Monday, December 7, 2009

How Sad is Too Sad in Children's Books?

I’ve been pondering this topic lately because I finally read Bridge to Terabithia over Thanksgiving (I know, I know, just now!? But I had a bit of a one-track mind as a child, and because of it I missed out on a lot of great books the first time around. Fortunately, I get to relive childhood constantly as an intern, and hopefully one day as an editor). It's something I consider often, because as a teen I gravitated towards dark books, and as an adult I continue to find I admire authors who very truthfully convey sadness. Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now is one of the most devastating books I know, but it nonetheless is one of my very favorites. As a child, I recall crying through Where the Red Fern Grows and parts of Island of the Blue Dolphins. Heck, I even cried as an adult during the last three Harry Potter books.

However, the seeds of this post were actually sown several months ago. I had just spent the greater part of the morning curled up in an armchair, soaking up the perfectly whimsical ninth-floor view of the city and reading a manuscript. My supervisor was out for a few days, but she had left two neatly bound copies of a manuscript for my fellow intern and I to review. The two of us had fallen into a comfortable routine by then, and when 11:00 a.m. came around and I started to feel caffeine withdrawal, Sam was usually rounding the corner, asking if I was ready for a tea run.

Still, I believe the two of us were late for tea that day, too immersed in the story’s gentle lyricism to pull away, and when we finally trekked up to the cafeteria we were bursting with ideas we just had to discuss. We loved the manuscript; we saw so many possibilities; we couldn’t wait for the editorial discussion and for rounds of revisions. Sam and I agreed on many of its finest points, and on many of the places where it needed strengthening.

But while I emptied a packet of sweetener into my empty mug, Sam mentioned something that surprised me: “I wonder,” she said, “if this chapter isn’t too sad for children.”

She had a point; the chapter included some moments that were almost horrifyingly bleak -- moments that showed characters at their worst, with no hope to go on. Of course, I had found the chapter sad -- heartbreaking, even. But I also found it beautifully written and terribly true to life. In fact, I had admired how well the author had captured the many ways in which broken people confront sorrow. I had never thought that it might be too sad for children.

And really, what it comes down to is this: I don’t know if I think “too sad for children” exists. Because in real life, every child deals with sorrow. And some children deal with the sort of breathtaking sorrow that we’d hide from them forever, if there were any way we could.

Children’s literature serves so many purposes. Sometimes it constructs elaborate fantasy worlds in which we wrap our children up, protecting them from the evils that we can’t hide in our own world. Sometimes it instructs or encourages children to dream and create, to push the boundaries of their imaginations. Sometimes it offers a safe way for children to experience danger through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes it reassures children that the world is a good and proper place. And sometimes -- in my opinion, some of the most important times -- it shows children that they are not alone, and that no feeling lasts forever.

If there were no children who missed a parent or a sibling or a friend; no children who struggled to gain the love of those who should give it freely; and none who faltered time and time again while trying to find their place in the world, perhaps we would need no sad literature for children. But those children do exist, and they need to be able to find themselves in books. They need to be free to open a book and meet a character who hurts for all the same reasons that they do. And they need to be able to follow that character through the healing process -- to see that they won’t have to hurt forever, that even after all that awful sorrow, there is some joy left in the world.

The manuscript I read that day and Bridge to Terabithia, How I Live Now, Where the Red Fern Grows, and countless other phenomenal books for children and young adults, ultimately tell a story about one of literature’s most powerful emotions: hope. And I applaud them for tackling the depths of sorrow they have to confront in order to tell that story; I hope children experience them deeply and come out of them with a better understanding of life and its many battles.

Let's not aim to keep children from journeying into dark places; rather, let's send them there -- all in order to show them the way out into the sun.


  1. This is exactly where I feel *parenting* comes in to play. There will be some books that are too sad for some children - but since some children do, unfortunately, lead truly tragic lives, that sad book may be just what they need to not feel so alone in the world. If a kid gets hold of a book that maybe is too sad for him or her, then it's a parent's (or other guardian/trusted adult) job to step in and talk about it. If a book is as well written and beautiful as you describe, then there will surely be an audience for it somewhere.

  2. "And really, what it comes down to is this: I don't know if I believe "too sad for children" exists."

    Amen, sista. I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately. With "Where The Wild Things Are" challenged as too scary by some parents, and Maurice Sendak essentially telling them to eff off, I've been thinking about some of my favorite childhood stories. Bridge to Terabithia is one of them. So are many stories by Roald Dahl. They're pretty cliche examples I suppose, but nonetheless, many of them focus on children who are somehow wounded. Fear, sadness, pain? We do a disservice to our children by pretending that they won't encounter these things, or that they haven't already.

    The artist Voltaire wrote a lullaby for his son. The last verse is something that speaks directly to this idea (also, you should check him out if you're not familiar, I think you would like him):

    I won't tell you there's nothing 'neath your bed
    I won't tell you that it's all in your head
    This world of ours is not as is seems
    The monsters are real but they're not in your dreams
    Learn what you can from the beasts you defeat
    You'll need it for some of the people you'll meet.

  3. I may not be one of your literary genius friends, but I agree with the sentiments here. There is no 'too sad for kids'. Children will encounter sadness, as well as the full range of other emotions, in real life. Why should we lie to them via books by pretending there is no such thing as crushing sorrow or depression? Obviously, it probably wouldn't work too well to end the book in crushing sorrow and expect the child not to be upset. But as you ended, "let them go [into dark places] in order to show them the way out into the sun".

  4. Children are resilient creatures. Who are we to say what is too sad for them? Sadness is all around us. Why should children's books be any different? If anything, the sadness a child encounters in a book, could very well help them get through a sadness in their own lives.

  5. Rachel, great post! I'm itching to read the book you've described. Have you tried your hand at cover copy yet?

    I think sadness is important in children's literature because when we construct a world where nothing ever goes wrong and everyone is happy-go-lucky, we expose our children to a world that is uninteresting and poor preparation for the un-sugar coated lives they will inevitably lead.

    But sorrow in children's literature, as necessary as I believe it is, must come with some type of light. A door closed needs to lead to a door opened, because if not, sorrow-as-learning-experience becomes dead-end depression.

    Again, great post! Now, I'm considering interning in children's divisions....

  6. Beautiful post! I absolutely agree; too many people want to shelter and protect children from every little thing, and then wonder why they, as adults, can't face reality. Exposing them to something like grief or loss in a book, where they can connect with it, but also remove themselves from it if they have to, is the perfect way to allow them to explore their feelings. I think children's books where characters experience loss and grief are even more powerful because of the journey the characters go through - it sounds so cheesy, but it's true.

  7. I'm both a teacher and a writer, and I recently have been exposed to Bridge to Terabithia. I found it powerful and moving and I admit I cried at the end.

    Children's fiction is essential in preparing children for the hardships in life so they can learn to cope. Or, if they've already experienced something sad in their lives, it gives them and outlet and support they might not otherwise have.

    I found your thoughts here on the book, other children's books - I remember Where the Red Fern Grows - and the need for this kind of lit fascinating. Thank you.