“What super depressing tragedy are you reading about now?”
That’s what my fiance said to me the other night as I pulled out my book to read before bed.
“The sinking of the Lusitania,” I replied.
“Of course. That sounds awful.”
I like sad books. I almost always have. Friends ask me for book recommendations frequently, because they know that I love to read and that I am a librarian. They usually also indicate whether or not they want a massively depressing book, because they know if they don’t, they probably will get one anyway.
In a way, sad books remind me to feel sad. This is not something that I necessarily need a “reminder” to do. I’ve struggled with depression various times in my life, and I had some really tough times in high school. My parents got divorced, my dad moved away and basically cut us out of his life, and two friends died–leukemia and a car accident–all within the same year. Throughout my junior and senior year I dealt with my feelings by pretending I didn’t have them. I let myself think that because I had felt so many emotions that year and that my pain was so immense and sharp, it’d just be better if I felt nothing.
I didn’t want myself to feel anything: happiness, pleasure, sadness, fear. Nothing. I wanted to cut emotions out of my life entirely. I joked about my heart of stone and my friends teased me about not even crying during the tear-jerk-iest teen movie of our age: The Notebook. After one particularly bad day, I spoke with blase coldness about what would happen if I drove my car into a tree. My dear high school friend told me she’d be so pissed at me if I did, and it probably saved my life. But mostly I didn’t care; everything hurt. My life was fuzzy and numb even if I looked happy on the outside.
I graduated high school and got the hell out of my small rural Midwestern town. I needed to leave those emotions and the memories of them behind. I probably burned more bridges with friends and people who helped me during that difficult time than I should have. But disconnecting was the only way I knew how to proceed.
I went to college and got friends who wouldn’t let me shut down. They pushed me to share my feelings and my story with them. They encouraged me and tried to convince me that emotions were natural and even good. I started therapy; it started to help. And somewhere along the way I read The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Poisonwood Bible.
They probably weren’t the first emotionally devastating books I read in college, but they stood out. They are both deeply sad in different ways. Someone inside me broke when I read them. I think my stone heart finally started to erode when I read them; I began to think that maybe emotions and expressing them wouldn’t kill me.
I remember skipping practicing for my piano jury finals one year reading those books and sobbing late into the night. I knew those feelings of rage and anger, of betrayal and sadness. The situations were different, but the feelings were the same. Experiencing those emotions through story, through someone else’s eyes, helped me to actually feel those feelings in my own life. They helped me to reflect and process my hard times and helped to start me along the way of expressing my emotions more regularly.
After college I drifted a bit in the job market before deciding to attend library school and while working in a children’s room at a public library I decided to start reading some YA. This was during the height of Hunger Games mania–Mockingjay had just been published–so Young Adult finally made it onto my radar.
I discovered that Young Adult books were full of emotion. I know that they and the teenagers they represent get a bad rap for being overly dramatic and emotional, and in some cases that cliche can be true. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Some might say that adults learn to deal with their emotions, but I think we learn to suppress them, not to deal with or even express them. That’s how I felt in late high school and all through college. I had so many emotions, and while I couldn’t let myself express them, they were always there simmering beneath the surface. I’d lash out occasionally, but much of the time, especially in those high school years, I was just numb and blank.
But reading YA presented those emotions as natural, normal, and to be expected. Obviously, I don’t live in a dystopian society, but I could empathize with Katniss’ anguish and rage at the Capitol. For all it’s faults–yup, pun intended–John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars helped me to feel greatly the cruelty and callousness of cancer. Teens care a lot about their world being fair even as they have little control of it. That’s how I felt. Everything was deeply unfair, and I had no control over it. So I shut down until books, and the real issues and true emotions found in YA that helped me to open up again.
It’s not the over the top, cliche, dramatic stories that I seek out, but rather the ones that feel real to me. I’m not sitting around reading Lurlene McDaniel’s cancer kid books in a sort of emotional-masturbation to make myself feel awful; I don’t want that melodrama, but rather I just want characters and situations with which I can empathize. YA gives me that.
YA can do this for others as well. Professor Maria Nikolajeva says that YA can help young people learn empathy and understand others. She writes that, “Beautifully crafted, disturbing [YA] books that still appeal today because they were not about issues, but about something that all of us have gone through or will have to go through: identity formation.” I think I’m in some ways still recovering from that emotional shut down, and so I’m still forming my identity. I like how YA shows other characters who are still in the process of “becoming.” It helps me to look on teens in difficult or even everyday situations and have a little bit of understanding for them. And for myself, too. I’m still becoming who I want to be, and I want to feel the whole range of human emotions.
Here is a list of my favorite emotionally devastating YA and adult books so you too can cry yourself into a more emotionally full human being:
The MaddAddam series, especially MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (YA)
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (YA)
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (YA)
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Bees by Laline Paul
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (YA)
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (YA) by Leslye Walton
The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (YA)