it knowing that the monster was more than what the cover art implicated. However, it still took me much longer than necessary to finish the last few chapters because I couldn’t see through my tears to read the words on the page. There are so many books out there about characters dealing with the lingering illness we know as cancer. Having dealt with the realities of how cancer affects a family, I have to say thank you to Patrick Ness. This is the first book I have read that has described that struggle with such perfection and tenderness. I will remember Conor and his “monster” for a long time.—Kerri Harris
One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
I recently reread One for the Murphys for at least the sixth time. I was settled into my reading corner on the couch and tears were pouring down my face (again). The concept of what being a family means was really resonating with me in incredibly emotional ways. Lynda Mullaly Hunt had written many scenes about the main character, Carly, learning to live with a foster family. The issue that made me cry was how Carly had no idea how to be part of a “typical” family. Suspicion, distrust, aloofness – these tools that Carly employed were what I found incredibly sad. Fast forward a bit in the book where Carly’s heart finally begins to melt only to have her realize that sometimes family can only live in your heart… another jag of crying occurred. One for the Murphys spoke to my heart, my soul, and brought both sadness and happiness with each turn of the page.—Karen Terlecky
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
I picked up this book because of a student. Not a student like the main character, Melody, but a 5th grade student enjoying the book. While in the classroom I tried to pay attention to the books my students were reading (even though I taught Science) because this would allow me an opportunity to talk with them and connect – a commonality they could “see” as they caught me reading, saw the book on my desk, or after I finished the casual comments on how I had read the same book and the conversations that ensued as they progressed chapter by chapter through the book and shared their thoughts and feelings.
The author drew me in immediately – the main character’s fiery nature tugged at my heart as I was reminded of various struggles and triumphs. I felt the emotional rollercoaster that was her life. I cheered every success and got angry right along with her at the exposed injustices she endured.
I suppose because I got so caught up in the character I could see what was coming – KNEW what was going to happen – but hoped so much that I was wrong when disappointment finally came her way. By this time, I was in too deep to shield my heart…it broke for Melody, and the tears flowed… just as it would have for ANY 10 year old girl facing the same situation. I cried for her disappointment. I wept because we have all (well maybe just most of us) been there. I guess, for me, that is what the message was really all about; the proof that we are all the same inside. As people, we all really want the same things, to be heard, to have the opportunity to have friends – to be loved unconditionally, to be understood. It doesn’t matter who you are…–C.J. Boales
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
My ninth grade students were having literature circle meetings and I was so proud as I watched their long and lively discussions, stopping by to listen in or answer a question. When I approached the group reading We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, they begged me to let them stop talking. I must have looked confused because one of them said, “We LOVE talking, but we HAVE to read. We stopped at a good part last night.”
As they started reading, the other groups quickly grabbed their books so they could get to the next chapter. Soon the room was quiet, with only the whispery sounds of pages turning. Until…a scream broke the silence. The students jumped in their seats. The girl reading waved them off, saying, “I didn’t see THAT coming!” and went back to We Were Liars, but it only last for a moment.
The next thing we knew, she was sobbing. The other girls in her group reached the same section and began crying, too. I ushered the group into the hall, where they consoled one another. After that, We Were Liars wasn’t seen in my room again, as it has been passed from student to student, for months. I wish I had more copies of that and Eleanor and Park, which I jokingly threatened to attach a personal packet of tissues to the cover, since it makes everyone cry!–Marjorie Light
Thank you to everyone who answered my open call for sad book responses. The second round of responses will appear in tomorrow’s post. I invite you to respond in the comments with your favorite sad books to read and share.