Should books for children sometimes be sad? We wrote about this a few weeks ago, quoting essays by Kate DiCamillo and Matt de la Peña, both of whom thought the answer was yes.
Turns out most of you think the answer is yes, too, and you have lots of reasons why. (Though one reader said definitely not: “Just don’t. Give them youthful years of fun and folly — they have the entire rest of their adult lives to feel sadness or pain. Let’s not introduce it early.” And that, too, is an excellent point.)
But most readers who responded — and there were many, many of you — thought that, handled with tact and hope, darkness in literature is good for children, helping them cope with sadness and learn empathy.
Doug Voerding, who taught seventh-grade English for 40 years, believes “that literature is there to help them understand their world.” He cited S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” as two young-adult novels that dealt with dark topics, followed by hope. And they’re good for adults to read, as well. “I think we adult readers are missing out if we don’t consider selecting to read one of those books, at least occasionally,” he wrote.
Dawn Hill of Golden Valley remembered her fifth-grade son’s teacher recommending “Good Night, Mr. Tom” by Michelle Magorian, the story of a London boy evacuated to the countryside during World War II. It was a sad story, so she read it, too.
“Uff da, what a story!” she wrote. “It was heavy reading for this motley bunch of fifth-grade boys, so I was really glad that I could talk it out with my son and help him feel better. I firmly feel that no books should be banned just because the subject matter is difficult or sad, but a guiding hand of a parent or a teacher is so important in helping a child learn and put sadness in perspective.”
Bryan Rogers of Little Canada agreed that children can be helped by discussing sad books with an adult. He remembers reading Wilson Rawls’ “Where the Red Fern Grows” when he was still “most likely too young chronologically, but more than ready intellectually. I remember having fairly deep conversations with my parents, after having read it. While it was quite sad, I remember feeling great about this book. I can’t speak to specific ways it may have influenced my understanding of life, but I do know that I felt that I made a big step in growing up and understanding a lot more about life, at the time.”
Barbara Aslakson said “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell was her favorite book when she was a child. “It was sad, yes, but had a message that was a good one for me to learn. People are not always nice — even to animals. If a book is well-written, it can convey life’s truths to young people without them having to go through that trauma. And, if they have gone through trauma, a good book can help with healing.”
Jennie Hakes from Aitkin remembers weeping over “Lad, a Dog” by Albert Payson Terhune as a child and yet reading it again and again. “It taught me that life was not fair, but is still full of beauty.”
Emily Ronning of St. Paul: “I read ‘Charlotte’s Web’ to my daughter when she was about 3 ½. It felt like a scary thing to do, but I honestly believe it has contributed to her capacity for empathy.”
And Minneapolis writer Anne Ursu, whose books for children are not relentlessly happy (nor relentlessly unhappy), notes: “Adults want to keep sadness out of kids books because they don’t want to imagine that kids are ever sad. But they are. And books can keep them company in their sadness, and even let them know their sadness is OK.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/startribunebooks