- 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?
- They have very sad and dark themes
- 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.
While 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:
- What is the purpose of introducing a sad, dark book?
- Is this the best book for the unit’s content or skill?
- Where do parents fit in this?
- What background information do students need beforehand to handle, appreciate, and comprehend this book and its message(s)?
- 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…
- A Shelter in Our Car
- Alicia Afterimage
- Dia’s Story Cloth
- Diverse Energies
- Etched in Clay
- Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery
- Gettin’ Through Thursday
- Gorilla Walk
- In Her Hands
- Irena’s Jars of Secrets
- Quiet Hero
- Rattlesnake Mesa
- When the Horses Ride By
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.