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A while back a couple of little girls came into my wife’s library and asked, “Do you have any sad books?” What a great question. There’s a lot to love about sad stories. For one thing, sad stories remind us what really matters to us. We feel sadness at the loss (or else the absence) of things we value.
I don’t suppose they knew it, but the girls who asked my wife for sad stories were looking to affirm the things that mattered most to them by feeling what it would mean not to have them. By looking to enter into another person’s sadness (even a fictional person’s sadness), they were looking to experience their own lives more fully. That’s why I love sad stories.
In children’s fiction, nobody does sadness like Kate DiCamillo. The same ache haunts The Tale of Despereaux, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Magician’s Elephant, and Because of Winn-Dixie (I haven’t read her other novels). In each of those stories, the hurt, the loneliness, and the sadness nourish the souls of characters and readers alike.
There’s a great moment in Edward Tulane in which a grandmother tells an awful fairy tale: a beautiful but self-absorbed princess is turned into a pig and eaten. The granddaughter is shocked at the suddenness and brutality with which the story ends. “No one is living happily ever after,” she complains.
“But answer me this,” the grandmother says. “How can a story end happily if there is no love?”
It’s a great question, and one we needn’t protect our children from. Without love, there is no hope for a happy ending. The good news is that we live in a world that, though broken, is still shot through with love. Every sadness, every hurt is redeemable. Which is why we need not pretend that hurt and sadness don’t exist.
My favorite sad children’s book is The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes. Wanda Petronski lives on the wrong side of the tracks. She comes to school every day in the same ratty blue dress. She sits in the back corner of the classroom where the rowdy boys sit. But she’s too unsure of herself to be rowdy. The popular girls don’t pay Wanda a lot of attention except for a game they play every morning in the school yard:
“Wanda,” Peggy would say in a most courteous manner, as though she were talking to Miss Mason or to the principal perhaps. “Wanda,” she’d say, giving one of her friends a nudge, “tell us. How many dresses did you say you had hanging up in your closet?”
“A hundred,” said Wanda.
“A hundred!” exclaimed all the girls incredulously, and the little girls would stop playing hopscotch and listen.
Every day she wears the same dress, but every day she claims to have a hundred dresses in her closet, “all lined up”—velvet, silk, every color, every style. The girls’ persistence in tormenting Wanda every morning is matched by Wanda’s persistence in her outlandish sartorial claims—not just a hundred dresses, but fifty shoes, then sixty, plus hats and coats to match.
Eleanor Estes’s portrayal of schoolroom dynamics—especially the not-quite intentional hurts that children do to one another—is spot-on. There is so much sadness in this little eighty-page book, which was first published in 1944. Wanda has no answer for the popular girls whose lives are so easy by comparison—only those face-saving claims that are all the more humiliating for their overt falsehood. A hundred dresses, all lined up.
I have heard forgiveness defined as “The fragrance that the flower leaves on the heel of the one who crushed it.” I could never quite make sense of that idea until I read the end of The Hundred Dresses. Wanda’s generosity toward the girls who have so sweetly bullyragged her is genuinely moving. I hope you’ll get hold of a copy and read it for yourself.
What are your favorite sad stories?
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.