I come from a long line of cryers. The mom who cries at Lifetime movies and Hallmark commercials. The grandmother who cries at stories of adversity and at weddings.
Me? I’m just as sensitive. But I hate getting weepy around other people. I prefer to cry in private. In fact, there’s nothing more cathartic to me than wrapping myself in a blanket, popping in a movie my husband has no interest in watching, and having a good, cleansing cry.
But recently, I’ve been caught unawares by a string of heartbreaking books. I’ve found myself stuck in waiting rooms or in line at CVS, blindsided by a particularly upsetting scene, eyes tearing up despite myself.
If you’re looking for a book strong enough to break your heart, here are my recommendations. They’ve all broken through my barriers and caused me to break apart in public.
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
I didn’t expect to be hit so hard by a middle grade novel, but here we are. Woodson is a consistent maker of literary magic, and her latest is no different. The book focuses on six students who are placed in a special class together, and who are encouraged to spend every afternoon just talking to each other. Over the course of the year, these kids open up to each other about the most difficult and confounding parts of their lives, eventually becoming a safe harbor to each other.
MS. MARVEL, VOL. 4: LAST DAYS by G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring, and Joe Caramagna
I’m nine volumes in to Ms. Marvel at this point (I binge-read all of them so I could get caught up), but nothing hit me as hard as volume 4, in which Kamala Khan finally admits to her mother that she is Ms. Marvel—and her mother pulls her in for a hug and says that she already knows. I instantly started blubbering. What can I say? Close mother-daughter relationships are my kryptonite.
Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, Cardinal Rae, and Erica Schultz
I recommend this graphic love story to everyone, telling them they need to read it because it will make them cry. In fact, when I finally got the chance to meet Franklin IRL, I told her it made me cry. In fact, I cried so often when reading this comic that I went through many, many tissues. My sniffles were boundless. About two young women who meet at church bingo in 1963 and fall in love, only to be kept apart by both their families and by society, this sweet story will give you all the feels.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Acevedo’s YA novel was like nothing else I’d ever read before, primarily because it was written as a journal filled with slam poetry. The protagonist is a young woman growing up in Harlem, trying to figure out her place in the world, and also struggling with a difficult home life. She reveals her deepest truths in her poetry notebook. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll let you figure out which scene made me gasp out loud and cry tears of sympathetic frustration. I am so stoked that Acevedo has another book on the way for 2019.
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
This doorstop of a graphic memoir takes readers through the author’s overlapping struggles with an eating disorder, depression, and sexual abuse. My heart broke for Green. The graphic medium proved to be especially effective for such a dark, multi-layered story.
Victor LaValle’s Destroyer by Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, and Jim Campbell
I fell in love with this horror comic immediately, both for its gorgeous artwork and for the dark story of Dr. Frankenstein’s final descendant, who makes a questionable decision in the wake of a tragic loss. This entire book is drenched in the pain of its main characters, but it was a single panel—the one that revealed the source of the main protagonist’s loss—that got me visibly choked up.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
I was torn apart again and again by this lyrical memoir, which reveals Gay’s complicated relationship with her body and the impact sexual trauma had on it. The book is rough going but well worth it.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
As soon as I read the first sentence of this book, I knew I had to own it. “The day my daughter was stillborn,” it starts, and I fell apart. This lyrical memoir is relentless in that it paints the picture of a troubled childhood followed by a troubled adulthood. It seems impossible that things will ever change for the author. I read the entire book in a state of mourning. But it is still that first page that makes me cry the most.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This posthumously-published memoir, about a neurosurgeon faced with his own cancer diagnosis, is consistently thought-provoking in that it forces readers to interrogate their own assumptions about what makes life worth living. But I didn’t find myself crying until the end when, against all odds, the stakes become even higher. If you enjoy this one, I recommend reading Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour next.
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