In Defense Of The “Sad Book” by Jenn Bishop
I can still remember its place on the shelf in my elementary school library. Mrs. Littlejohn, the librarian, would give us time at the end of each session to browse and check out books. I didn’t check it out every time—I was never a big re-reader as a child or an adult—but I always went back to it on the shelf, like it was a friend that I needed to visit.
The book that kept drawing me back was Lois Lowry’s A Summer To Die, her first novel.
If you’re not familiar with it, let me give you a brief synopsis. A Summer To Die is the kind of book that would likely be called “quiet” now. It’s a contemporary story told from the point-of-view of Meg, younger sister to the beautiful Molly. The two girls are uprooted from their home and whisked away to the countryside so their professor father can focus on his book. Meg and Molly aren’t getting along particularly well when Molly’s nosebleeds begin, and she is later diagnosed with leukemia.
I know what you’re thinking: it sounds like a “sad book.” I would be lying to say that when I revisited it as an adult a few years ago, it didn’t bring tears to my eyes. It does, just as effectively today as it did for ten-year-old me. But to reduce it to a “sad book” is to somehow shortchange it, or limit its audience. The thing is, the passage I most recall returning to during my browsing time at the library was not the saddest moment in the book, but the most hopeful one.
Over the summer, Meg grows close with Ben and Maria, who come to stay in the neighbor’s house and are expecting a baby. They’ve decided on a home birth and ask Meg, who’s become quite a good photographer, to take pictures of the birth. It’s that chapter, when Meg is called over for the birth, that I kept returning to as a young reader. Amidst all of the sadness with Molly was a peek into one of life’s most profound experiences.
The thing about middle grade “sad books” is that they’re never all sad. There are so many moments of hope and joy and humor, which speak to the broader experience of life. If there’s one thing I learned from reading A Summer To Die at a young age, it was that the human experience contained terrifying and sad times . . . but also beautiful ones.
Young readers need, crave, safe places to experience intense subject matter, and for a variety of reasons. I know this to be true because I’ve talked with them, so many kids and teens who have passed through the libraries I’ve worked in trying to figure out what to read next. I know which books and sections of the library get perused surreptitiously, and which paperbacks need to be replaced from so much use. Hint: they’re not the books that pretend the world is all puppies and rainbows.
So many readers are in search of stories that provide intense emotional experiences. (Isn’t that why so many teens and adults are drawn to romance, after all?) They’re looking for books that confirm their own life experiences, or that can help them make sense of something a friend is going through. Mirrors.
And then there are the kids like me, growing up in a small town in Central Massachusetts, where it seemed like nothing interesting ever happened. Kids who crave windows into something bigger than their own life like you wouldn’t believe.
Of course I was drawn to books where stuff actually happened, books that made me feel something, whether it was love or fear or the cozy company of friendship. Books with entrepreneurial babysitters. Books in which ventriloquist dummies came to life. Books about an orphan with carroty hair who’s convinced nobody could ever love her.
And yes, “sad books” too.
A former youth services and teen librarian, Jenn Bishop once read over 300 books a year as a member of the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Committee, so yeah, she’s a little bit nerdy. Along with her husband and cat, Jenn lives just outside of Boston. The Distance To Home, her debut middle grade novel, has been named a Junior Library Guild selection and could be called a “sad book.” The Distance To Home will come out on June 28, 2016, with Alfred A. Knopf / Random House. You can find Jenn online at www.jennbishop.com, and on Twitter as @buffalojenn.