SuperBowl Sunday. We’re sitting on the couch, nine-year-old Nick between Mark and me. I’m knitting, Nick is reading; only Mark is giving his full attention to the game. At some point, I look over Nick’s shoulder and see the arresting illustration from Bridge to Terabithia: a silhouette of Jess’s father holding his shattered son, who has just learned of his best friend’s death. I put my arm around Nick.
“It’s sad there, isn’t it?”
“It is. But you can’t really cry when you’re reading it to yourself — it’s not like when someone’s reading it to you — you need both your hands. So I can’t really cry.”
So he said, but the tears started a moment later. Released by my recognition, I think, they trickled — one, two — slowly out and down his cheeks. I kept my arm around him.
“It gets better,” I said. “I promise, it gets better at the end.”
“But why –” I began to prepare myself for the inevitable question. Why does Leslie have to die? Why do children die? Why does anyone?
“Why does he throw his paints in the water?”
There he is, my artist son, lamenting Jess’s loss, not fully understanding it but recognizing somehow the import of the moment.
“I don’t know, sweetie. I think he just felt bad. And he feels a little guilty, too, that Leslie died while he wasn’t there, while he was having fun — and so he throws away something that is part of that. Does that make sense?”
“Mmm.” His head was back in the book, racing to finish.
When he did, he gave the book almost immediately to Mark. “I think you would like this book, Daddy. You should read it.”
“No, Daddy, really. It’s like — have you read Old Yeller? It’s like that, it’s real, it’s not like those other books.”
Old Yeller is the last book that made him cry, a book read aloud in school to the whole class; I imagine them all, their hands free to wipe noses and eyes, sitting in a circle as the teacher — her own voice breaking — gets through the painful loss. Nick came home and talked about the book for days, as much surprised by his own reaction as by the dog’s painful death.
Why do we read sad books? Why do we give them to kids? The questions come up in articles, books, commentaries — one author/blogger, for example, noted that the recent Newbery Award-winners are most often (in his words) “serious books,” especially books about “overcoming hardship.” Author Barbara Feinberg actually got a whole book out of her complaint that her son was too often “made” to read “sad books” in his English classes.
But Nick wasn’t complaining. And when I asked him and Mariah (who’s older and has a little distance on this) about reading sad books, neither one objected. Indeed, it may be that they’re seeking them out.
Mariah, for example, loved Bridge to Terabithia as a child. She has a distinct memory of reading it in second grade (so early?!), crying as she sat in the elementary school library by herself as she finished it. That’s a good memory, she hastens to add. Nick, too, in encouraging his dad to read the book right away, was endorsing it, despite (or even because) of its sadness. Yesterday he overheard me mentioning that it’s been challenged for its sadness, and he interrupted in outrage: “Life IS sad! How better to learn about it than in books?” (Ah, my child, my child.)
Sad books serve a purpose, after all, perhaps especially for kids whose lives aren’t very sad. Mariah recalls sad books teaching her that people survive their sadness, that the things she feared could be survived. I’m not sure children in war zones need sad books, or children in abusive families, or children struggling with intractable sadnesses of their own. Or maybe they do need sad books, just like my kids, just as they also need stories of joy and humor, the zaniness of Ramona Quimby, the absurdities of Amelia Bedelia, the manic energy of a new favorite, Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine. Maybe they also, again like my kids, need escapist fantasy where children have magical powers and vanquish the most oppressive enemies. For whatever reason, though, my kids like a good cry now and then. Their own petty frustrations and annoyances pale next to Jess’s loss in Bridge to Terabithia, or Travis’s in Old Yeller. They know it’s only a story, and the story teaches them how to approach other stories, other truths.
And the truth is, the main thing about Bridge to Terabithia isn’t how sad it is. It’s how realistic a depiction of family life it provides: the work-worn father, too busy to notice his son yearning for conversation, for connection; the mother, tired of scrimping and saving for the small luxuries her daughters don’t appreciate. Siblings who hit each other and then regret it. It’s also how real the depiction of friendship seems. Jess and Leslie are both, in their way, misfits; their friendship teaches each new things and gives them a sense of belonging, but it’s always tenuous, never secure. The painful death that brings Bridge to Terabithia to an end is, finally, only one part of the story, and perhaps that’s the best reason to read (good) sad stories: to see the ways in which sadness becomes part of a life, rather than taking it over. I’m not handing my kids trauma-of-the-week memoirs right now, and the stories that begin with the mom’s death and then take off from there still bug me. (Maybe they’re not sad enough?) But I am starting to think about reading Little Women to Nick next — if I can make it through Beth’s death again myself.
Nick finished the book before the game ended. His tears dried, he handed the book over to his dad, and together they celebrated their team’s victory.