A few of the books I sobbed over in childhood can still raise a tear. Anyone else?
Many books make me cry when I encounter them for the first time, although fewer these days than during my mascara-smeared teens. But it’s rare that a childhood favourite still has the power to call forth tears. Mostly, I find, the potency of even the most sorrowful children’s book fades with time, like the scent of a floral sachet – there might be a little lingering whiff of lavender, a tiny prickle at the back of the eye, but no sign of the once irresistible overflow and puckering plop of tear-drop onto page. There are, however, notable exceptions.
Judging from a straw poll of inebriated and slightly maudlin friends, The Velveteen Rabbit, doomed to be burned after being cuddled through his young owner’s scarlet fever, still wields the greatest power to strike a dewy spark from the adult eye, closely followed by Wilde’s The Happy Prince. “Beautiful as a weathercock, only not quite so useful”, this gilded gentleman, with his sapphire eyes and ruby-hilted sword, tires of contemplating his city’s suffering from a pedestal and sends a sparrow to give away his riches to those in need. The loyal sparrow’s cold demise and the breaking of the Happy Prince’s leaden heart are not kissed better, as far as the disconsolate child-reader is concerned, by God’s welcoming them both into Paradise to praise him at the end. As for The Nightingale and the Rose, it should carry a warning: “Contains scenes of heartless cruelty and unnecessary sacrifice which readers may find distressing for years to come”.
Childhood favourites which spin the sluice-wheels for me include Charlotte’s Web and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. It seems I’m not alone in being a sucker for loyal, intelligent animals – including anthropomorphised toys – who give everything for the people (and pigs) they love. In fact, unstinting generosity in anyone or anything, especially if it culminates in the donor’s death, is generally a good recipe for a torrent of reminiscent tears. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is a prime example, featuring an arboreal heroine who gives every bit of herself, from leaves to apples to, eventually, trunk, to a gradually ageing “boy”. This book generates fierce debate between those who see it as a touching parable of parental altruism and those who want to slap the boy upside the head for his rapacious selfishness. Why doesn’t he do something for the tree once in a while? Would it kill him to bring a sack of compost or a watering can? Sheesh. But the final line – “And the tree was happy” – still makes me cry.
Doomed first romance, in which the protagonists have been lucky enough to find each other but subsequently suffer the agony of being parted, by death or other extremity, is also good for at least two travel-packs of Kleenex. Summer of My German Soldier, a wonderful but profoundly saddening book, features a young Jewish American, Patty Bergen, constantly berated and beaten by her horrible father, who conceals Anton, the escaped POW of the title, above her family’s garage. Anton’s kindness helps Patty to discover her own intelligence and strength, and to weather the myriad injustices with which she has to contend, but it’s hard to think of many other young adult classics in which so many bad things happen to such good people. Similarly, I can only reread Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – narrated by precocious, sensitive Cassandra, who confides her difficulties, mortifications and the pangs of first love to a succession of diaries – if reddened eyes and hiccups will not seriously inconvenience me in the three hours after finishing the book.
Which childhood tear-jerkers still have the onion effect on you, and why?