Where the Red Fern Grows , Wilson Rawls
What is it about literary animal deaths that make them so much upsetting than literary human deaths? Or was it just the whole dying-of-sadness thing? Either way, your sensitive literary editor’s strongest memory of the third grade was reading this novel and then promptly falling out of her chair in tears. Adults we’ve polled have reported similar reactions.
Of Mice and Men , John Steinbeck
This novel is so slim that it almost feels like a short story — at least in the sense that it leaves the reader with a dominant feeling. In our case, that was a desperate hollowness after a 100-page search for meaning.
The Fault in Our Stars , John Green
John Green, as a rule, knows all of the most painful places to poke. Teenagers with cancer falling in love? We were goners from the start. But this novel is no mere tear-jerker banking on a premise that already makes us depressed — it only works because it’s also wonderfully written, smart and complex. Maybe that’s why this book was on everyone and their mother’s best-of list last year. It also might be why everyone’s best-of lists were kind of wet.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter , Carson McCullers
Whatever your demons, you’ll face them here, as the misfits of a Georgia mill town whisper their secrets in your ear, and in John Singer’s lifeless one. McCullers, a mere 23 at the time of this novel’s publication, lays open the basic loneliness of the human condition, without trying to reassure you that it will all be all right. That made us upset.
Revolutionary Road , Richard Yates
This book is harrowing from beginning to end, but there’s a moment in the book (we won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it yet) that cuts us to the core every time. The fact that it all comes after the sun has supposedly reemerged just makes it all the more heartbreaking.
Blue Nights , Joan Didion
Now here’s a book that delivers on its titular promise. The blue nights, according to Didion, in this heartbreaking memoir of the life and death of her daughter Quintana Roo, are those long evenings of summer when the sky holds on to its deep color for what seems impossibly long, but they’re also what you get when you read this book. As she writes, “During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called ‘Blue Nights’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
The Book Thief , Markus Zusak
Predictably enough, Holocaust books tend to end in tears for us. But this gorgeous, captivating account of a nine-year-old foster child is probably at the top of our cry pile. What’s more romantic than a starving girl who can’t help but steal every book she comes across? Death’s unsentimental narration makes it all the more raw.
Bastard Out of Carolina , Dorothy Allison
Maybe this book shouldn’t make us cry so much as hold our breath and thank every star we can see through the Manhattan haze that our mothers have always loved us. And yet, the incredible language and harrowing story spikes us at every turn. Allison may not flinch, but we do.
Flowers for Algernon , Daniel Keyes
Another undisputed classic of weeper lit, in which a mentally disabled man and a mouse participate in an experimental lab procedure to increase their intelligence. Forgive us, but this book is frankly touching, and will ride around with you in your back pocket for a long, long time. In case you were wondering: the mouse/mentally disabled man parallel with Of Mice and Men is not lost on us. But what can we say?
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , J.K. Rowling
Look, judge all you want, but hear us out. It wasn’t any of the deaths (major or minor) in J.K. Rowling’s series that set us to crying, but rather the very last lines of the very last book. It was the end of a series that was with us since our youth, yes, but we also found ourselves overwhelmed by a feeling of relief — after so much strife and angst and difficult spellcasting, most everyone we loved was finally going to live happily ever after. It’s kind of like how we felt when we saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Sunnydale turned into a crater. Judge if you want.