written by: Christi Williams, Upper School Teacher
Whenever I try to convince my daughter to read a new book, the first question she suspiciously asks me is: “Is it sad?” If I say yes, she refuses to read it. Then we have the same argument we’ve had countless times. I remind her that all of her favorite books have made her cry. She tells me that she just wants to be entertained. I say that books are about more than being entertained. She digs her heels in. We reach a stalemate.
I’ve realized after having this interchange multiple times that I genuinely like “sad books.” Those are the ones that I can’t wait for my daughters to read, the ones that have transformed me and stick with me over time.
What do I mean by “sad books”? I don’t mean books that end in nihilistic despair and leave you feeling powerless in the face of evil. I don’t mean melodramatic books that ruthlessly tug on your emotions and enumerate one tragedy after another to keep you turning the pages. I do mean books that don’t sugar-coat existence, but rather draw you into the realities of life. I do mean books that aren’t afraid to show you real suffering and how characters respond to it. I do mean books that deal with death and radical sacrifice.
Why are sad books worth reading? Many would list reasons to avoid them. One could argue that life is hard enough as it is, and we don’t need stories to bring us even further down in spirit. Further, why would we want our kids to read sad books and be weighed down by knowledge of the burdens of the world? They have such pure hearts. Why darken that purity? Finally, we like books to be fun and relaxing, so why open ourselves up to a book that makes us uncomfortable with our mortality and forces us to deal with pain we’ve pushed into the background?
Well, I have a few reasons. First, sad books take us through hardship and suffering in stories before we have to go through them in real life. They give us emotional practice for future grief. When I read Bridge to Terabithia in elementary school, I was thrilled by the magical world created by the two lonely friends, the way their friendship gave them strength, and I was devastated at the end when one of the friends suddenly dies. But then, a year later, my family moved cities, and I was suddenly alone. As a result of the move, I never saw my best friend again. It was like she had died. It was this book I returned to for help through the grief. Another book that trained me to be prepared for future grief was Where the Red Fern Grows. The boy in this story trains two coonhound puppies that become the world to him. He loses them in the end to death. When I read this book, I had two dogs that were like family to me. I hadn’t processed what it would be like for them to die until I read this story. I wept for the coonhounds as if they were my own. Then a couple years later, when one of my dogs did die of old age, I was heartbroken, but I was also more ready to face that tragedy and grapple with the emotions that came with it.
Second, sad books can be good for us if they help us develop empathy and compassion for others. The Giving Tree was the first book that did that for me. When you are a child, it is easy to be self-centered and forget how much your parents sacrifice for you. That book taught me to really notice that like the tree in the book, my parents gladly gave up parts of themselves to me and my siblings everyday. I remember being determined to be more grateful to them than the boy is to the tree. In high school, the tragic Les Miserables had a profound impact on me. It taught me about the suffering of the poor and petty criminals. It taught me that “those who do not weep, do not see.” It taught me that to love another means to suffer and sacrifice for them. Jean Valjean taught me the power of grace and forgiveness.
Third, sad books can help us grapple with the problem of evil. The radical suffering in the world is one of the main reasons people give up their belief in God. How could a good God allow such suffering? Sad books put that radical suffering front and center and force us to ask how to reconcile it with the sovereignty of a loving God. Two books that did that for me were The Hiding Place and Brothers Karamazov. Both books opened my eyes to how evil the world can become, forced me to grapple realistically with that evil, and then pointed to God’s love and the need for faith in the midst of it.
Fourth, sad books make us aware of social injustice and specific evils in the world so that we can fight against it. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and Invisible Man show the reality of racism and what inequalities minorities suffer. When I finished these books, I was determined to do what I could to fight for racial reconciliation.
Fifth, if we are in the midst of suffering, sad books are cathartic and help us know we are not alone. I was going through intense hardship as a child when I read The Velveteen Rabbit. I had a lot of unrecognized pain and grief in my heart at that time, and I could cry for the abandoned rabbit in the story because I could not cry for myself. And even though it’s a children’s book, I read The Adventures of Edward Tulane as an adult at a very hard time in life, and I was finally able to allow myself to cry over my circumstances as I cried for the main character.
Finally, the Bible itself is filled with sadness. There is a whole book dedicated to it called Lamentations. Christ is the man of sorrows. The Scriptures tell us to weep with those who weep. Even more, Paul writes that suffering produces not despair, but hope. It leads us to form a character that can endure pain and persevere through it to see redemption on the other side.
These are just a few of the many reasons sad books can be so powerful in our lives.