I remember reading Katherine Paterson‘s Bridge to Terabithia while on vacation with my family. I was maybe nine years old, and it was far past my bedtime. Tears (and let’s get real: probably snot) soaked my t-shirt, and I woke my mother with my sobs.
“It’s so sad,” I probably said, “and so good.”
The next night, it was my mom who read late into the night, she who dabbed her eyes as Leslie crossed to Terabithia one last time. This was the first book I’d read like this – one that moved me to such fervent sadness, and I remember relishing the zing of emotion it provoked.
Later, maybe even the following summer, I fell in love with a book by Patricia Hermes called You Shouldn’t Have to Say Goodbye. Oh, the heartbreak. Sarah, a thirteen year-old gymnast (I loved this – I was in gymnastics, too!), has a close, loving relationship with her mother who battles terminal cancer. I read it periodically over several years, the resulting grief providing an outlet for swirling tween emotions.
As a sixth grade teacher, I’ve loved many a middle-grade/YA tearjerker over the years. I like them better than sad stories for adults, which often lack even a thread of hope for a happy future. Here are four stellar choices for that moment when you just need a good, hard cry, even in adulthood:
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. An outsider, Eleanor, is unconditionally befriended by a neighbor and schoolmate, Park. An unlikely, perfect romance begins. Eleanor’s abusive home life throws the tumultuous nature of teen romance into relief. Eleanor’s problems weigh heavily on both kids and neither can solve them. The novel, published in 2013, is raw, realistic, and heartbreaking. Rowell draws both characters lovingly, outlining their strengths and limitations throughout. This one is for older middle-school kids, high school kids, and adults.
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Sal is a thirteen year-old girl on a cross country trek to visit her mother, who has recently left her marriage and family, including Sal. En route, Sal tells her grandparents the long story of Phoebe Winterbottom, another motherless child. The two tales – Sal’s and Phoebe’s – intertwine and echo as Sal descends the mountains in Idaho, inching closer to a tearjerking truth. This 1994 Newbery winner is for younger kids – grades 4-7, probably, and adults, obvi.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan. This, like Eleanor & Park, is another tearjerker with a lovable outsider at the center. Willow Chance is an odd, endearing first-person narrator who frankly describes her experience of grief and redemption. Her obsessions with gardening and skin ailments personalize her genius. Other characters share the spotlight in 3rd-person chapters. It’s really excellent. Target audience, I think, is 4th-7th grade, as well as adults. It was published in 2013.
- The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin. Suzy and Franny’s best friendship suffers a painful, yet not atypical splintering in middle school. And then, Franny dies in a drowning accident before Suzy can repair anything. Suzy, an lovable oddball with iffy social skills, grieves her former friend in a particular way – by investigating her death using the scientific method. The author is a science writer, and the book is filled with fascinating nature and wildlife facts. Heartfelt and convincing. I loved this 2015 novel, and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t end up one of my top five reads of this year.
Did I miss one of your then or now favorites? Tip me off in the comments!