Happy or Sad

A week or so ago on Facebook I posed a question to cozy readers about how much of real-world issues they wanted to see in cozy books or series.  Cozy mysteries are usually centered on a crime, most often murder—that much is real world—but often it’s the only cloud to mar a cozy’s sky. But what about real-world social issues, like human trafficking or drug dealing? Do they fit?

The responses to that post covered a broad spectrum, from both authors and readers, and they made interesting reading. Many people read cozies for escape: they want a good story about solving a crime, with a satisfying ending. If they want blood and terror, they look to another genre.

I tend to lean in that direction myself. Sometimes I want to read a book for entertainment, not enlightenment or social commentary. Tell me a story! Make me care about the characters (and want to see them again). That’s enough.

But a couple of days later I started thinking about children’s books and what their authors chose to include. No doubt many of us read the same ones when we were growing up, and maybe even read them to our children (or grandchildren?). They were and are beloved (and many are still in print). But they are not always happy.


Several came to mind immediately: Charlotte’s Web, written by E. B. White with the wonderful illustrations by Garth Williams; Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson; and Bambi, from the Walt Disney group. Of course there are more, but these are the ones I remember best. And guess what: they each involve a significant death, which makes painful reading. I might add Peter Pan, written by J. M. Barrie. No, Peter doesn’t die in the end, but he is left behind while his friends grow up and move on while he doesn’t. Again, it’s sad.

Old Yeller



The one that I recall most often is Charlotte’s Web (and I think it was the answer to a recent Jeopardy question), because I blieve the author teaches a life-lesson without being heavy handed. (If you haven’t read it, skip ahead, because this is a spoiler.) Charlotte is a spider who befriends a pig, Wilbur. They can communicate to each other, and when Wilbur is headed for the slaughterhouse, Charlotte mounts a campaign to save him by weaving written messages into her web (if I remember right, one was “Some Pig”). And she succeeds.

But Charlotte is a spider, and spiders don’t usually live very long. Yes, Charlotte dies in the end. Wilbur’s sense of loss is balanced only when he finds that Charlotte’s spider offspring have hatched and can also speak with him, and they’re all around him. It is a bittersweet ending–and memorable.

What books did you read early in your life that you still remember well? And did they include any sad parts?

30 Thoughts

  1. My first grade teacher read us Charlotte’s Web. I still remember bawling at the ending in class. I don’t think I’ve been able to bring myself to reread it since. Not a fan of Old Yeller. Bambi is okay, but not one of my favorite Disney movies.

    Can you tell I’m not really a fan of sad endings?

    Books I remember loving from when I was young include the Chronicles of Narnia. I’m okay with the ending of that series, which is definitely dark, in some ways. (Heck, I want a line from The Last Battle on my tombstone someday.) Little Pilgrim’s Progress was also an early favorite, but that one really isn’t that sad, although Christian does lose one friend along the way. Then I got into middle grade mysteries, which are really just cozies for kids.

  2. Good point, Sheila. We had cassette tapes of EB White reading Charlotte’s Web that my sons listened to in the car to and from Quebec more than once. And think of all the scary stuff in the old fairy tales, and Beth’s death in Little Women.

    1. I thought about mentioning Beth’s death. Louisa May Alcott created a rich range of female characters who were believable, and they did have to deal with many real-life issues. (I still have that first copy of Little Women, which I read when I had the measles in fourth grade.)

      1. Beth’s death slayed me. I got the book as a 10th birthday present from my father’s work friend and it meant so much to me that for years, I gave it to girls on their 10th birthday. (Sadly, my own daughter refused to read it because she’d heard Beth dies. She was going through her own traumas at the time and wouldn’t read sad books.) BTW, a few years ago, I decided to finally thank the woman who gave me the book. She’d faded from my parents’ lives and probably hadn’t been in the picture for forty years. I found her info on the internet and called her. She was stunned to hear from me, and said “I thought you hated that book!” She gave it to me the week we moved, and I was going through my own trauma, so I never properly thanked her back then. I’m so glad I got to set the record straight – and put her back in touch with my mother after all those years.

  3. A clinical psychologist of my acquaintance says that scads of his patients report being scarred for life (albeit lightly) by the death of Bambi’s mother at the opening of the movie. I can remember my five-year-old self sitting in the dark movie theatre thinking, “There’s been a mistake at the movie company. Grown-ups can’t tell children stories about someone’s mother dying.” I even remember where I was sitting in the theatre.

      1. Traumatic for me–they had to take me out of the movie. To this day I adore all wildlife and live with bears, coyotes, deer, elk, raccoons, moose, bobcats, mountain lions. Paradise.

    1. Maybe not with mothers dying, but lots and lots of stories and fairy tales with mothers dead. As Camus said, everyone has imagined their parents dead. Often, it’s the parental death that sets the young protagonist free to have his or her own adventure.

  4. I remember reading “Shoo Fly Girl,” by Lois Lenski when I was in elementary school. The main character had a pet crow that a neighbor killed! I remember bawling my eyes out and my mother wanted to know what happened! I just held the book and kept saying, “They killed the crow!” I finished the book and read the rest of Lois Lenski’s books, but that one traumatized me! I did go back and read it again about two years ago to see if it was as traumatic as I remembered and yes, it still made me cry!

      1. Loved her books too. Learned a lot about lives different from mine. I still own Strawberry Girl.

  5. I was thinking about the first book that made me cry last week for some reason. I can’t pinpoint it. But like Edith, I remember Beth from Little Women, like Andrea I read the Lois Lenski books, I think maybe the Heidi books had sad parts too. I followed that thread on your Facebook page with interest.

    1. Oh, yes, Heidi! And Journey to the Center of the Earth had a pet bird that was killed – I actually had nightmares about that for some years after I read it (at around age nine or ten).

  6. I really cried at Charlotte’s Web when I was about 9. My teachers insisted upon reading sad stories and daring us to cry in class.(When I get upset that my grandchildren did not get the extensive teaching that I received in the lower grades, I remind myself that for the most part, the teachers and principals have been much more nurturing.)
    I remember having to suffer through Misty of Chincoteague’s sad parts and The Incredible Journey. l I nearly had heart failure holding in my pain.
    When my nieces had a tutor, she handed them “Where the Red Fern Grows” .I got through the first 2 pages and said that I was not going to read it with them,(I was 28!).
    I don’t think suffering is necessary in children’s stories, although I bought Our Tree Named Steve about 10 years ago, and cry every time I read it. (My grandson brought home a book about Cat Heaven when he was in Kindergarten, at the same time.He will not let me live down how hard I cried!
    As for “cozies”, I think human trafficking is a bit much for the genre, as would be suicide bombers and the like. I think they need to stick with personal/professional/accidental murders, industrial espionage, blackmail and the like.

  7. I don’t recall the first book that made me cry, but I remember the last: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Greene. I cried like a baby at 2am near the end. The eulogy. All the feels!

    1. Heck, I cried over the Lord of the Rings when I was in high school, when the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar unfurled their sails as they arrived to save the day, after Aragorn had seized the fleet.

  8. Childhood books often dealt with death, and with horror. There is nothing gentle about Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the original. I still cry at ending of The Little Prince. I can’t remember the first book that made me cry either, but the first movie was Old Yeller. I never did see Bambi.

  9. Oh how I love Charlotte’s Web! And The Little Princess! I do remember watching Bambi and thinking there was something terribly wrong with the people who made that movie. I have stayed far, far away from Old Yeller because I know what’s coming. Have you ever heard of the book, No More Dead Dogs? It’s about a kid who leads a classroom rebellion against sad books where the dog dies.

  10. I didn’t mind sad books and a good cry when I was young. I hadn’t seen much of life and didn’t need to escape it. Now that I’m older and more road worn, I pick all my entertainment more carefully. I know when I’m in a place to handle something darker or sadder and when I’m not.

  11. Loved and still love Charlotte’s Web. Loved all the Beatrix Potter books and they were not sad, but did teach lessons. The original Grimm’s was pretty rough and the best for being harsh but teaching a lesson were Max and Moritz and then Der Struwwelpeter has to be the best book to scare a child. Yep I was a very polite child, lol. As far as crying, it was going to see the movie Bambi and watching Old Yeller. Those really got me. Also one I reread as an adult is The Cat that went to Heaven. I remembered the artwork better, but the gist of the story still made me cry. I love that the animals in cozies are not hurt. Makes it safe for me, 😉

  12. I cried at Old Yeller, The Incredible Journey, and when Beth died in Little Women. I don’t think Bambi bothered me much because it was a cartoon. I’d rather not see pets or children die or people get tortured in cozies. Maybe drugs, organized crime or even sex trafficking if they are handled right. No graphic details and sex victims rescued, etc. I want to escape and be entertained but still have some realism.

  13. Every time I read Little Women I start crying before I even get to Beth’s death scene, because I know it’s coming up. I know I read Charlotte’s Webb, but I don’t remember my reaction to it. I do remember the animated movie version of it. I used to watch it all the time when I was a kid & cried every time.

  14. Ah, I am a crier! Charlotte’s Web, Little Princess, Little Women, all make me sniffle. But here’s the worst–I was in tears over the death of Magwitch in Great Expectations. And I knew it was coming, having read the book before. And I was at work proofing the audiobook, crying away in my cube like a weenie!


  15. Anne of Green Gables — I cried every time Matthew died. My mother would walk by my bedroom and say — What’s wrong, Honey? Me: Matthew died again. Her — Oh, for Heaven’s sake!

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