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Encountering Sadness in Children’s Literature: A Journey of Empathy, Understanding, and Connection

Encountering Sadness in Children’s Literature: A Journey of Empathy, Understanding, and Connection


In the captivating world of children’s and young adult literature, the exploration of sadness and grief occupies a significant space. Dana VanderLugt, author of the upcoming book “Enemies in the Orchard,” delves into this poignant topic, sharing her insights and experiences in this thought-provoking article. As an eighth-grade English teacher and now a literacy coach, VanderLugt has witnessed firsthand the impact of sadness-themed books on young readers, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging and addressing these emotions in literature.

The Power of Acknowledging Sadness:

VanderLugt begins by highlighting the tendency of adults to minimize or dismiss children’s feelings of sadness, often resorting to dismissive phrases like “Stop crying” or “Get over it.” However, she argues that books can serve as powerful tools in validating and understanding these emotions. Middle school students, in particular, yearn for stories that take their lives and problems seriously, offering a sense of solace and relatability.

The Protection of Literature:

VanderLugt emphasizes the protective role of literature in providing readers with a safe space to confront and process difficult emotions. By encountering sadness in stories, young readers gain the opportunity to practice emotions like grief, joy, empathy, and anger, fostering emotional resilience and growth. Literature can serve as a shield against the harsh realities of the world, providing a controlled environment where readers can face and overcome challenges without experiencing real-life consequences.

Challenging the Notion of Shielding Children from Sadness:

Some may argue that children should be shielded from sadness or that such emotions should be reserved for later stages of life. However, VanderLugt challenges this notion, asserting that books can provide a measured and appropriate exposure to sadness, allowing readers to explore these emotions in a safe and guided manner. She highlights the importance of confronting sadness rather than turning away from it, as it can lead to deeper understanding and empathy.

The Gift of Stories:

VanderLugt concludes by reflecting on the transformative power of stories in opening up worlds, minds, and hearts. She acknowledges that sadness is an inevitable part of life, regardless of age, and that stories have the unique ability to connect readers with their innermost selves and with others who may share similar experiences. Through the exploration of sadness in literature, readers can find solace, understanding, and a sense of belonging, fostering a deeper appreciation for the complexities of human emotions.

Excerpts from “Enemies in the Orchard”:

To illustrate the power of sadness in children’s literature, VanderLugt shares excerpts from her upcoming novel, “Enemies in the Orchard.” The novel, set during World War II, delves into the lives of Claire, a young American girl, and Karl, a German prisoner of war, as they navigate the complexities of their unexpected encounter. The excerpts offer a glimpse into the characters’ inner struggles, highlighting the emotional weight of war and the resilience of the human spirit.

Claire’s Perspective:

In Claire’s poem, “Kicking Around,” she grapples with the news that German prisoners of war will be brought to work on her family’s orchard. She expresses her apprehension and confusion, questioning the wisdom of allowing the enemy onto their land. Claire’s internal dialogue with her absent brother, Danny, reveals her concerns about the Krauts and her desire to understand the situation from his perspective.

Karl’s Perspective:

In Karl’s poem, “Herrenvolk,” he reflects on his journey as a German soldier, captured and transported to America. He struggles with feelings of shame and disillusionment, questioning the values and beliefs he once held dear. The poem explores the complexities of his identity as a soldier, a prisoner, and a human being, highlighting the toll that war takes on individuals.


Dana VanderLugt’s article provides a compelling argument for the importance of sadness in children’s literature. By acknowledging and exploring these emotions through stories, young readers can develop empathy, resilience, and a deeper understanding of the human condition. The excerpts from “Enemies in the Orchard” offer a poignant glimpse into the lives of characters grappling with sadness, demonstrating the transformative power of literature in connecting readers with their own emotions and experiences.