I know exactly when and where I was the first time my heart was broken. I was 8 years old and hiding in the library, hoping no one would hear my sniffles as giant tears plopped onto the page of my book. It wasn’t a boy or a girl who’d broken my heart — no, it was the very pages I was reading.
It doesn’t happen often — the full-on sobbing, choking for breath, snot everywhere kind of reaction when I read a book, but when it does, it’s... oddly nice? There’s something to be said for letting your emotions so overwhelm you that you can do nothing but feel them.
When a book breaks my heart that well, it stops the day for me. Once I pick myself up off the floor, wash my face (because a tissue isn’t good enough after a cry like that, I have to wash my whole face), and realize that yes, the world is still turning, I hug the people I love, I play with my dog, and I appreciate life that much more.
Books are powerful things.
And if you’re looking for a read that will break your heart in the best possible way, here are seven books that will make you seek out the nearest kitten to cuddle:
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Told from the point of view of personified Death and set during the Holocaust, The Book Thief follows Liesel as she’s orphaned and goes to live with a family outside of Munich. What makes this book rip your heart out is the elegant way Death describes one particular character near the end. It’s set during World War II, so you already know this story will stomp on your heart, but there’s that one scene... that kiss. You might not survive it. Have an entire box of tissue on hand, is what I’m saying.
2. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Mia was in a horrible car accident that killed her family. Now in a hospital room, she’s in a coma, but she can hear the voices of the people around her. Some tell her to stay with them, to get better; some promise her it’ll be OK if she lets go. Both options are tragic: a life without her family or no life at all.
What makes a book truly heartbreaking is when the character is presented with a choice. It’s not just a random tragedy that hurts them; they have to choose an impossible path. If I Stay is all about the choice... and how there sometimes is no right choice.
3. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I read this book when my baby was just a few months old. Let me tell you, sometimes, it got so rough that I’d just hold him close to me and promise I wouldn’t let the world get as bad as it is in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Not your typical dystopian novel, this story brilliantly portrays a world already fallen to a harsh government. The book provides little hope. Don’t read it expecting to be encouraged to fight like Katniss. Read it with the knowledge that we often all too readily accept the lives we’re presented with, and sometimes, the only way we can fight is through our own private rebellions.
4. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
I was one of the last people to read this book, and I expected a murder mystery, not a story that would make me pull over on the highway and pause the audiobook while I blinked away tears. At its heart, The Girl on the Train is about terrible, horrible people. No one is the good guy, least of all the narrators. Everyone has done something horrid.
But what makes this story so brilliant is the way it makes you sympathize with why people are doing such horrible things. I never thought I’d identify with a lying, angry, drunken loser, but there’s a scene in the book where Rachel explains why she’s so full of rage and became an alcoholic, and damn. There went my heart.
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Sirius Black. Enough said.
6. Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Challenger Deep is not a normal book. It’s about Caden, a boy who can see two realities. In one reality, he’s headed to a rehab center where he participates in group therapy. In another, he’s on a very strange pirate ship that changes in seemingly random ways. Both realities are very, very real to him.
This book made me feel helpless. Caden’s a good kid, and I didn’t want him to feel bad or suffer. As one reality grows stronger than another, I wanted to rip him out of the pages and protect him. But of course I couldn’t.
... And then there’s that one scene in the middle when Caden calls his therapist “Captain,” and I’m not crying, you’re crying.
7. A World Without You by Beth Revis
When I wrote A World Without You, I wasn’t trying to break anyone’s heart, least of all my own. But the more I sank my teeth into this story, the more personal it became. What started as a time travel adventure where a boy is trying to save his girlfriend stuck in the past became a story about mental health when my narrator finds out he’s not in a school for superheroes, but actually resides in a boarding school for students with mental health issues.
Because my own brother had suffered from mental health problems, the story became hugely personal, forcing me to confront issues and feelings I’d kept buried for years. The end result is a book that hits so close to home that I would often have to take breaks writing it just pull myself out of that world and back into my own. It broke my heart — but it also helped heal it as it enabled me to write the kind of story I wish my brother had had. I couldn’t change the past, but I could write this story about a boy who wishes he could.