Our Reading Lives

Reading To Straighten Out The Feels

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Emma Allmann

Staff Writer

In addition to learning how to write creatively at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Emma Allmann spends her time lugging books along with her on outdoor adventures. She uses hiking, running, cross-country skiing, and climbing as time to discover new and interesting things to write about. She has had a play produced at the Marcia Légère Student Play Festival and writes about the books she reads on her blog, I'm Right Here Because I'm Not All There. When she's not reading, writing, or adventuring she can be found making a list of good names for ice-cream. Twitter: @Emryal

When I was around ten years old I tracked down my parents and with my breath catching in between every word I wailed at them, “I’m crying and I don’t know why!” My mom brought me up to my room, comforted me for a while, tucked me in bed, and left me with my book. About an hour later she came to check on me and I was shoulders-heaving-sobbing, but this time I knew why. It was because May Amelia from Our Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm was dealing with some heavy and sad stuff. It was a library book and I haven’t read it since, but ten years later I can describe, in detail, the scene that upset me and all the feelings May Amelia was experiencing. This was the first time, that I can remember, that I used a book very specifically to straighten out the feels.

Of course, that first time wasn’t necessarily on purpose, but I liked the result. Whatever was going on in my ten-year-old head and heart was too much for me to straighten out and understand. I was overwhelmed and I couldn’t pin point why. The story I read helped me attach the emotions to something concrete. I was not dealing with anything similar to what May Amelia was, but being able to identify what exactly was sad about her story helped me straighten out and prioritize what was sad about my day. It was a lesson I never forgot.

To this day when I’m feeling sad, overwhelmed, and completely incapable of untangling the mess that my emotions can become I turn to stories. The system has gotten more advanced. I’ve managed to organize my types of emotional chaos into categories. The books that I turn to not because I want to read a sad story, but because I need someone else to articulate the less fun aspect of the human experience for me, have become my most reread books on my bookshelves. Beloved by Toni Morrison, Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen (and almost everything else by Sarah Dessen…she sure knows how to tug at the heartstrings), and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will always make me cry while reading them. Honestly the very thought of A Little Life is enough for me tear up, but flipping through the pages of these books and reading how grief can be vocalized and how relationships can be torn and sewn back together, turns the stories into road maps for emotions. The characters become vessels for my feelings who test out all the possible paths for me.

Reading sad books to help me figure out my own emotions is by no means the best and most productive way to help myself all the time. Sometimes, when I’ve had a heavy hitter sort of a day I need to get help from actual people who I can actually talk to. Sometimes though, I just need to press the slo-mo button on my own life, sit down with a story, have a good cry, and carry on a little wiser and a little more prepared for what might come next.

What books do you read when you need to feel all the feels?