In Defense of Sad Books

May 26, 2022 § 6 Comments

(PSST…before we begin, summer reading is coming! If you’re in the Alexandria area, I’d love to see you at Old Town Books on Thursday, June 2, at 7:00pm, where I’ll be presenting my Summer Reading Guide for ages 6-16, with lots of personal shopping to follow! Tickets can be purchased here.)

It has been six years since Lauren Wolk penned her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Wolf Hollow (Ages 10-14), one of the single greatest works of literature I have ever read. (Yes, I’m counting adult books.) It’s a book whose comparisons to other great American novels, most commonly To Kill a Mockingbird, are entirely warranted.

Still, over those six years, I’ve grown weary of recommending the book. When I’ve tried to bring it into schools for book clubs, I’ve been told, “It’s a magnificent book, but I’m worried it will upset kids.” When parents ask me to describe the plot, their skepticism radiates off them: Why would I share a story like that with my child? Do they really need to experience such sadness? Won’t it frighten them? Erode their innocence?

Neither of my kids was old enough for the book when it came out, so when the sequel released earlier this spring, My Own Lightning, I decided to revisit the original, this time aloud with my eleven year old. And I’ll admit: I had not remembered how sad it is. Reading it the second time around, this time through the lens of a parent with a child the same age as the protagonist, I did periodically wonder, Is this too much? When our kids have the rest of their lives to discover pain, should storytime be exclusively reserved for funny, fantastical, feel-good themes?

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the writing is. How Lauren Wolk is that rare writer as well versed at writing gorgeous stand-alone sentences as casting these sentences into a tight arc that moves breathlessly towards its conclusion. Not one word is wasted in this novel—not one word—which is a rare, rare gift for a parent reading aloud.

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the protagonist is. How even in the midst of terrible cruelty, terrible sadness, terrible truth telling, Annabelle finds within herself strength, resilience, and unwavering hope. Through the goodness of Annabelle’s actions and the support of her parents, brothers, and teacher, the reader is never without light. That light might be subtle, but it’s undeniably present.

I had also not remembered what an historical novel set between two world wars can reveal about our country, about the men who left for war and came back changed in ways that sometimes bred more misunderstanding and judgment from others than compassion. About the way neighbors of German descent were suddenly regarded with suspicion—or worse. About the way generations of families tightened belts, hunkered under one roof, ate off their own garden plots, and held their breath in a climate of intense uncertainty.

Wolf Hollow is about all of this without really being about any of it. Strictly speaking, it’s about one girl in a tiny Pennsylvania town who is on the receiving end of physical threats and violence from a new classmate—and chooses to stay silent about it for one beat too long. This silence inadvertently casts suspicion on a veteran named Toby, a mysterious outlier in the community, whom many regard as dangerous but whom Annabelle has always seen as gentle and kind. Against mounting odds, Annabelle tries to save Toby and clear his name.

And yet. While the tears streamed from my own eyes in the final chapters, my daughter’s eyes remained dry. To say she loved the book is an understatement: we have rarely moved so quickly though a read aloud and onto its sequel, because she could not get enough. (We’re halfway through the sequel, so keep your eyes on Instagram for that update.) She was captivated, riveted, couldn’t look away. But she was not gutted in the way that I was reading it. Neither was she horrified or haunted. “I like books that tell what life is really like,” she told me. “Not enough books tell the truth.”

Is it possible as parents, given our own lived experiences, given our vast desire to shield our children from the pain we know is out there, that we underestimate our children’s capacity to handle that pain when presented abstractly on the page? Is it possible the compassion they will experience upon reading sad stories might translate into empowerment instead of devastation? Is it possible we find these stories devastating because we’re reading them as parents and not as children seeking to understand the world and their place in it?

Few parents ask me to recommend sad stories for their kids until tragedy strikes. When a child is staring down a divorce, when there has been a death in the family, when a child has been the target of bullying: that’s when I get asked for books with similar themes. I get it, I do. But is the best time to hit kids with sad stories when they’re already on the floor? Might reading them when kids are in the blessed throes of security and contentment be better? Might it actually be a way to arm them with the tools for when heartbreak inevitably strikes?

When I was eighteen, I lost my father suddenly to a heart attack. My world crashed and burned, and in those early months, I kept thinking about the characters in the books I had read. So many of them had lost parents, and now I was one of them. I took great comfort form these kindred spirits, who lived through the unimaginable and came out the other side. I didn’t rush to reread these books—honestly, I don’t remember reading much of anything for a long time—but I didn’t need to. They had given me an emotional vocabulary that I had tucked away until I needed it. And I needed it badly.

I’m not suggesting all young readers will respond to sad stories like I did as a child, like my daughter does now. Or like my son, who is naturally wired towards anxiety and professes to abhor sad stories, but will hang on every word when I read to him. Parents know their children best, and if a story is going to be a trigger for nightmares or stress, then I’m not recommending you push through for a potential upside. My aim here is only to plant the seed that our children might be stronger and hungrier than we give them credit for.

Perhaps we can look to Annabelle for insight. If we study Lauren Wolk’s writing, we’ll see she gives us clues for how children take in upsetting information. Near the end of the book, Toby talks to Annabelle about the horrors he witnessed, horrors he sometimes partook in, during the war. Most of what Toby tells Annabelle is withheld from the reader, but her reaction is not. She’s grateful Toby trusts her with something so central to his being. But she’s also cognizant that much of what he’s telling her is outside her scope of understanding, given her age and her sheltered life. A few days later, Annabelle has a revelation:

I didn’t tell him that I’d put his awful stories in boxes and stacked them on a shelf in the back of my mind. I could hear a quieter version of them still, from their dark place, through all the other business that occupied my brain, but I wouldn’t unlid those boxes until I was ready to hear Toby’s stories again as they wanted to be heard. And I didn’t think that would happen for a long time.

What if our middle schoolers are not the passive receptacles we imagine but active curators? Stories are one of the safest ways to absorb difficult information about the world. Unlike movies or video games that assault the senses, that introduce visuals we cannot un-see, the words of a novel hang in the air until we decide how to internalize them—and even better when these stories are shared in the security of a parent’s presence. Perhaps our children are able to take what they need and tuck the rest away for when life catches up to them.

What we’re really doing when we expose our children to sad, age-appropriate books is giving them portraits of strength and resilience. I cannot imagine a protagonist more worthy of my children’s time than Annabelle. Here’s a girl who, in just a few short weeks, glimpses some of the darkest corners of human behavior. Only rather than cower in fear, she discovers a kind of agency within this knowledge. She discovers she will not sit by in the face of prejudice. She will not sit by and watch loved ones get hurt.

And I decided that there might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried. Though try I would.

And that there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say.

But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried away with me that day: if my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?

Maybe the sad books won’t be what breaks our kids down. Maybe they’ll be what lights the fire beneath them.

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Book published by Dutton Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own. My links support the beautiful indie, Old Town Books, where I am the buyer for the children’s section!

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