I just watched the latest Harry Potter movie, which quite lived up to its PG-13 rating (my five-word review: terrible pacing, cringe-worthy script). The movie’s violence got me thinking about darkness in children’s books and how violence/sad events is a sure-fire way to start the censorship wars. The Giver is a perennial favorite, and now The Hunger Games trilogy is getting its share of the spotlight. (For great discussions on the subject of banned books, see this, and this).
I remember reading The Giver in sixth grade, and despite everything, when I finished I was left with a sense of hope. But there are other books that packed the punch of Shakespearean tragedies—and so well written I couldn’t help but read them again and again. Listed here, in no particular order, are my choices for Most Depressing children’s books (spoiler warning ahead). Feel free to nominate your own in the comments below.
1. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
I went to a very good public high school where we spent two years studying American history, but somehow we never covered the Dust Bowl. At least I don’t remember learning about it beyond a quick paragraph in the Great Depression chapter. Out of the Dust brought that era to vivid, searing life. The book piles on one misery after another: the Depression, the Dust Bowl, ample family tragedy—all narrated in free verse, which makes everything much more visceral. Plus, I grew up playing the piano, so the descriptions of Billie Jo attempting to play with her scarred, burned hands had me feeling tender at the fingertips.
2. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Logically speaking, this is one of those books that shouldn’t be depressing, but the prince’s swan song really got to me. I was lucky enough to read it in the original French (senior year school assignment) and later found the English translation rather lifeless—but I suppose that’s the way with most translated books.
3. Lyddie by Katherine Paterson
Lyddie loses her home, her mother and ends up working in a textile mill under a creepy overseer. Then a rich family adopts Lyddie’s siblings but not her. Thankfully, Paterson saves us from total despair with a final, tiny consolation prize.
4. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
My fifth grade teacher assigned this book for English class and decided to read the death scene section out loud…half the class was bawling. Luckily I’d read ahead so I knew what was coming. I do remember feeling mad though, because I believed (and still do) chapters like that were meant to be read in private, in the company of Kleenex, a sagging couch and much hot chocolate.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This is a YA novel but what the heck, I’m including it anyway. Death narrates, and his humor is the book’s cheeriest aspect. Need I say more?