Why I Love to Read Sad and Dark Books to Children (and You Should Too)

  • Gleam and Glow written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Peter Sylvada
  • Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust written by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
  • Hiroshima No Pika written and illustrated by Toshi Maruki
  • Fox written by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Ron Brooks
  • The Harmonica written by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Ron Mazellan
  • Peppe the Lamplighter written by Eliza Bartone, illustrated by Ted Lewin
  • The Shark God written by Rafe Martin, illustrated by David Shannon

What do they all have in common?

  1. They have very sad and dark themes
  2. I love to read them to third graders

According to the What Kids Are Reading report from Renaissance Learning and Kids & Family Reading Report from Scholastic, it seems pretty clear that funny books are the most popular when choosing books for unassigned reading. In the Kids & Family Reading Report, 70% of 2,558 parents and children look for a book that “makes me laugh.” As you scroll across the top fiction titles per grade of the 9.8 million students from 31,633 schools nationwide who read more than 330 million books during the 2013-2014 school year tracked in the What Kids are Reading, you see the same lighthearted, amusing titles appear over and over again.

Although these reports do not encompass all the books students read or measure all the students in the United States, these do provide useful snapshots into the homes and schools of today’s young readers.

I get it: Light humorous fiction provides much-needed escape and reminds readers not to take the world or ourselves too seriously. These books offer an escape from harsh realities and a place to dream and imagine another, better, or different world.

Sad and Dark Books for ChildrenWhile I encourage all readers to choose their own books based on their interests, needs, and experiences, our unique roles as educators make us critical influencers on exposing students to a wide variety of texts they might not have considered for themselves.

Some of my most meaningful teaching moments and conversations came when the 27 of us would be clustered together on the carpet reading one of those texts. When we read Fox, my students were disturbed at the Fox-Magpie-Dog relationship and were dismayed by Magpie’s actions. This led us to a discussion (and away from the day’s read aloud lesson plan…) about betrayal they had experienced in friendships and families.

The world is messy, sad, and dark. Kids face racism, poverty, homelessness, neglect, violence, hunger, sexism, divorce, disempowerment, and more. Sharing sad or dark books with students starting in elementary school, like A Shelter in Our Car and When the Horses Ride By, challenges students emotionally and recognizes their realities and capacity to empathize.

Using books with dark themes or settings in the classroom can give students the language to express their emotions, models for how to discuss and engage on these topics with adults and peers, and a safe space to explore difficult topics. When students read about characters struggling with abuse, bullying, or poverty, they also see how the characters found strength and resources to cope and thrive.

Think of your most memorable texts from middle school, high school, or college. The further students advance into social studies and literature they engage with darker subjects and content. Incorporating such texts early on stretches the types of books young readers can see themselves reading and liking, as well as prepares students for analyzing complex themes and characters.

Next read aloud, choose a sad, dark book because it can:

  • provide an opener into difficult conversations and topics
  • offer complex themes, characters, and motivations worthy of multiple readings
  • give young readers words to express what they are feeling or experiencing
  • model how we act and talk about tough situations, including the grieving process, processing anger, witnessing trauma or violence
  • reinforce the development of the whole child: we want children to explore the whole human condition and develop empathy
  • prepare young readers for the world they belong in and will someday lead
  • prepare them for profound, challenging books to come in middle school and high school  (hello, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Metamorphosis, Their Eyes Were Watching God among so many others)

When I look for a meaningful text, I am on the hunt for authors and illustrators who have tackled difficult topics with not only respect, but also with honesty and with the perception that even the hardest topics like racism, sexism, poverty, and war can be understood by children.

Things to think about when selecting a sad or dark book:

  1. What is the purpose of introducing a sad, dark book?
  2. Is this the best book for the unit’s content or skill?
  3. Where do parents fit in this?
  4. What background information do students need beforehand to handle, appreciate, and comprehend this book and its message(s)?
  5. What follow-up discussion or activities should I organize to help students process and appreciate this book?

There are many authors and illustrators who are finding powerful stories, communicating difficult subjects to children, and treating young people with respect and dignity. Looking for your next thought-provoking book to explore with students? Try…

What are the saddest, darkest books your students love? Share with us!

Jill Eisenberg, our Senior Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

13 thoughts on “Why I Love to Read Sad and Dark Books to Children (and You Should Too)”

  1. I so agree and I’ve had some very thoughtful, thought-provoking discussions with children over the years. We’ve shared some of the books you mention – and I will certainly look out for the ones that are new to me. Thank you.

  2. I’m not an educator, teacher or an expert about the best way to nurture the development of children on their way to adulthood. You’ve said it: The world is messy, sad and dark. We like to protect kids from this world that’s why we read them books with happy ending. The question is just at what age we inroduce them to the messy and dark world; You feel that grade 3 is the appropriate age, Maybe or maybe later. By the way, many German children books are dark, e.e. Hensel and Gretel. Best wishes to you and your students.

  3. Thank you for highlighting this topic. I routinely read aloud some of the books you mentioned and others that you might label “Sad and Dark” books. Although I understand why you chose to use the label, I simply use the genre that the books falls into, such as “realistic fiction” or “biography” or “historical fiction,” all of which encompass picture books as well. Thoughtful discussion should definitely be part of any troubling read alouds.

    Children should be exposed to all sorts of literature. I am a parent of a young child and a K-5 school librarian (part-time) and it is part of my job to introduce young readers to the world of reading possibilities. Some of our students have fled war, others live in poverty or crime-ridden neighborhoods, some live in huge homes and vacation at lake cabins, others spend time with sick relatives. Avoiding stories that may reflect facets of their lives can invalidate students’ experiences and leave them feeling odd or alone in the world. Avoiding stories of reality can also give students without such experience a false sense of reality and take for granted the life they may be leading. We don’t need to dwell on the negative, or highlight only the LOL moments of life. However, all children deserve to learn about the real world they live in, with the help of some of the good books you mention, and how they can themselves overcome adversity if confronted with the same situations.

  4. Agree. Sad, dark, books have memorable substance, but in spite of sadness, there may be encouragement at the end. I’m writing for children and am a grandmother. I had a 7th grade teacher with a long red ponytail who came up behind us in the library and pulled a book or two off the shelf. It wasn’t long before I waited for her recommendations. I read biographies, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, BEN HUR, THE LAST OF THE MOCHICANS, and UNCLE TOM”S CABIN, THE DIARY OF ANN FRANK, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Some of the books were slightly above my reading level, but not my interest because I was hungry to learn about the world and people.

  5. Thanks so much for this excellent post. I agree that funny books are loved and read by many children, but I wonder which stories will stay with kids forever. The answer for older children, it seems to me, is that serious stories do make an impression on kids and help them face the real (not always funny) world. CHARLOTTE’S WEB has its amusing moments but that’s not why its still loved by so many readers.

    I wasn’t surprised to see Eve Bunting’s name as the author of several sad, dark picture books. She is truly a master at writing texts about topics that 95% of authors would not consider appropriate for young children. Recently I reread her SMOKEY NIGHT, and I was impressed again with her ability to uncover the humanity in a difficult situation.

    Another author, Jacqueline Woodson, has written on serious topics for young children. A few weeks ago, I read the picture book EACH KINDNESS with a third grade girl. She told me she’d read the book before and really liked it. I can see this particular child more as the “in” girl than the outcast . Yet she was obviously touched by the story, and I think it might make a positive impact on her life.

    As a children’s author myself, I have written about some dark subjects but only for older children (fifth grade through YA). It takes a special kind of talent for an author to write picture books that offer a spark of light or hope within stories about sad or serious topics.

    Thank you again.

  6. I absolutely love this post! Some children have been fortunate enough to have escaped sad and dark things, but to say that they should not even have to know or think about things other children are actually living through…? Besides which, we are all vulnerable to experiencing life’s tragedies at some point, and I don’t believe children are so fragile that they cannot handle hearing about difficult subjects presented in an age-appropriate way. Some of my favorite diverse titles that may not be well-known are: Shin’s Tricycle by Tatsuharu Kodama (picture book about Hiroshima) and middle grade novels by Kazumi Yumoto (The Letters, The Friends, The Spring Tone – about death). Also the middle school/YA novel My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher (terrorism, death of a sibling, divorce and anti-Islamophobia).

  7. I agree that reading books with darker themes to children can teach them the principle of empathy at an early age. My daughter has a couple of kids in her class at school that live in the local shelter. It could be a good idea to read books about the pains homeless people feel so she can understand her peers more and stand up for them when they are getting picked on.

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