Reading Sad Books Is Good for Your Kids

Last summer, my wife and I took our kids to Reader’s World, a wonderful bookstore in Holland, Mich. It was one of the last stops on our Lake Michigan vacation. I watched my son and daughter head straight to the children’s section, where they began pulling down options and building small sand castles of books.

Eventually Henry, our oldest, brought over a paperback I hadn’t heard of, a novel much thicker than the chapter books he usually read. He liked the cover — a lone robot on a rocky island with mountains and pine trees in the background — and asked if he could get it. Sure, I said.

Henry started his new book at the store and basically never stopped, devouring it on our drive home and our first day back, when he woke up early and resumed reading while still wrapped in his forest animal sheets. He woke up early the second morning, too, and I can still picture him slipping into our room to announce he’d finished it, “all 300 pages.” But I could tell something was wrong.

When I asked him if he liked the ending, Henry dissolved into tears. He climbed into our bed and onto my chest, his small body shaking, his crying so intense he couldn’t speak. Finally, he managed a single sentence: “Dad, why did ‘The Wild Robot’ have to be sad?”

Peter Brown’s middle grade trilogy, which concludes this month with “The Wild Robot Protects,” has meant so much to so many readers. To my son, Brown’s books were the first he discovered on his own; the first that swept him up in a lengthy, can’t-put-it-down narrative; the first to wallop him with the mix of tragedy and joy that define great art and also real life.

I didn’t grasp all this on that tearful morning — I just tried to hug Henry and listen. Once he was feeling better, though, I picked up “The Wild Robot” myself. I could see why he loved it.

“He settled on his Halloween costume early, for once.”Credit…Illustration by Peter Brown from “The Wild Robot,” left; family snapshot, right

The story is set on a remote island. When some sea otters tear into a crate that washed ashore after a shipwreck, they accidentally activate the robot inside. “ROZZUM unit 7134,” who goes by Roz, begins to explore. Slowly, she learns to survive and to speak the languages of the island’s various creatures. Roz meets many memorable animals, from a pair of bullying bears, to a squirrel named Chitchat, to Brightbill, an orphaned goose Roz raises as her own. Toward the end of the book there’s an epic battle in which the animals vanquish three robots sent to recover her.

Once my wife finished “The Wild Robot,” we convened our first family book club. Henry described how much he loved Brown’s pictures and words — how they made the island and its dangers feel mysteriously real. He also talked about the book’s final scenes, in which Roz decides to depart in the felled robots’ airship, to seek repairs for her injured body, but hopes to return to her island family and friends.

“It made me sad that Roz had to leave Brightbill,” Henry said, the tears forming again.

My wife tried to connect that feeling to missing school friends during the summer. I tried, less successfully, to expound on art and ambiguity and sad things making happy ones more meaningful. I don’t think Henry found either of us convincing.

Every book he’d read to that point had been pain-free at best, “happily ever after” at worst, and he liked that. He was the kind of reader who, each December, politely declined to engage with “The Grinch,” even as his parents promised that Christmas would ultimately be saved.

I figured Henry would want a break before tackling Roz’s next adventure. And yet, as soon as book club ended, he asked if we could go to Morgenstern’s, our hometown indie, to buy “The Wild Robot Escapes.” Henry found a copy on a shelf he could reach by himself. He finished the first chapter before we left the store.

For the rest of that summer and fall, Henry read these two books over and over until their covers tore and their pages curled. When our library’s summer reading program tasked each kid with reviewing a book, the only question was which Wild Robot volume Henry would choose.

He settled on his Halloween costume early, for once, clarifying that he wanted to be Roz after the first book’s 48th chapter, when she gets wounded and receives a replacement foot made of wood and vines.

You can imagine his excitement, then, when we got a copy of “The Wild Robot Protects.”

Roz is “often physically clumsy and emotionally confused, her large eyes and line mouth conveying a sense of bewilderment.”Credit…Peter Brown/“The Wild Robot Protects”

Henry and I agree that the final volume is worth the wait. Once again Roz leaves the island, this time to stop an underwater threat: “the poison tide.” Once again she learns to communicate and survive, this time by mastering echolocation. There are more amazing creatures (Limber the octopus!) and more epic battles.

Brown finds the perfect balance between propulsive adventure and unsettling ideas — not just happiness and sadness, but also, given this third book’s climate-change undercurrents, hope and despair.

During our book club for “The Wild Robot Protects,” I brought up a scene in which a sea turtle tells Roz about visiting a beach where the poison tide had destroyed thousands of his species’ eggs. That hammered me, and I assumed it had hammered my sensitive son. But it hadn’t because, to him, the eggs were just eggs. “It wasn’t that sad,” Henry said, “because I know things sometimes die in the real world.”

That’s when I realized how much the sadness in Brown’s trilogy, and the seriousness, too, depends on his main character. To care about Roz leaving the island, you have to care about Roz in the first place.

And here’s something else that’s special about her: She is often physically clumsy and emotionally confused, her large eyes and line mouth conveying a sense of bewilderment, of how hard it is to survive in a strange new space.

The life of a wild robot, in other words, is pretty similar to the life of a kid. That’s what makes Brown’s trilogy so powerful. Readers love Roz, but they also learn from her. Even better, they learn alongside her.

Roz gave Henry a reason to push through the first book’s sad parts. She also gave him a model for how to make sense of those sad parts — for how and why to keep trying until he was ready to appreciate that, sometimes, sadness isn’t a bad thing to feel.

Craig Fehrman is a journalist and historian. His next book is a new history of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

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