Books That Break Your Heart

When the Star Wars movie, Rogue One, came out last December, my husband took my son and daughter to see it.  My daughter came home with a strange look on her face.  I asked her how she liked the movie, and she said “I think I need to watch happy movies from now on.” Rogue One, it’s safe to say, is not a movie with a happy ending.  My daughter doesn’t like it when things don’t turn out well for the characters. She’s not much of a crier, but she dwells on things and worries a lot. She knows what she needs – that movie makes you love many of the characters, and then it breaks your heart, which is too much sadness for my girl.  My son is also highly empathetic and has strong opinions about justice, but he can handle, and even loves, stories with big emotions.  I remember when, after reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio out loud with him when he was in fourth grade, he decided the read the companion novella The Julian Chapter, which tells a Wonder story from the bully’s point of view.  He read it one afternoon while I was out grocery shopping, and when I returned home he met me at the door.  “Mom!” he greeted me.  “You have to read this book RIGHT NOW.” Then, his eyes filled with tears and he choked back a sob.  The book was a real heart breaker, written so well my justice-minded son felt empathy for a bully.  I am much like him – I love a book that breaks my heart.

There was a period of time when I took a break from sad books.  Sometimes things happen that make us change our reading habits simply as a method of emotional survival. Most of the time, though, I’m all in for a sad story, a tear-jerker, a rip-your-heart-out-and-stomp-on-it tale.  It’s important for kids to read these stories, as well, and to learn in a safe way that no, things don’t always work out. A character can do all the right things, be a good person, and try hard to do well – and still, the resolution may not be what we hoped for.  Knowing this can help prepare them for the times in their own lives when things won’t work out, despite their best effort or intention.  For my students, rather than my own kids, the impact of a sad story can mean the opposite – my students sometimes have their own sad stories, and reading about a character who’s living one as well can help them feel less alone.

I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite BYHB, or Break Your Heart Books.  It’s a middle grade list because I teach middle school, my own kids are in that age group, and, well, I just like middle grade books the best! So if you’re ready for some BIG FEELINGS, as well as some amazing literature, these books will not disappoint.

Just be sure to have a box of tissues nearby.


Upside Down In The Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

Chronicle Books, 2015

Armani and her family, who live in the Lower Nines of New Orleans, struggle to survive when Hurricane Katrina hits.


Chained by Lynne Kelly

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012

Hastin is ten years old and lives in India, and he must take a job as an elephant keeper to help his family pay off a debt.  He and his elephant, Nandita, must find a way to survive the clutches of the cruel circus master.


Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Speak, 2010

Lonnie is in foster care after his parents died, and he misses his parents and his little sister, who was adopted by a different family.


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

Candlewick, 2013

Conor’s mother is in the midst of cancer treatments when an ancient monster visits Conor to share three stories, and demand Conor share a story of his own – the truth.


Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books, 2015

Joseph is a damaged thirteen year old who is placed in foster care in twelve year old Jack’s family. Jack tells Joseph’s tragic story as the two of them find out what family really means.


Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Balzer + Bray, 2016

Peter is a boy.  Pax is a fox.  They have been each other’s best friend for a long time, until war separates them.


Summerlost by Ally Condie

Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016

Cedar is dealing with the grief of losing her father and brother.  She meets a summer friend, Leo, and they work at solving a mystery and finding healing through friendship.


The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Disney-Hyperion, 2016

Subhi is a refugee living in a permanent Australian detention center – in fact, he was born there.  He meets Jimmie, a girl living outside the fence, and his world begins to expand. The magical realism in this book is beautiful!


The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016

Gang violence will result in an inevitable fate for twelve year old Jaime and his cousin Angela in their Guatemalan town unless they escape – which is exactly what they do.  They must travel together through Mexico to reach the United States and join Jaime’s older brother, who lives in New Mexico. Their journey is dangerous and they are all alone.

What BYHB have you read?  Share the titles!