Week before last the National Book Award For Young People’s Literature was announced. Prior to the award ceremony, Liz Burns reviewed nominee Debbie Dahl Edwardson’s MY NAME IS NOT EASY in her excellent SLJ blog A Chair, A Fireplace & A Teacozy, observing “There is a difference between a depressing book and a book where sad things happen; this is not a depressing book. Yes, things are lost; Luke’s name is not easy, and neither is his time at the school. There is also love, friendship, kindness, and survival. Not just survival, but triumph.”

Burns comment got me wondering—what role do sad books play for middle grade readers? Is there a “cheerfulness quota” when we consider whether books are appropriate for eight to twelve year olds?

Adults instinctively protect children. Most parents try to shield their children from pain and hardship. That can go for “real life” experiences but it can also apply to books. Almost every elementary school librarian has stories of parents who’ve demanded their child be guided to “happy” or “uplifting” books. In fact, some children’s librarian feel books for young people should stay squarely on the bright side of life. I disagree.

Middle grade readers are trying on new experiences and new emotions for the first time. Books are a safe porthole into the world beyond one reader’s home or classroom. When reading a book like (2009 National Book Award nominee) THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt, a middle grade reader can experience outrage about animal abuse and neglect. He can also probe the power of self-less love… and ponder how sometimes selfishness and even obsession can disguise itself as love.

These are HUGE topics. Too big for a middle grade reader? I don’t think so.

Not every child is the same. Any parent who has two children of their own knows this. Every teacher is reminded of the fact every single day. Some kids wake up grumpy, some love school, some pick up their rooms without being asked, some can’t seem to remember a homework assignment.

And some children love – and need—sad books. These are children who feel deeply. They are thinkers. Sometimes they’re referred to as “old souls”… but you don’t have to be old in years to be moved by a poignant story. Kimberly Willis Holt’s WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN (winner of the National Book Award in 1999) mixes humor, bizarre characters, and real life and death questions. At almost the same moment thirteen year old Toby Wilson’s mother leaves her family to pursue a career in Nashville, Zachary Beaver, the world’s fattest boy, is stranded by his unscrupulous promoter in an RV he’s nearly too large to leave. The boys don’t seem to have much in common, other than the trouble they have with adults in their lives.But when repercussions from the Viet Nam war make a direct hit on their small town both children must come to personal terms with love, loss and acceptance. ZACHARY BEAVER is a hopeful book… even if it’s not an especially happy one.

As suggested by the title of Debbie Edwardson’s wonderful exploration of culture, loss and redemption… some books aren’t easy. Some present the hard facts of life. Some force deep thoughts and soul searching. But those books are ideal for the some middle grade readers.


Tami Lewis Brown’s new novel THE MAP OF ME is one part sad and two parts funny… just the kind of book she loved as a middle grade reader.

Tami Lewis Brown