My public library just notified me that two recent YA insta-classics, Eleanor & Park and The Fault in Our Stars, are waiting for me on the hold shelf. I’m lining up tissue boxes, fluffing up the pillows of my bed, and thinking of more books that have made me cry for days. Let’s call it the Little Women Memorial List.
Bobby Baseball, by Robert Kimmel Smith
A ten-year-old wants more than anything to be a Major League pitcher. For starters, though, he’s willing to lead his hometown team, coached by none other than his father. Can hard work make up for what Bobby may lack in natural ability? Or will dreams have to bend when the wind of reality blows?
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken, by Mildred D. Taylor
Unsparing but never didactic, these books about a rural black family during the Depression convey the systematic unfairness of life during segregation. Vivid details from these books still stick with me twenty years later.
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson
Adolescents and tweens have a dark side that the best writers for children, like Roald Dahl and Judy Blume, have explored for decades. But nobody does tragedy quite like Patterson, especially here, in this story about family, imagination, and the way new friends can help us become at last who we were meant to be.
Say Goodnight Gracie, by Julie Reece Deaver
A lovely, subtle, even funny book about a friendship between two theatrical teenagers in Chicago. Less well-known than Bridge to Terabithia, it is equally poignant and wise about the role our peers play in the development of our selves.
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
The original tale of cross-gender, cross-species friendship is also the best. Forget the movie versions: revisit the story of Fern, the farmer’s daughter; the piglet she saves; and the spider who presides over the farm like Pallas Athena, written with the trademark mix of gentle humor and savage intelligence that makes White one of America’s finest authors.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
Adults, of course, also deserve to cry. In her debut novel, Niffenegger gives grownups a romance to root for, one that develops between two flawed, real, creative individuals, and then adds a fantasy twist to remind us that life is not fair—but it can be beautiful while it lasts.
To the End of the Land, by David Grossman
Enough about romance! This astonishing Israeli antiwar novel shows the lengths to which a mother will go (literally) to protect her son, and the irrational, heedless devotion that is parenthood, especially during wartime.
About Alice, by Calvin Trillin
Trillin’s wrenching, straight-from-the-heart tribute to his late wife. It received such acclaim when it first appeared in the New Yorker that it was put out as a standalone book. And, though it will make you laugh, it will also make you cry like a fifteen-year-old watching Titanic, wondering whether you will ever experience a love so pure.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
Books about dogs, like Sounder and Where the Red Fern Grows, should come with trigger warnings. This one, though, uses the plotline of Hamlet to take the relationship between a boy and his pet to a whole new level—and will leave you sniffling and red-eyed for days.
Also consider: Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl (“I still believe that people are really good at heart); The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach; The Known World, by Edward P. Jones; and, if you want to be moved to tears by the simple beauty of the writing, Gilead and Home, by Marilynne Robinson and Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.
What book always makes you cry?