Why we read books that make us sad

Jan 12 2024

Why we read books that make us sad

“When we create conditions where children are safe to experience life through the lens of characters and their struggles and successes, books can be a bridge to connect and restore us.”
-John Schu

On the final Thursday of the first semester, second grade teachers Ms. Cook and Ms. Trivizo, their students, and some generous parent volunteers participated in the first “Charlotte’s Web” friendship fair. Students played games, had their faces painted, and enjoyed one another’s company. They even partook of cotton candy and popcorn. One exuberant 2nd grader exclaimed “There’s so much junk food here-this is great!”

For the students, their parents, and teachers, this simulation of an old-time county fair marked the end of their reading of the children’s classic “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B.White. In a twist this school year, families read the book together, and many parents expressed to Ms. Cook their gratitude for the experience.

Like Keystone parents, I was reminded when I re-read “Charlotte’s Web” a couple of years ago how both beautiful and sad it is. Perhaps part of its beauty stems from the emotions it evokes.

So, why do we have students read sad books? I was reminded of this question a few weeks ago while listening to a New York Times audio essay by Brian Fehrman called “Reading Sad Books is Good for Kids.” Fehrman discusses his son Henry’s encounter with the “Wild Robot” series. (The Keystone first graders read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year.) For the first time, Henry feels deep sorrow while reading a book and Fehrman shares how he and his wife helped their child navigate this sadness. He closes the essay by saying that the main character, the robot Roz “gave Henry a reason to push through the book’s sad parts. She also gave him a model for how to make sense of those sad parts-for how and why to keep trying until he was ready to appreciate that, sometimes, sadness isn’t a bad thing to feel.”

To learn more on the benefit of students encountering sad books, I spoke with Ms. Cook, Ms. Luckie who teaches Grades 5&6 English, and librarian Ms. Vilagi. Ms. Cook explained that reading books with sadness in the story can help students learn one of Keystone’s Cobra Code values-empathy. As “Charlotte’s Web” closes with the line “Wilber never forgot Charlotte,” children experience through fiction and in a safe setting that life can be unfair and sad. They discover how to move beyond themselves and feel on behalf of another. As Ms. Cook reminded me in our conversation, “empathy is something we need to teach” and a powerful story provides one way to do it.

Ms. Luckie, who exposes students to a variety of types of fiction, shared a similar sentiment. “Novels with sad moments offer students the opportunity to discuss an abstract concept, such as death, before it becomes a reality. This can be an empowering opportunity for both the teacher and the parents to model acceptance and resilience.” In an ideal world, children would not need to learn about death and dying; unfortunately, between the news, a recent pandemic, and life in general, this may not be realistic. Literature offers a way to process these feelings in a less immediate and traumatic manner and in the process, prepare children for when it becomes all too real.

Ms. Vilagi, who is not only our librarian but also a voracious reader herself, has thought about this topic quite a bit. She explained that, “Through the windows and mirrors library book challenge, we’ve been connecting to books that are reflective of who we are and other books that provide a window into unfamiliar worlds. These books as well as so many others have the potential to grow our affective selves … I’ve read Unbound by Joyce Scott to 3rd & 4th graders, preempting that it’s based on a true story and that there are moments in the book that make me cry. Each time I’ve read this aloud a few students have shed tears. John Schu, in The Gift of Story: Exploring the Affective Side of the Reading Life just might call this one a ‘book of the heart.’ ”

If you’re interested in reading other emotionally moving titles with your child, Ms. Vilagi recommends:

  • “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherin Applegate
  • “The Ogres and the Orphans” by Kelly Barnhill
  • “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” by Kate DiCamillo
  • “Haven; A Small Cat’s Big Adventure” by Megan Wagner Lloyd
  • “Stella” by McCall Hoyle
  • “Starfish” by Lisa Fipps

For older students:

  • “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson

In a blog post called “Our Kids Need Sad Books: They Appreciate Beautiful Melancholy” from “The Critic,” Myke Bartlett says, “If literature is a “safe space”, it isn’t because it should protect us from distress, but rather because it allows us to experience the very worst aspects of life whilst snugly tucked up for bed.” In the process, our children learn how to feel, and face hurt and sadness with resilience.

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