Nostalgia has a way of making things seem rosier and better than they actually were. Whether it's an Instagram filter used on an elementary school portrait for a #TBT post or remembering prom as a lot less awkward than it actually was, nostalgia is a powerful force. The same applies to our memories of books we've read or films we've watched. Our tenderness tends to color over our favorite books from childhood that are way sadder than we remember.
I think of books like Stuart Little or Charlotte's Web, with children and anthropomorphic animal characters that can mask the darker elements at play: abandonment, grief, and death. While we may not have all picked up on the acute sadness in some of our favorite books, these stories served as important introductions to larger life lessons and themes.
Even so, the presence of these lessons subtly exposed us to the reality that life isn't always easy or happy. But now, with fresh, mature eyes, we can look back and read these books with a new perspective and appreciation for what the authors were working to impart to us. Perhaps, even just being exposed to these ideas early, as children, better prepared us for dealing with the essential sadness of life.
1. Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
With the fanciful illustrations and whimsical rhymes, it can be easy to underestimate the stories of Dr. Seuss. But central to Horton Hatches the Egg is the abandonment of an unborn baby bird and the loneliness of Horton who sets aside his life to care for it. While fairy tales often deal with duplicitous parents, the way that Mayzie is portrayed in almost comic light makes her betrayal more difficult to understand as a child.
2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
An argument could be made for the inherent sadness of each Harry Potter book, but the story of Sirius Black featured in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban strikes me as the most moving. Suffering years of injustice and missing out on all the time he could have been helping Harry makes Sirius one of the more tragic figures of the series. And while Harry's plight may be the obviously depressing, Sirius' plot becomes sadder with age.
3. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
When I read Number the Stars in elementary school, I understood that the story was taking place during World War II, but in some ways, the adventurous elements of the book overwhelmed the historical reality at hand. At its core, Lois Lowry's classic children's novella deals with the sadness of losing a family member and saying goodbye to a dear friend.
4. A Coal Miner's Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Filled with harrowing tales of survival and love, the Dear America series introduced historical fiction to many of us. They also showed us how the "good old days" were rarely good. While many of the books could fit on this list, A Coal Miner's Bride has a beautiful love story that overshadowed the sadder realities of the story for me when I was growing up: marrying a stranger in a new country, only to be widowed shortly thereafter.
5. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Whenever animals are involved in a story, it is easy to dismiss the book as not being particularly deep or resonant. This certainly isn't the case for E.B. White's novel of difference and the desire to belong, and the fact that it is told through a voiceless swan makes it all the more moving. Pass the tissues.
6. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
Everything ends well in Narnia for everyone, so what is there to be sad about, right? Well, there's Susan, who has been left behind in England, unable to experience paradise with her siblings. She's guilty of having grown-up and matured. There's nothing more depressing and sad than a woman being punished for being herself.
7. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
I remember Stargirl for introducing me to the possibilities of embracing your true self and living freely. When I've revisited since childhood, what's stood out more is the all-too-real portrayal of the high school's resident mean girls (and boys) and their complete rejection of Susan. Looking back now, it reads as a warning to how cruel others can be.
8. Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
While on the surface, Among the Hidden is simply a precursor to the dystopian worlds of The Hunger Games and Divergent, this novel packs a more devastating punch. Luke's wonder at the outside world that he's been hidden from his whole life is all the more poignant for how things end for his guide Jen.