Books That Make Us Cry (Part Two) Collected by Donalyn Miller
Grab a tissue. We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s post–sharing our sad book favorites.
And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard
I bought And We Stay last summer because it earned a starred review somewhere. Knowing that the book was a tear-jerker, I never seemed in the right mood to go into the darkness with it. The book sat in silent judgment in my bookcase and stared at me as if saying, “Don’t be a baby, Donalyn. Get a tissue and get over here.” I dusted it and cared for it, but I didn’t read it. When And We Stay earned a Printz Honor last month, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.
And We Stay starts in the middle of Emily Beams’ story. Her boyfriend, Paul, shot himself in the school library–steps from where Emily stood. Emily’s parents (with the help of her aunt) decide to send Emily to a boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts, birthplace of Emily’s favorite poet and namesake, Emily Dickinson.
Guilt-ridden and traumatized, Emily finds an outlet for her grief by writing poems that slowly reveal the circumstances that led up to Paul’s suicide, and readers learn the true depths of Emily’s heartbreak and guilt. With the support of two new friends, a sympathetic teacher, and a literary icon, Emily begins to heal and find the strength to accept her love for Paul, her role in his death, and her feelings of betrayal from both him and her parents.
The writing is stunning—bringing you into Emily’s world and scraping your emotions raw. I cried so much during this book that I had to stop reading it several times and take a break. My chest ached with Emily’s loss and my mothering heart wanted to sweep her into my arms and take some of her pain.
Each of Emily’s poems stands alone as a masterpiece. An homage to Dickinson’s spare poems—not a word is wasted. Tab each glittering gem for later. You’ll be glad you did. Maybe Kleenex strips will work.--Donalyn Miller
I first read Because of Winn-Dixie when I moved into my third grade teaching position. I was searching for a middle grade chapter book to read aloud that would have a colorful cast of characters, carry meaningful themes, and resonate with my students. When I found Because of Winn-Dixie, I knew I found a close-to-perfect book to share with my eight year olds. This is the original book that stole my students’ hearts, and it is still the first chapter book that I read aloud to my students every school year.
Author Kate DiCamillo masterfully weaves together a story of a young girl, India Opal, whose absent mother and preoccupied father leave her feeling alone and lonely as she moves to a new town. When she stumbles upon another lonely soul in the form of a mangy mutt rampaging through the aisles of a grocery store, she immediately decides that this orphan dog will find his home with her. He’s big, dirty, rambunctious, and unloved, but Opal sees past all of that to embrace him as her friend and new pet, naming him Winn-Dixie, after the grocery store chain where she found him. The girl and dog set off to make friends around town. Each time they meet someone, they discover that person has a story, a past sometimes dotted with mistakes, loneliness, and melancholy. In meeting each of these characters, Opal learns more about friendship and forgiveness for our own faults and the imperfections of others, even if that includes our own mothers.
For me, if there’s an animal on the cover of a book, I can guarantee fat, salty tears will be rolling down my cheeks. But if there’s a dog on the cover? I’ll need the entire box of tissue, some alone time, and a day to recover. Those of us who have grown up owning a dog know how deeply those creatures wrap around our hearts. Growing up with a golden retriever who was forever excited to see me return home, happy with simple things like naps and treats, and never minded being used as a pillow, I felt like I was being taught a lesson in living…to do it simply, gratefully, fully.
When I found Because of Winn-Dixie, I knew I had to pass these sentiments and themes along to my students. And just like the first time I read this book to myself, I pause as I read aloud, at the passages that pull my heart and catch my breath, so my students can take a moment with me to feel the gravity of the story, to see life from Opal’s perspective, and to even share some tears and laughter together. Before I read a particular scene, which heralds the climax of the story, I let my students know that no matter how many times I read it, the author’s words and converging events in the story always make me cry. And every year, I do. I don’t mind that my students see a tear running down my cheek, as the rain pours down in the story, because it makes it safe and okay for my students to feel and react the same way, too. They often do. The characters may be fictional, but their stories are very real.
These days, an energetic, sassy, but loving wheaten terrier is my best furry friend, and each year my students claim that “Liffey kinda looks like Winn-Dixie!” I suppose this story, these dogs, these tears were all meant to be mine.–Aliza Werner
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
This was a tough book to read, but a powerful book. On the surface, it’s a story about a black teen boy getting shot by a white man in a city’s rough neighborhood, and that man goes free. Deep down it’s a story about perspectives and perceptions and expectations and preconceived notions and fighting for yourself and trying to do what’s right and finding your path and grief and tragedy and race relations and societal commentary. The intertwining of the multiple POVs within the overall story arc of the nine days following the shooting highlights just how much each person has their own truth.—Jillian Heise
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
If I Stay is told as Mia looks over her body in ICU after she loses her parents in a car accident. She tells this story in the present and also through a series of flashbacks, which help her to come to grips with whether she wants to stay and fight or take the easier choice and let go. Needless to say, this is a book that will make you cry. I cried so hard and for so long that I gave myself a headache. But despite the sadness, Forman masterfully weaves a complex story with a page-turning plot and empathetic characters. In fact, as I was reading, all I could think about is how much I wish I had a family like Mia’s. She had parents that any child/teenager could wish for. And yet, even with her wonderful, laid-back family and adoring boyfriend, Mia still struggles to feel like she belongs. It is a book that will make you feel ALL THE THINGS.—Beth Shaum
Luna’s Red Hat: An Illustrated Storybook to Help Children Cope with Loss and Suicide by Emmi Smid
(Release date April 21, 2015)
I could not think of a sadder book to share than Luna’s Red Hat. The extended title – An Illustrated Storybook to Help Children Cope with Loss and Suicide, immediately caught my attention. The story is beautifully told from the viewpoint of young Luna on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death. Luna’s father allows her to express her feelings while explaining her mother’s death was not her fault, nor was it her mother’s fault. Only one phrase alludes to the possibility of Luna’s mother taking her own life, “Normally Mums don’t stop living when they want to and you have every right to be angry” (page 18 of the eBook provided by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, February 26, 2015). I believe if the title did not have the word suicide in it, the sentence would simply be a child’s view of loss through death.
Emmi Smid accurately portrays the child’s mood throughout with a mixture of bold and muted colors. The roll and flow of the text across the page helps to demonstrate the ups and downs of Luna’s emotion. A guide for parents follows the story with information from bereavement specialist Dr. Riet Feiddleaers-Jaspers. It includes how children understand death, how to inform children of a person’s death, and possible questions to expect in the days following a parent’s death. What could be sadder than to know there is a niche this book fills? Thankfully this book is now available to those who need to share it with children who have to face such a difficult time in their young lives.—Kristi K. Betts
Nest by Esther Ehrlich.
Any child, no matter what age, needs the security of knowing that his or her parent/s are there for them. In Esther Ehrlich’s debut novel, Nest, eleven-year old Naomi, better known as Chirp because of her love of birds, has that. She has an older sister, Rachel who is usually kind to her, a wonderful momma who has a passion for dancing and teaches Chirp to enjoy life and the beauty and peace of nature that is all around them at their home on Cape Cod, and she has a psychiatrist father, who although overbearing at times, especially when he wants them to “talk about their feelings” during family bonding times, loves her and cares for her. But slowly, Chirp’s safe nest breaks apart as her mother grows ill and severely depressed, and her sister and father can’t help her with her questions and concerns. When every effort Chirp makes to cheer her mom up only fails, and her mom’s condition worsens, Chirp turns to her birds for solace, and her new friend, next-door-neighbor, Joey, whose “nest” is anything but nurturing. Together, Chirp and Joey set out to find answers, but find disappointment and more heartache instead. You will need tissues.–Carol Royce Owen
Countless authors of middle grade and YA books have written works that deal with the inevitability of loss. I’ve willingly read a whole host of those books (old and new) and shed plenty of tears over the death or demise of beloved characters, human and animal alike. But I think the book that evoked the most profound sense of sadness in me was Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Eighth grade student, Doug Swieteck, leaves familiarity and friends behind when his father moves the family after being fired from his job. Doug is the youngest of three boys; the older two Swieteck brothers take after their abusive father in tormenting Doug. The only bright bits of his life are his mother and Lil—a gutsy girl he meets at school—two of his teachers and a sympathetic librarian, who take an interest in trying to help him succeed. None of these well-meaning adults truly understands Doug’s pain until one day he relates a disturbing experience on his twelfth birthday. His plastered father overpowered him and drug him to a tattoo parlor, then watched as a tattoo was emblazoned on Doug’s back that read Mama’s Baby. I cried through this heartbreaking tale as Schmidt masterfully tells of loss and healing, love and endurance, creativity and hope.—Valinda Kimmel
On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
One of the go-to read-alouds in my classroom for many years has been On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer. This outstanding book (a Newbery Honor winner) holds special memories for me. It is a book I read as a student myself, and now love to share with my students.
Great books make readers feel a wide range of emotions. On My Honor affected me so much as a kid, because I really related to the main character, Joel. I had friends who were more competitive and daring than I was, and sometimes I felt like a wimp. By the time I read On My Honor in sixth grade, I had also lied to my parents and broken the trust they had in me, as Joel had.
The immense sadness I feel each time I read this book comes not only from the tragedy that occurs, but more so at Joel’s realization that sometimes there are no easy solutions and – even scarier – that the adults we love and depend on don’t have the answers to life’s biggest questions. It is something we all must learn as we grow up. On My Honor is remarkable in the way it captures that painful understanding.—Ryan Hanna
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
I’ve been a fan of Ann M. Martin since “Kristy’s Great Idea” started The Babysitters Club, so when I heard through the book grapevine that another book by one of my favorite authors was on its way, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. I devoured my autographed copy on the way home from last fall’s NCTE annual convention. I opened Rain Reign at the airport and was introduced to Rose, an eleven-year-old with a penchant for prime numbers and homonyms, whose world is filled with rules, routines, and adults who struggle to truly understand her.
But sometimes animals are capable of understanding more than people. Such is the case when Rain, a stray dog, enters Rose’s life. The connection between Rose and Rain is fuel for the fire of emotions in this book. Ann Martin shows us that sometimes the very things that others see as our weaknesses can turn out to be our greatest strengths. Ultimately, it’s Rose’s straightforward sense of right and wrong that helps her make decisions that would be difficult, at best, for any adult. This fortitude is why I cared about her character so much.
As I closed the book and returned my tray to its upright position, I grabbed for my drink napkin to wipe the silent tears off my face. Why do I subject myself to books I know will make me cry? Because books that evoke such strong reactions help me grow as a reader and a person. While there is never a guaranteed happy ending, it is comforting to know that where there is sadness, so must caring also exist. -Jennifer Chafin
The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
Grief is a tricky thing. One moment the world feels relatively normal, but the next moment can bring an overwhelming sense of loss that takes your breath away and leaves you feeling like a hollow shell. And that feeling hits you out of nowhere, triggered by a song on the radio or the words in a novel. The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer was my out-of-nowhere trigger that touched me to the core, that made me cry in the not-so-pretty, red puffy swollen eyes, drippy nose kind of way.
Beautifully written, this novel navigates love and loss as twelve-year-old Grace deals with her grief, her guilt, and her anger after her mother unexpectedly dies. My heart breaks for Grace as she figures out how to make sense of a world where her mother is gone, a world where she is sent to live with a grandmother she never knew she had, and a world where she is separated from those she considers family. Grace navigates her world in the best way she knows how—it is complicated and messy, but it is honest and real. It’s a novel that reminds us that there is no right way to grieve—that it is not something we have to do alone and healing can begin from the simplest things.—Jenny Seller
The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan by Atia Abawi
I’m admittedly a softy, and have been ever since I was a kid. I cried at Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy movies when people hurt or were mean to someone else. Especially if that someone else was supposed to be their friend. At that young age I eagerly read every book I could get my hands on, except those in which I suspected an animal would be hurt or someone would die.
Eventually I read a few of those books, too. Once I did I found that suffering or loss in a well told story, as tragic as it was, made more sense to me than playing the bully for laughs. In fact, stories with difficult events and consequences are the ones that stayed with me and changed me most– for the better. I experienced vicariously an array of heartache and trauma that supported me when confronted by problems in “real life”, large or small. Reading is, in my world, “real life”, too. That’s not to say I don’t cry my way through sad parts, but I stopped avoiding books with difficult themes and situations.
The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan is that kind of book. It’s set in one of the remote villages which make up ninety percent of contemporary Afghanistan, where centuries-old ethnic/sectarian hatred passes for tradition and is questioned by few, and then only at risk to one’s life. It’s an extraordinary story, told with realism and intensity based on first hand experience with the country and its people. So much of what we learn about the conflicts in the Mideast is focused on geo-political-military topics.
In this very human novel anyone can empathize and explore the experiences within a culture that, on the surface, is alien to Western thinking and beliefs. It offers unforgettable characters, a setting that is grittily real, and an intensity that keeps you reading despite the pain that feels and is inevitable. In this short clip the author sorts out her approach to writing a novel exploring both the both beauty and pain, the interiors and exteriors of the country of her birth.
This book works well in literature circles that might include WORDS IN THE DUST (Trent Reedy), A BRIGHTER FEAR (Kerry Drewery), and SOLD (Patricia McCormick).—Sandy Brehl
See You At Harry’s by Jo Knowles
As an avid reader, I seem to be particularly fond of stories that basically wreck me for several hours (or several days). The effect of some of those stories, however, last much longer. One story that wrecked me in the most beautiful way possible was See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles.
Everything about this story seeped its way into my soul and never quite left me, especially the main character Fern and her brothers Charlie and Holden. I experienced a slew of emotions as I read, sometimes stopping because I had to catch my breath and let my eyes rest—not from strain, but from the never ending tears.
I feared I would run out of tissues.
Two and a half years later, this book still affects me. Knowles has an incredible talent for writing, for getting to the heart of things, and for tapping into our emotions, grabbing them and not letting go. Not even when the book is finished. I still hang on to the sentiments of Fern’s best friend Ran: “All will be well” and “Be”. In See You at Harry’s, Knowles encapsulates such raw emotion and handles it in such a genuine and delicate way. She manages sensitive issues and captures the essence of this family, which could easily be anyone’s family. This book will wreck you when you read it, but in the end, the tears you shed will be worth it.—Micki Fryhover
Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner
I clearly remember the day I finished reading Stone Fox with my first class in Monticello. While it was fifteen years ago, I still remember the snow outside the window, the way the fourth graders sat knee to knee in a circle, the hushed voice I was using as I read the last line in chapter nine, The Race. I looked up in shock at my students. I had made the young teacher mistake of not pre-reading the book. We sat there, in stunned silence. My cousin, Morgan, was in my class that year. He looked at me and said, “We’re not going to finish this book on our own, are we? Keep reading.” I looked at my beautiful fourth graders, teary eyes staring at me, and I turned the page.
I read that last chapter to them, my voice catching, tears spilling over my eyes. At some point someone grabbed a box of Kleenex and we passed it around the circle as we finished the tale of Grandfather, Little Willy, Stone Fox, and Searchlight. My heart still catches when I think of that book. It was the book that bonded me to my students and showed the power of our connections through story. It was a book I will never forget. –-Katherine Sokolowski
Thanks to all of the contributors who answered my open call for responses, everyone who read the posts and those who commented with your own sad book favorites. You exemplify the Nerdy Book Club motto, “Every reader has value and a voice in our community.” Imagining all of you sharing these books with children–through read alouds or individual recommendations–makes me smile through my sad-book-loving tears.