The Joys of Sadness

Last week a couple of little girls came into my wife’s library and asked, “Do you have any sad books?” What a great question. There’s a lot to love about sad stories. For one thing, sad stories remind us whatreally matters to us. We feel sadness at the loss (or else the absence) of things we value.

I don’t suppose they knew it, but the girls who asked my wife for sad stories were looking to affirm the things that mattered most to them by feeling what it would mean not to have them. By looking to enter into another person’s sadness (even a fictional person’s sadness), they were looking to experience their own lives more fully. That’s why I love sad stories.

In children’s fiction, nobody does sadness like Kate DiCamillo. The same ache haunts The Tale of Despereaux, The Adventures of Edward Tulane, The Magician’s Elephant, and Because of Winn-Dixie (I haven’t read her other novels). In each of those stories, the hurt, the loneliness, and the sadness nourish the souls of characters and readers alike.

There’s a great moment in Edward Tulane in which a grandmother tells an awful fairy tale: a beautiful but self-absorbed princess is turned into a pig and eaten. The granddaughter is shocked at the suddenness and brutality with which the story ends. “No one is living happily ever after,” she complains.

“But answer me this,” the grandmother says. “How can a story end happily if there is no love?”

It’s a great question, and one we needn’t protect our children from. Without love, there is no hope for a happy ending. The good news is that we live in a world that, though broken, is still shot through with love. Every sadness, every hurt is redeemable. Which is why we need not pretend that hurt and sadness don’t exist. So sing sad songs. Tell sad stories.

Tomorrow I’ll tell about my favorite sad book for children. Meanwhile, what are yours?

  • http://ginagsmith.com gina

    I remember being completely devastated by The Bridge to Terabithia after I read it. It’s still one of my favorites, though. Other stories that “make my neck hurt” (that’s how my son describes the lump in his throat when he’s trying not to cry) are: Anne of Green Gables (when Matthew dies!), Where the Red Fern Grows and Charlotte’s Web.

  • http://www.kristydempsey.com Kristy Dempsey

    Oh gravy, any book that can make me cry and feel hope both by the time I reach The End is a definite winner in my book. Some of my favorites are:

    Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
    A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith
    Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
    The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
    Many of the picture books by Patricia Polacco (Esp. Pink and Say)
    Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox
    Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

    More recently:
    Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

    I cry easily though. Tough to be a librarian who reads lots of books aloud to kids.

  • Jonathan Rogers

    Yes, Gina–such sad, sad stories. Bridge to Terebithia…devastated is the right word. When our littlest was 3 or 4 she saw the movie (feel free to start judging me now), and we had to spend some time over several days talking about how Leslie wasn’t real. Except, of course, our little girl knew she was real; she had gotten to know her.

    I’m probably not supposed to admit this, but I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables–so thanks for the spoiler, Gina. I probably won’t read it if Matthew dies. I have, however, read the first couple of chapters, and there is tremendous sadness there…I’m thinking about Anne saying, in effect, “It’s okay if you don’t want me to live with you. I understand.” A girl who loves so much but feels she has no choice but to be satisfied with so little love in return–that’s sad.

    And Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller–I think maybe Rawls and Gipson had a contest to see who could make men and boys cry the most.

    Thanks for your list, Kristy. I’m looking forward to checking out the ones I don’t know. I especially want to check out Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge…friendship between the very young and the very old is too rare a commodity.

    So here’s a follow-up question: what are your favorite sad books that don’t involve death?

  • http://ginagsmith.com gina

    In your defense, the marketing of Bridge had a completely different tone than the actual finished product. Boo.

    Never read Anne? I will not apologize for spoiling it, then. Everybody knows that Matthew dies. Now you’re in the loop.

    I think The Giving Tree is sad (but my kids don’t–weird?). There’s no death in that one…unless you count the death of a tree. Shoot. I am striking out, here.

  • Russ

    A River Runs Through It– the book– is a sad tale. It kind of deals with death, but that’s not really what makes it so sad to me. It’s the fragility of everyone involved.

  • http://www.sdsmith.net S.D. Smith

    JR, Hannah Coulter has a sadness in it that is hard for me to get through. Sometimes I’ll start a chapter and then just put it down, saying, “No way. Not now,” because it is just too real. Sadness involving the absence/disconnection of children, the loss of a husband or wife (especially wife), those things are so hard. Over the years I’ve usually just fast forwarded through “the wife dies” scenes in movies. Probably reveals a weakness in me, a lack of faith.

    We’re studying Genesis in our church and this book absolutely devastates me. Abraham, oh my. Jacob and Joseph. I’m in tears frequently reading this incredible true tale.

  • Jonathan Rogers

    Great point, Russ. The brother’s death punctuates the sadness of A River Runs Through It, but it isn’t the source of it. It only marks the end of our hope that his loneliness and sadness–which seem so unnecessary–will resolve into a gladness that is waiting for him all along.

  • http://www.aaronroughton.com Aaron Roughton

    The Giving Tree. I cry every time. But I don’t think it was sad when I was younger. My kids don’t either. They ask, “What the heck is wrong with you? Why are you crying? He should have dug out that old stupid stump and put in a jacuzzi to rest his old bones in.” Not really, but I am hoping they get it someday. I think it got sad once I had kids.

  • http://www.aaronroughton.com Aaron Roughton

    And if we’re not talking kids books, The Road crushed me.

  • Jonathan Rogers

    Oh, S.D., now that you’ve brought up Wendell Berry…who’s not a children’s author but who does sadness like nobody else. Berry just seems so connected to the world he writes about (which, as it turns out, is the world he lives in)…everything seems so real: the barber shop, the river, the joy, the sadness. I’m contemplating hosting Wendell Berry Month at Jonathan-Rogers.com. Readers, if you don’t know Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow, you have to get them and read them right now. Turn off your computer and go get them. Then subscribe to Wendell Berry’s Twitter feed. (That’s a joke, but the rest of it wasn’t).

    I also appreciate what you said about Genesis. If you make yourself forget that you’ve known these stories all your life, there is incredible life and feeling in those stories. Ask Russ (above) about Sarah and her laughter.

  • Jonathan Rogers

    Might be time for me to revisit The Giving Tree, now that it’s gotten two recommendations. I’ve got kind of a prejudice against The Giving Tree, and I can’t remember what it’s based on…which is the purest kind of prejudice, I suppose. I had a similar prejudice against Charlotte, NC. My wife knew all about how I didn’t like Charlotte. One day, shortly after we married, we were driving through on I-85, and my wife asked me a question about Charlotte. “How should I know?” I said. “I’ve never been here in my life.” That made my wife really mad for some reason. Something changed in the way she viewed her new husband. For my part, I think it’s a mark of erudition to be able to articulate well-formed opinions on subjects one knows nothing about. I have since decided to give Charlotte a second chance if Charlotte is willing to give me a second chance.

    I’ve got some well-formed opinions about The Road, Aaron. I never saw the movie, which, as I understand, isn’t quite as bleak as the book, but for me the book was bleak beyond bleak. I’ve known people to say they saw hope in The Road, but I think any hope one sees in The Road is hope they brought there themselves. I don’t believe they found it there. What do you say to that, Aaron?

  • http://ginagsmith.com gina

    You can hear the author read The Giving Tree here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TZCP6OqRlE Kinda neat.

  • http://www.sdsmith.net S.D. Smith

    And that’s one last opinion I needed to hear. I will never read The Road.

    Maybe JR, there’ something in the discussion of what kind of sad is helpful and what kind of despair is basically hurtful. There’s a difference between digging through the septic tank to recover the wedding band and just going for a swim in the thing.

  • http://www.sally-apokedak.com/whispers_of_dawn/ sally apokedak

    I cry every time Matthew dies even though I know it’s coming.

    And I cried buckets over Bridge to Terabithia. It shows what a great writer Paterson is. I hated her theology in that book, and yet I was so attached to that little boy that I felt his pain intensely when his friend died. Paterson’s a master at foreshadowing. I’d been waiting for that death for chapters, so I was emotionally primed. (I didn’t cry over the movie, though. It was horrid, I thought. They made it a fantasy. That was just weird.)

    Do stories in movies count? The last movie I cried over was Toy Story 3. Yikes. I’m crying for characters that are toys. I wish I could create characters that people relate to that closely. At least I didn’t cry over Monsters Inc. My son did.

    I cry over missionary stories every time. I cried so hard when I was reading Corrie ten Boom’s story to the kids that I had to stop reading. (At the part where she tells her father, “God be with you,” and I know she’ll never see him again.) True stories of sacrificial love and of faith in times of overwhelming sorrow and loss are the best, I think.

  • Jonathan Rogers

    S.D., you’re being promoted from the comments section to the main blog post. Tomorrow we will explore the question that you raise: when is sad helpful and when is it hurtful? You will be quoted verbatim in the main post, so tell all your friends and relatives to stop by and see it. If you don’t mind, overnight me an 8×10 glossy (signed) so I can scan it and illustrate said blog post.

    Gina, thanks for the link. I hope to give it a listen. I’ll let you know how my prejudices hold up.

  • Peter B

    Sally, there’s no shame in Pixar-generated tears. There is no parent who can escape that and still be called human. Maybe guys are more susceptible to the Boo and Sully dynamic, though; there’s probably a government-funded study in there somewhere.

  • Joe

    _Elisabeth and the Water-Troll_ by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
    _The Resurrection of Karen McDermott_ also by Wangerin
    _Love You Forever_ by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw

  • Jonathan Rogers

    Hey, Joe, thanks for these recommendations. I love The Book of the Dun Cow (a book with a whole lot of sadness), but I don’t know these other Wangerin books (or are they short stories?) that you have mentioned.

    Love You Forever gives me the creeps, but I think I might be the only person for whom that’s true.

  • Jonathan Rogers

    I’m with Peter B: I wouldn’t trust anybody who doesn’t get at least a little weepy at Pixar movies. The opening sequence of UP…that’s some of the best movie-making I’ve ever seen. I saw Toy Story 3 last week and loved it.

    Sally asked if stories in movies count. Absolutely they count. I like books, but what I really like is story. And some of the best stories are told in movie form rather than book form.

  • http://www.aaronroughton.com Aaron Roughton

    I think that’s a great thought about The Road. At the end I felt like there might be a statistical chance that the kid would live for some amount of time longer with the non-cannibals than he might have if he stayed by his dad’s dead body. But statistical chance doesn’t necessarily equal hope. It’s like watching some baby mice dropped into a snake cage. “Oh look, that one didn’t get eaten. Yet.” Sad without hope is stupid.

    Ah, Love You Forever. What could possibly be creepy about a mom sneaking into her adult child’s room as they slept to hug them? But it sure is sad.

  • Joe

    Jonathan,

    Yes, the Wangerin stories are short stories. I originally came across them in Swallowing the Golden Stone: Stories and Essays by Walter Wangerin (which I providentially bought at The Hutchmoot). Elisabeth and the Water-Troll is available in an illustrated book version, though.

    As for sad movies, “Wit” starring Emma Thompson is amazing (you’ve probably seen it), but it’s not for kiddos.

    Come to think of it, didn’t the original “Fox & Hound” by Disney have one of the main characters die? When I was a kid, I can remember being torn up about that one when I got home.

  • Amy

    I think the problem with The Road is that it just was too hyped and commercialized, and that takes all the fun out of it. I read it soon after its debut, and have not seen the movie. Overall it painted a bleak and hopeless picture, but I did find a ribbon of light wove throughout…in the guise of the love between the father and son. And with a setting that bleak, a tiny flicker of goodness can become hope.

    All kids of movies and books make me cry, Pixar movies are no exception! There’s even that old Purina Dog Chow commercial where the boy and dog grow up together….and then the boys leaves for college…..sniff, sniff….

  • http://www.kristydempsey.com Kristy Dempsey

    No, JR, you’re right. LOVE YOU FOREVER is creepy.

    As for sad books that don’t involve death . . . I’ll think on it and scan the shelve tomorrow.

  • http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/endings/ Endings « A Christian Worldview of Fiction

    [...] Rogers (author of The Charlatan’s Boy, the upcoming CSFF Blog Tour feature) about sad books—favorite sad books, no [...]

  • Jenni

    At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. I nearly cried at the end. But it wasn’t really for sadness…by all rights it should have been a sad ending, but it just felt ::right:: — the other characters were sad, but the MC got to his goal, the back of the north wind. So I was happy for him but sad for the other characters, and longing for the back of the North Wind… and ended up with tears. :)

    I’m generally not a cry-in-books type of person, but I do like sad stories.

    Lord of the Rings should count too. It’s pretty heart-wrenching, particularly when Sam thinks that Frodo is dead, and continuing on into their last journey as they lose strength; and also at the Grey Havens. Again, though, there is joy mixed with the sadness. And longing too, a little bit.

    And ditto to anyone who said anything Pixar. ::loves Pixar films::

    Your experiences often define what is sad to you. As I get older, more things are sad to me, because I have experienced more.

  • http://www.heatherivester.com Heather Ivester

    Here’s another book to add to your sad story collection, and one I hope your wife will recommend to her students. I loved Cynthia Kadohata’s 2005 Newbery Award winner, Kira-Kira. This book is achingly beautiful, despite the sorrow the author must take us through. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it’s an excellent book for sisters to read, especially sisters who might occasionally squabble over who gets to use the flat-iron first. (ahem…)

    As you wrote in your Principle #3: “A sad story well-told convinces the reader that sadness doesn’t have the final say.” Kira-Kira, which means “glittering” in Japanese, describes the tone of this book, how we can see shimmering joy even when our hearts are broken. The opening and ending paragraphs of Kira-Kira are like spun gold. I think I might read it again this weekend just thinking about it!

    And I don’t think anyone here has mentioned Little Women, as a sad book that offers hope. But who can live through Beth’s death without becoming a better person inside? Also, what about Wuthering Heights, for older readers? That book changed me as well. Haunting, but uplifting. Makes every girl want to be loved by a Heathcliff, who would even weep over her grave. And I agree with whoever mentioned Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May. Loved that one too! And The Giver by Lois Lowry. I think I must be drawn to sad books! (The Charlatan’s Boy was a little sad too, in some parts, but we laughed a bunch too of course.)

  • Jonathan Rogers

    Thanks for your recommendation, Heather. I’ve never read Kira-Kira. Heather, while we’re on the subject of stories about Japanese-Americans, do you know the book Bat 6? Set shortly after World War II, it tells the story of a girls’ softball game in Washington or Oregon that is interrupted by an act of violence against a Japanese-American player. We listened to it on a car trip, and it was quite good. I expect is was better as an audio book than as a book book because it was told in at least a dozen different voices; hearing the distinct voices helped keep the story straight.

  • Dryad

    A Single Shard… can’t remember the author’s name, but this book is…worth reading. I can’t grasp the words to tell you why.

  • http://www.heatherivester.com Heather Ivester

    Dryad — A Single Shard is by Linda Sue Park. That is such an awesome book — I agree with you. I love how she wraps up the ending. Her novel, When My Name Was Keoko, is also quite good, though sad. I know very little about Korean history, so these two books were eye-opening for me.

    Jonathan — you’ve mentioned Bat 6 before. I think I need to read it. I’ll add it to my list of “must-reads,” along with Eleanor Estes’ The Hundred Dresses.

  • Joe

    I know this is an old thread, but I read it last night to the boys since it is one of our Christmas books: The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen.

  • Anonymous

    Came across this today and remembered this discussion. Thought you’d find it interesting. http://moms.popsugar.com/Truth-Behind-Love-You-Forever-31923286