“Why Are You So Sad?” Kids, Feelings, and Fiction by Rebecca Donnelly
When I was around seven or eight, people often asked me why I was so sad. These people were mostly adults but sometimes children. At that point in my life, I had a few things to be sad about: my parents were getting a divorce, and I had just moved across an ocean from England, where I was born, to the United States, where my mother came from. My dad stayed in England, and my older brother, my mother, and I went to California to live with my grandparents. I wasn’t sad about living with my grandparents, but I was sad that other things seemed to be changing for me without any particular wish for it on my part.
Like most children, though, I was actually sad only part of the time, and just fine at other times, and who could say when I would feel one way and when I would feel the other? Many times, when someone asked me why I was so sad, I wasn’t sad at all. I think they meant, why aren’t you smiling? Why do you look sad, which is very different thing from being sad. The question implied that there was something very wrong about sadness, whether you felt it or looked like you felt it.
Cora Davis, the fifth-grade narrator of my middle grade novel The Friendship Lie, is experiencing life with newly divorced parents. She hasn’t moved far from home, but her mother has, and Cora is sometimes sad, sometimes grumpy, sometimes happy, and almost always not quite sure how she feels or why she feels that way. All she knows for sure is that something’s not right, and it might be because of her parents, or because of the confusing fight she’s having with her best friend Sybella, or because things seem to be changing for her without any particular wish for it on her part.
In other words, she’s being a kid. Childhood is a turbulent time for the emotions under any circumstances. Even when a child is loved and safe and provided for, their inner life is out of the reach of the best intentions. We can’t love a child into self-regulation, or clothe them into persistence, or feed them into optimism. Kids live deeply in their feelings because that inner life is one of the few things that is truly their own and that isn’t subject to denial, bribery, or enforced sharing.
What we can do is give kids time, space, and tools to explore and understand their feelings. Reading is a tool. Fiction is especially helpful because of its unique insight into characters’ inner lives. (For the record, I think nonfiction is an outstanding tool for building emotional understanding, as well, but Cora lives the world of fiction, so that’s where I’m concentrating my thoughts at the moment.)
In fiction, we’re often reading about everyday people. We see their everyday lives and everyday concerns. As they experience difficulty, we see what they see, and we see how they react. We might see some new facet of our own experience of grief or loneliness or fear, or we might understand something about a feeling we haven’t experienced yet and in reading about it, add it to our store of knowledge about human experiences in general.
Children constantly add to this store. If you’ve ever read a picture book to a group of four-year-olds, you’ll be familiar with their keen awareness of characters’ feelings: the bear looks mad, that penguin is grumpy, the dog is sad because she lost her ball. Learning these words is key to developing the emotional granularity that psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett tells us is a key building block of emotional life. The better we can define our emotions, the better we can handle them.
I believe it’s especially important for kids to read about the so-called negative emotions (anger, depression, boredom, frustration, and so on) because those are the feelings we’re often counseled by well-meaning adults to conquer or tidy away somewhere. Why are you so sad?
My standard answer to Why are you so sad? was that this was my natural face. Natural. I used that word, as a young child, because I must have known that among all the things I did not have a right to—choosing where I lived, and who lived with me—I had every right to wear my own face. I might not have had the emotional granularity to define my feelings, but clearly I knew that, whatever they were, they were okay.
Cora talks about her feelings with some of the grownups in her life. None of them ask her why she’s so sad. None of them imagine that because she’s a child, her feelings aren’t valid, or that because she can’t explain why she feels the way she feels, she doesn’t need to feel that way. It was important to me to let Cora be grumpy, to feel blech and not to know why. To wear her natural face.
Writers sometimes worry that if they let their characters show too much of their dark sides, they’ll be seen as unlikeable. We don’t want to alienate our readers by being too negative, the thinking goes, when in reality, our readers might be feeling alienated themselves, and seeing someone else deep in the weeds of blech might offer necessary comfort. Ironically, sadness in the pages of a book holds a candle to sadness in real life and dispels a little of its gloom. Seeing any negative emotion represented in a book, and seeing the character who displays that sadness, or depression, or fear still be loved and accepted is like a lantern, chasing more of that gloom away.
At one point in the book, Dani, a family friend, commiserates with Cora, telling her about a fight she had with her own friend when she was younger. Dani reflects on her own anger and wishes she’d been “a little more chill.”
Cora replies, “I don’t know how to be chill. I only know how to be me.”
Same, Cora. Here’s to you. Here’s to everyone who only knows how to be themselves, and everyone who’s trying to figure it out.
Rebecca Donnelly is the author of the middle grade novels How to Stage a Catastrophe (an Indies Introduce/Kids’ Indie Next pick) and The Friendship Lie, and the upcoming picture book Cats Are a Liquid. Born in the UK, she’s now a children’s librarian in northern New York.