When I was five, my aunt sent me a letter along with a postcard of a young girl’s tomb. “Now I’m going to tell you the story of little Penelope Boothby,” she wrote. “Poor little Penelope was only five years old when she died…” She described Penelope’s life and ended by saying: “Isn’t that a sad story?” I spent hours gazing at the forlorn form of Penelope, who’d died two hundred years ago, chiseled on her gravestone. I felt trusted and respected to receive such a letter. Most of all I was intrigued because the story didn’t have a happy ending.
Many of the best stories don’t. In children’s classics such as Charlotte’s Web, The Red Balloon, Old Yeller, and The Little Match Girl, the title character dies. In a child’s mind, it doesn’t matter if the character is a spider, a balloon, a dog, or a person; that character is alive and loved and its loss is profound. These stories touch our hearts.
Sad stories have their place in children’s lives. So do scary stories. A sad ending touches feelings of compassion and sorrow, and scary figures such as ogres and trolls give our heroes a worthy adversary. Where would the thrill and “what comes next” be without a fascinating bad guy? Most of the time, the hero should prevail. But if the story demands it, sometimes the wily fox must win.
Most stories for kids end happily ever after. But sometimes the richer story shares sad topics or has a sad ending. Kids need both.
Books are a safe place for children to learn about the world and their own tough emotions. When stories reflect the range of human experience, kids feel wonder, empathy, and relief.
Take off Your Adult Lenses
We all want our children to be happy. But no one can “be happy” all the time. As humans, we feel a range of emotions every day. Our job as parents is to give kids tools to cope with the full range of human emotion. Books and stories are some of those tools, and they can do wonders to help children develop empathy and cope with fear and difficulty. It’s tempting to share visions of an ideal world where everyone’s a friend, but children need stories that grip the mind and heart, even if the story doesn’t end happily ever after. Kids need sad. They need a bit of scary. They need stories in which things don’t work out. Stories of tragedy, struggle, and foolish characters all have a place in a child’s world.
Look for Fairy Tales and Folktales
Many sad and scary stories for children come from folktales. Whether it’s Baba Yaga from Russian lore, Anansi from West Indian and West African tales, or the demon king Ravanna from Asia, children gain a bit of cultural awareness at the same time they are treated to a rollicking good story. You may prefer to modify some stories to sidestep racist or sexist language, but fairy tales and folktales endure because they are stories worth telling.
Read Different Versions
Present different versions of the same story to your child. If the book you have of The Three Little Pigs has the pigs befriending the wolf in the end, go ahead and read it, but seek out the versions in which the wolf falls in the fire and dies and those in which the wolf splashes in the stewpot and singes his tail. Ask which ending your child likes best. You may be surprised.
Whatever your own family background, try versions of popular stories from different perspectives, such as The Three Little Javelinas, a Hispanic version of The Three Little Pigs; or Catskinella, an African-American telling of the ancient Cinderella story. These stories cross cultures with universal themes.
Remove Scary Pictures
Three-year-old Charlotte hated her family’s fairy tale book. The pictures terrified her. Even when her mother tucked it away in the closet, that wasn’t good enough. The pictures still frightened her and she wanted the book physically out of the house.
Pictures are powerful. Even if your child likes a scary story once in a while, the illustrations may be too much. Exposing kids to scary pictures or movies can make fears worse because visual images are so intense. A child who fears a movie version usually enjoys the book. Telling a story aloud (instead of reading a book) puts the scary parts even more at a distance and can make the child feel safer.
Focus on Feelings
If you’d like to share a sad or scary story, warn your audience. “This is a sad story. Do you want to hear it?” “This story is a little bit scary, but I know it’s OK in the end,” or “Some kids think this book is scary. It’s one of my favorites, but we can always stop if you don’t like it.”
As storyteller, you are the live link to your audience. It’s up to you how you pitch your voice. You can read sad parts in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, or you can let the emotion make your voice crack. You can read text in a big, scary voice, or you can modulate the tension and ratchet it down.
No matter how you read it, pay attention to children’s feelings. These feelings are real, even if the characters are made up.
My six-year-old sobbed for more than an hour after Charlotte died inCharlotte’s Web. I held him in my arms and rocked him. “Why did Charlotte have to die?” he wailed. I answered his question, but not immediately. Sometimes a why question is simply an expression of sorrow. When his extreme anguish was over, we talked about Charlotte and sad feelings. “It’s OK to be sad,” I told him. “Everyone feels sad sometimes. People take care of each other when they’re sad. I will take care of you.” Then we talked about how spiders have shorter life cycles than pigs, and pigs have shorter life cycles than people. We also talked about what people do when they’re feeling sad: cry, snuggle close to people they love, get cozy with blankets, share thoughts and stories, and eat warm food. As we cuddled and ate bagels, I felt grateful to E. B. White. Not only did he touch my child’s soul, but he gave him an opportunity to practice how to cope when overwhelmingly sad feelings arrive.
Know Your Audience
If your child is highly sensitive or prone to nightmares, go gently. Some kids can’t handle uncomfortable stories at all. Others like them in small doses, but not at bedtime. Choose a time in the middle of the day when there’s plenty of daylight left to process feelings.
Don’t force stories or pictures. Sensitive kids may have different needs. Know your child’s temperament and help her feel comfortable.
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