Sad Books Say So Much:
7 Books That Give Fourth and Fifth Graders All the Feels

by Kari Ness Riedel

Photo credit: Ulrike Schmitt-Hartmann, DigitalVision/ Getty Images

When I ask kids in my fourth and fifth grade book club what their favorite genre is, a large group of them tell me, “I love sad books.” After pushing them to define what constitutes a “sad” book, I’ve learned this category includes books with characters that feel they are different in some way. These characters often face severe bullying or social exclusion because of their differences. This category also encompasses books where a major tragedy occurs like the loss of a loved one or loss of a home or extreme poverty, or stories that center around a mental or physical illness. The plotlines may differ, but the common thread is that these books make young readers feel deeply.

In thinking about it, this makes sense. Kids, like grown-ups, want to engage in stories that make them feel something. This is the power of a good book. It may introduce us to a new feeling, or help us describe a feeling we’ve always had but didn’t know anyone else did too. It may build empathy and self-awareness. This is how reading changes us.

Here are seven favorite “sad” books recommended by fourth and fifth grade readers for other young readers.

  • Out of My Mind

    by Sharon M. Draper

    Ten-year-old Melody is different. She can’t walk or talk due to her cerebral palsy, but she has one of the most brilliant minds in her fifth grade class. Unfortunately, no one at school knows it. This is a captivating story about Melody’s bravery and determination to change how people see her and the power of kindness and compassion. Merritt highly recommends it: “This is an AMAZING book! I think that no matter how old you are, everybody should read it!”

  • Counting by 7s

    by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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    Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius who suddenly becomes an orphan after her adoptive parents are killed in a tragic accident. The book chronicles her journey to overcome her grief by connecting with strangers who become like family. Kristy says, “It’s a touching book that will reach down into your heart and make you want to cry. This book has changed my life and how I think.”

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  • Mockingbird

    by Kathryn Erskine

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    This is the heartbreaking tale of Caitlin, a fifth grader with Asperger’s syndrome who is struggling to cope after her older brother was gunned down in a school shooting. This beautifully written book addresses multiple tragedies and teaches life-changing lessons about empathy and finding closure. Kyle gave it five stars, saying, “I really enjoyed this book and will never forget it.”

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  • The Seventh Most Important Thing

    by Shelley Pearsall

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    Twelve-year-old Arthur finds himself in juvie after hurling a brick at an old man known as the “Junk Man” (because he picks through trash in the neighborhood). Arthur’s punishment is 120 hours of community service working for the Junk Man. This is a beautiful story of redemption, the power of art, and the ripple effect of every action we take. Gabe says, “This book is emotional, thought-provoking, and uplifting.” The Seventh Most Important Thing is also a Brightly Book Club pick.

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  • One for the Murphys

    by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

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    Carley has survived an abusive childhood with her quick wit, street smarts, and a thick emotional wall that protects her from getting hurt. But things change when she is thrown into the warmth and stability of the Murphy family as a foster child. This is a universal story about belonging and identity. For Rachel, it is “a touching story that makes you feel like you're right there with Carley. If you want a sad book, this is it.”

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  • Because of Mr. Terupt

    by Rob Buyea

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    Mr. Terupt is a very special teacher who makes fifth grade fun at Snow Hill, until a tragic accident occurs. This story about friendship and hardships unfolds from the perspective of seven very different students who have all been touched by this amazing teacher. Ben says, “Help me! I can’t put this book down,” while Anna proclaims, “This book is amazing … it will make you laugh and cry.”

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  • Bridge to Terabithia

    by Katherine Paterson

    Fifth graders Jess and Leslie go from being rivals to inseparable friends who create an imaginary world where they rule as king and queen and enjoy amazing adventures together. Then, a tragic accident disrupts their utopia. This Newbery Medal winning classic has been sending readers to grab tissues and contemplate their own friendships for decades. “This book is one of the most adventurous and heartbreaking books I've ever read,” says Halle.

What sad books have stuck with you from childhood? Let us know in the comments below.