Children’s books sometimes deal with sad topics as a way to introduce kids to the inevitable hardships and low points of life. The interesting thing is that when adults read these books, they understand and grasp the reality of the plot far more deeply than children do. As a result, these books written for children have the power to turn grown adults into sobbing messes.
10War Horse, 1982
English author Michael Morpurgo has over 120 books to his credit. He is a member of the Order of the British Empire and was the British Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. His most famous novel is War Horse.
War Horse is told from the point of view of Joey, the titular horse. In 1914, Joey is sold to the army and ends up on the Western front in the midst of the First World War. This makes for two very emotional stories. The first is the carnage of war—the soldiers often connect with the horse, and many touching passages cover the connections humans have with animals. The second is Joey’s longing to be at home, on the farm with a boy he loves.
In 2007, the novel found new popularity when it was adapted into a stage play. Then in 2011, it was made into a movie, which was also critically acclaimed. Both of these productions, which moved adults to tears, brought attention to War Horse the book, and it became a bestseller, giving adults the chance to cry over the story in three different mediums.
9Tuck Everlasting, 1975
Winnie Foster, 10, is miserable at home and she wants to run away. When she goes into the woods near her house, she runs into the Tuck family, who are immortal thanks to a secret water spring. Once the Tucks are discovered, they have to leave town, but one of the Tucks, 17-year-old Jesse, gives Winnie a vial of the magic water so that she can become ageless if she wants. Decades later, the Tucks return to where Winnie lived and find her grave. She lived a long life, married, had her own children—and died.
This book was an important milestone in children’s literature because when children get to be about 10 years old, they start to come to terms with the inevitability of death. Tuck Everlasting then asks a question that even adults have trouble answering—is immortality and being young forever truly a good thing?
Besides immortality, the novel has a much more grounded theme. As we age, we lose people. Some move away, we lose contact with others, and still others die in our lifetime. It’s sad, but it’s a major part of life that people have to deal with.
8Where The Red Fern Grows, 1961
This novel is about a boy named Billy who buys two redbone coonhound puppies, Old Dan and Little Ann. He trains them to hunt raccoons, and together, they become some of the best hunters in their part of the Ozarks.
The novel has two tragic events. First, Billy gets into a fight with another boy named Rubin. During the scuffle, Old Dan and Little Ann fight Rubin’s dog. To save his dog, Rubin charges at Billy’s dogs with an axe but falls on it and kills himself. The sadness doesn’t end there.
The most depressing part happens at the climax when Old Dan and Little Ann get into a fight with a mountain lion, and Billy tries to save them. In the end, Old Dan saves Billy but receives a life-ending injury and dies a short time later. Little Ann is so heartbroken that she starves herself and dies on Old Dan’s grave.
It’s pretty dark stuff for a children’s book. That’s because the book wasn’t originally intended for children at all. It was originally published in three parts in the Saturday Evening Post and was meant for adults. However, when the story was printed in book format, the publishers directed it toward children, and it became a bestseller.
Where the Red Fern Grows was one of two books Rawls wrote in his life, and it is considered one of the best in children’s literature. It was made into an equally sad film in 1974. When Rawls wrote the novel, he was living in Idaho Falls. Outside the Idaho Falls Public Library a statue of Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann was later erected.
7A Taste Of Blackberries, 1973
Doris Buchanan Smith
This American Library Association Notable Book by Doris Buchanan Smith starts off with the unnamed 10-year-old narrator collecting blackberries with his best friend, Jamie. Jamie, who is a bit of a wild kid, gets stung by a bee and goes into anaphylactic shock. The narrator thinks his friend is just faking it and ditches him to go get a popsicle. Jamie dies.
This book was considered groundbreaking in 1973 for its portrayal of death in children’s books. It was about how children deal with unexpected death and was different from other books that deal with the theme simply through the death of an animal. At the same time, it’s an uplifting story about moving on and is hailed as a milestone in children’s literature.
6A Wrinkle In Time, 1962
Meg Murry’s scientist father has gone missing while working on a government project called “The Tesseract.” The Tesseract is a wrinkle in time and space, and her father traveled to another planet to battle an entity, a black cloud taking over the universe. By the end of the book, Meg’s little brother is under the control of yet another entity, and to break its hold on him, she must show him that she loves him more than anyone else.
That last bit is a heart-wrenching scene, especially for adults. A lot of people have been in a situation where they wished they could express their love in the right way to someone they’ve lost.
The book is hailed as one of the best science fiction novels for children. It won the 1963 Newberry Medal, which honors the best in children’s literature.
5The Velveteen Rabbit, 1922
The Velveteen Rabbit is about a stuffed rabbit that is given to a young boy as a Christmas present. While not as fancy as the other gifts, the rabbit wants to be loved by his owner. One of the older toys says that if their owner loves them enough, then they can become real. The rabbit becomes the boy’s favorite toy, but the child catches scarlet fever, and all his possessions will be burned. However, a fairy takes the Velveteen Rabbit away. Later, the boy sees a rabbit in the wild that looks just like his beloved velveteen toy.
This enduring classic strikes a chord with that part of us that hopes there is something after death. Even if we can just see those we love again for a few moments, then perhaps death wouldn’t be so frightening.
Before writing The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams wrote adult fiction, including horror. She was noted for the dark themes in her novels, and she brought that over to The Velveteen Rabbit. After the success of the novel, Williams changed the direction of her career and she wrote mostly children’s and young adult books until her death in 1944.
4Old Yeller, 1956
Old Yeller is pretty much synonymous with “sad story.” This novel is about 14-year-old Travis Coates, who is running his family’s ranch while his dad is on a cattle drive. A mangy dog arrives at the ranch, and Travis wants nothing to do with him. Things change when the dog saves different members of Travis’s family, and they develop a tender relationship. One night, a rabid wolf attacks the family, and Old Yeller fights off the wolf but gets infected with rabies. Travis is forced to shoot his beloved dog.
The death of a loved animal has been and will always be a touchstone for sadness in literature. However, Old Yeller takes it to the next level by forcing Travis to be the one who ends the animal’s life.
The book, which was adapted into a 1957 movie by Disney, is considered one of the best, and saddest, novels written for children. It has won several awards, including a Newberry Honor.
3Bridge To Terabithia, 1977
This award-winning children’s novel is about two lonely 11-year-olds, Jess and Leslie. Jess lives with four sisters on a farm. Leslie has just moved to the area, and at first, Jess doesn’t like her, but they ultimately find that they are kindred spirits. To escape the everyday problems of their lives, they create an imaginary kingdom in the forest called Terabithia. One day, Jess ditches Leslie to go to an art gallery with a teacher he has a crush on. Leslie goes to the forest alone and accidentally drowns. It is a heartbreaking twist for anyone of any age.
Author Katherine Paterson wrote Bridge to Terabithia after her son’s best friend died, struck by lightning at the beach. It was hard to explain the senseless loss to him. Even for adults, the unpredictability and inevitability of death is a hard concept to deal with.
Bridge to Terabithia is hailed for its realism, especially when it comes to dealing with sadness and grief while in mourning. The book won the Newberry Medal, and Disney adapted the book into a film in 2007, 30 years after the publication of the novel.
2Love You Forever, 1986
This Robert Munsch classic tells the story of a mother who raises her son into adulthood. Throughout the story, at different parts of his life, even as an adult, she holds him and sings to him:
I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be.
By the end of the novel, the son holds his dying mother and sings the same song back to her. It’s a very simple but touching story.
Munsch found the inspiration for the story after his wife gave birth to stillborn babies on two different occasions. He wrote the song as an ode to his dead children. At first, it was a private matter, and Munsch didn’t plan on publishing the book. However, Munsch often did live readings of his books, and he started reciting Love You Forever. He noticed the effect it had on audiences, so he published the book.
The book sold particularly well in retirement communities in places like Arizona, where there weren’t a lot of children. A lot of adults were buying it for their own parents because it was such a touching story about parenthood.
Since its publication in 1986, over 15 million copies have been sold, and it is one of the best-selling paperback children’s books of all time. Munsch was awarded the Order of Canada in 1999, and he was given a spot on the Canada Walk of Fame in 2009. Love You Forever remains his most popular book.
1Sad Book, 2004
Michael Rosen is a prolific and award-winning children’s author from the United Kingdom. He was the British Children’s Laureate from 2007–2009.
In 1999, his 18-year-old son Eddie died of meningitis. In 2004, he published Sad Book, which is about his experiences dealing with his grief. This is the opening page:
This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I’m being happy in this picture.
Really, I’m being sad but pretending I’m happy.
I’m doing that because I think people won’t
Like me if I’m being sad.
The illustrations by Quentin Blake give the book a washed-out feeling of loss that is hard to put into words but captured brilliantly in pictures.
Rosen said that he wrote the book because after Eddie’s death, he was still visiting schools and talking to children. He’d tell stories of a young Eddie, then the children would ask how old Eddie was, and he’d have to explain that Eddie had died. And as children are prone to do, they asked a lot of questions. He wrote Sad Book as an explanation to them about his experience with loss.