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Uneasy Reading: On Keeping Company with Very Sad Books

Third grade was the worst year ever. No, really. My parents split up that year, and my dad moved out. I know that every divorce is different, and I’m told that not all of them are as painful as ours was. I’m glad for that. Ours was brutal.

My dad was my person, in so many ways. He tucked me in at night and sang me bedtime songs. Often, he read me poetry. He taught me to make lentil soup. He helped me plant my first garden. And then one day he wasn’t there anymore, and it was like a coldness descended on our house.

There were other difficult things happening, too. I was epileptic and had a brain tumor. So I had to leave the classroom sometimes, to go to the nurse’s office to take pills or to head to the hospital for blood work, an EEG, or a CAT scan. Not fun.

Then, suddenly, my cousin died. Scott was my exact age, until…he wasn’t. That event, on top of everything else, shook me to my core. It was as though all the rules that had governed my life disappeared, and I couldn’t trust anything. My family was no longer my family. Children, it turned out, could die. I supposed that meant I could die. I stopped sleeping.

And I turned, as kids often do, to books. Books were portals, doorways out of my cold house, to imagined lands. Full of magical creatures and wishes-come-true. I read from sunup to sundown. I read at breakfast, and I read late into the night. I devoured books.

Initially, in that terrible year, I sought out books that distracted me from my pain. I loved Half Magic; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Mary Poppins. Books where regular kids encountered magic in the world around them. I was eager for something unexpected to happen and radically alter my world, so those books were many of my favorites. But they were not my only favorites.

The other books I loved were the books that made me cry. The books that shredded me, reduced me to a puddle. My brain is still full of so many perfect painful moments. Beth, dying in Little Women. Dicey, marching her brothers and sister to safety in Homecoming. I read Oscar Wilde stories in which all hearts were broken. The Nightingale, dead from love.

For some reason, I read these books at bedtime. Maybe they required the padding of a thick blanket. I can remember closing the books when they got too brutal, pausing a moment, my finger marking the page, and then, after a deep breath, opening them again. This reading wasn’t easy. And yet, somehow, when I set these books down on the nightstand, finished, with my face and nightgown wet, all cried out, I felt…better, lighter. Comforted.

I needed those books, with an almost physical hunger. Once I knew they were out there for me, I hunted them down. And I reread them, checking them out of the library again and again. I wonder sometimes what the librarian thought, each time I renewed Bridge to Terabithia. Did she understand that I had found the best therapy possible? That book choice was the greatest power at my disposal?

I’ve thought a lot about why these books mattered so much. And I think it was because I was very alone in my sadness. Isolated, I sought company, the best way I could. Books were company. And though Half Magic was one kind of company, a distracting, cheerful friend — that wasn’t enough.

Think about it like this — imagine yourself on a terrible day. After a truly awful fight with your partner, maybe. Now imagine that you call a friend, invite them to dinner, out of the depths of your despair. Sometimes, you want that friend to show up with bubbly chatter, to drag you out for trivia night or dancing. You want to pretend things are okay. But sometimes you don’t. Sometimes that happy friend only highlights your misery. Sometimes that friend’s joy is too much to bear.

So sometimes you need a friend who is also struggling, a friend who can say, “Yeah, me too.” A friend who is sad in the very way that you are sad, and so makes you feel normal. For me, sad books were that friend. After a sad book, I slept easier.

We don’t want kids to need sad books, because we don’t want to believe kids experience grief. But the thing is, they do. From the moment they are born, even the happiest kids feel rejected, lonely, lost, hungry, confused, anxious. Even if we manage to protect them from the really rough stuff, they grieve.

And it is with this knowledge that I write what I write. I’m trying to make the just-right book for some kid out there who falls asleep in a tear-stained nightgown. In working on my recent novel My Jasper June, more than ever before, I found myself returning to my third-grade year as I wrote, searching for the hardest moments in my memory, hunting down the loss and pain and numbness that might make good company for a reader in need. But also give them hope, and a sense of power.

I’m glad we have so many different kinds of books. I’m grateful for humor and adventure. I also know that not all kids want to read sad books. But something I’ve figured out about myself is that I’m not writing books for all kids. Rather, I’m writing a book for one kid to read over and over. I dream of writing a book for the kid that needs my sadness, my company, in a deeper way.

I want to hold hands. I want to say, “Yeah, me too.” At just the right moment. As only a sad book can do.

 

From the November/December 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder’s many children’s books include National Book Award nominee Orphan Island (Walden Pond/HarperCollins) and Geisel Award winner Charlie & Mouse (Chronicle). Her most recent titles are My Jasper June (Walden Pond/HarperCollins) and Hungry Jim (Chronicle).

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S. Kay Murphy

Dear, dear, Ms. Snyder: I cannot tell you how much I needed to read this right now in my life. I've been stopped--two books in to a four-book series aimed at 5th graders. I started Book 3--and have been stopped since summer... because Book 3 will The Sad One in the series. (It is, after all, at that critical point in the arc.) I love my readers. I hate to make them cry. But... you're right; those are the books I, too, loved as a child. Unless I was reading Half Magic. Oh my goodness, how I loved to lose myself in that book! Thank you for your words!

Posted : Jan 22, 2020 02:45


Margo Bartlett

My childhood too. For different reasons, but to the same end. Excellent.

Posted : Jan 10, 2020 08:18


Margo Bartlett

My childhood too. For different reasons, but to the same end. Excellent.

Posted : Jan 10, 2020 08:18


Francine Lucidon

Oh Laurel, this is wonderful. I'm reminded of Maurice Sendak "... tell them the truth." And the truth is, sometimes life is sad. Thank you - Francine

Posted : Dec 14, 2019 08:01


Rebecca M.

Books give life. Sometimes they are the rope that we hold on to in the worst of times. This is especially true for kids, who don't often have the ability or resources to understand or talk about pain. Thank you for such a beautifully written essay and for your books.

Posted : Dec 14, 2019 06:54


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