25 Sad Books That Will Tug at Your Heartstrings
Grab the tissues now—you won't make it through our list of tearjerkers without a few snivels.
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Tearjerkers you won’t be able to put down
Get ready to fight back the tears—or simply give in. There’s something beautiful about sad books that make you feel like you’re holding your actual heart in your hands. Why do we read books that make us weep? It’s simple: They help us feel connected to other humans who are going through hard times too. The best books in this genre help us feel seen, give us the strength to go on when we feel alone, and provide an emotional release when we really need it.
For this list, we compiled the perfect mix of classic books and contemporary, just-published works. You’ll find everything from literary masterpieces and books about the Holocaust to best-selling sad books for teens and romance novels that will make you both sob and swoon. Some of the books have had a huge cultural impact, some have won major literary awards, and a few have been adapted into hit movies. Others were chosen by Reader’s Digest book editors as the best tearjerkers of all time—look for the Reader’s Digest Editor’s Choice seal for those. And of course, thousands of readers rave that they can’t put down these books. So grab a box of tissues (and a blankie for comfort) and settle in for some intense emotions.
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1. The Military Wife by Laura Trentham (2019)
The first book in Laura Trentham’s Heart of a Hero series follows the young widow Harper in her quest to open coffeehouses just outside of military bases. She imagines these as hubs that can hold together communities rattled by loss and difficulties faced by those who return home. You’ll find yourself moved by Harper’s heartache and the pain of moving on in this uplifting romance. Don’t miss these other compelling books written by female authors.
2. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)
Sonali Deraniyagala’s searing memoir documents loss beyond imagination after the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami, in which she lost her husband, two young sons, and parents. She recounts her experience in the aftermath in this beautifully written and harrowing account of grief that will tear your heart out.
3. Meet Me in Paradise by Libby Hubscher (2021)
The best sad books are the ones you can’t put down because you need to know what happens, and that’s definitely the case with this page-turner. Two sisters respond to the loss of their go-getter mom in different ways. Sadie’s a world-traveling adventurer, while Marin’s a low-key homebody too scared to travel. Sadie finally convinces Marin to accompany her on an island getaway, but when Sadie misses the flight, Marin’s on her own—alone on a tropical island and forced to face everything her life’s been missing. If you’re taking a vacation of your own sometime soon, bring this along as one of the best beach reads you’ll zip right through.
4. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012)
Indian Horse tells the story of Saul, a young Ojibway boy who enters a Canadian Indian residential school after he loses his family. This is one of those sad books you’ll fall in love with because the narrator inspires with his wit and fortitude in the face of unimaginable hardship. Young Saul goes through many difficult experiences, but he triumphs through hockey. This award-winning novel was adapted into a movie of the same name, now streaming on Netflix.
5. What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (2016)
Garth Greenwell’s much-lauded debut moves with lyrical, seductive grace as it recounts the experience of an American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a young man caught up in prostitution. The lives of the two men become enmeshed in this sensitive LGBTQ book that considers the transactional nature of both love and desire, especially in the midst of loss. It’s considered one of the great American novels of recent times, and critics and reviewers warn that it’s hard to make it through without crying your eyes out.
6. Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Jesmyn Ward’s critically acclaimed memoir recounts the stories of five young Black men who died way too young, including her own brother. Ward weaves together a sensitive narrative that recounts her own history and the connections between the young men. This is one of those sad books that you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve finished it, especially since it poignantly relates to so many of America’s hot-button issues. Here are more books by Black authors you’ll want to know about.
7. The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey (2020)
Duffy, a spry 88 years old, teams up with his nursing home roommate’s granddaughter for some late-life mischief and mayhem in this funny and moving debut novel. In the midst of hilarious high jinks, the two bond over difficulties that can hit at any age. You’ll find yourself rooting for Duffy in this funny novel filled with human spirit and the kind of hope that moves you to tears. If you like to laugh, check out our list of the funniest books of all time.
8. Noel Street by Richard Paul Evans (2019)
Are you in the mood for some heartfelt holiday fiction? The third book in the popular Christmas-themed Noel Collection focuses on a single mom trying to make ends meet in Mistletoe, Utah, in 1975. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, a veteran who’s struggling with PTSD shows up and changes the lives of the young mother and her son. If you fall in love with this Christmas book, you’ll probably also enjoy the Hallmark Christmas movies set in this town and based on Evans’ work.
9. Love, Lists, and Fancy Ships by Sarah Grunder Ruiz (2021)
In this heartwarming debut novel, a woman reeling from grief decides to take on her bucket list by her 30th birthday. After a devastating family loss, her nieces show up and the trio embarks on a lineup of adventures, but things get complicated by unexpected love in this laugh-till-you-cry romance. Get this one for your favorite bookworm, along with one of these unique gifts for book lovers. (We won’t tell if that bookworm is you!)
10. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (2009)
Fans of this best-selling book, narrated by a dog named Enzo, often mention crying from the first chapter and then not stopping until the last page. Kevin Costner stars in the movie adaptation from 2019 about a race car driver and his beloved pooch. This is one of those sad books that will stay with you as Enzo moves readers with his wit, resilience, and hope for becoming human himself. It just might be the perfect gift for the dog lover in your life.
11. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)
Lovable young protagonists Jesse and Leslie become friends despite their contrasting home lives. After they face a bully at school, they cope by creating a magical haven, Terabithia, in the woods near their homes. The elaborate fantasy locale provides a safe space beyond the challenges and conflicts of regular life. This classic children’s novel treats tragedy with unflinching honesty as readers follow the kids through a journey that includes seemingly unbearable grief.
12. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
This best-selling novel tells the love story of Clare and Henry—which would be perfect if only Henry didn’t have a pesky genetic illness that causes him to travel through time without warning. This, of course, causes all kinds of hassles and heartache. The out-of-order love story captures the loss inherent to love as it constantly moves in and out of moments, and it will pull on your heartstrings as it explores that strange and delicious feeling that you know someone when you’ve only just met. If you love this unusual romance, these fantasy books might be right up your alley.
13. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2011)
Kristin Hannah’s epic historical romance, set during World War II in Russia, follows two daughters as they begin a quest prompted by their mother’s deathbed revelations. Prepare for heartache as you’re plunged into the details of the Siege of Leningrad and the sacrifices of the women and children who struggled during a time of terror and war. If you find yourself drawn to stories like this, find more of the best books for you, based on your zodiac sign.
14. Oh My Stars by Lorna Landvik (2005)
Brace yourself for the agonizing first few pages of Oh My Stars as you’re introduced to the intrepid Violet, who’s working the graveyard shift in a factory on her 16th birthday. She suffers a life-changing injury in this Great Depression novel that follows the young heroine as she escapes her abusive home life and embarks on adventures she’d never imagined. She meets up with musicians, two brothers, who face hardships as well, and finds herself eking out happiness in the face of sorrow.
15. Float Plan by Trish Doller (2021)
Anna suffers from overwhelming grief after the sudden, traumatic loss of her fiancé. She impulsively takes to the seas in the sailboat he left behind and feels like a fish out of water—until she hires a handsome boater to help her. Travel the Caribbean seas in this page-turner with witty narration that balances heartbreak with hope.
16. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)
This sweet and philosophical novel is one of the quintessential sad books for teens. It follows Hazel Grace and Augustus, two teenagers who meet in a cancer support group, and it will definitely have you crying your eyes out—in between laughs. John Green is known for writing both realistic and funny characters. You know they’re both sick from the very beginning, and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking to watch them fall in love in the midst of dire circumstances.
17. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult (2004)
This heartrending New York Times best seller centers on the relationship between two young sisters, one of whom has cancer. The younger was conceived in order to “save” her older sister as her medical match for transplants, and conflict ensues when she sues her parents for medical emancipation to prevent having to give a kidney to her sister—and imperil her own life. Through tears, you’ll ponder larger themes of family, medical ethics, loss, and the love between sisters. There’s also a movie based on this book, and if you’re in the mood for more blubbering, add these other tearjerker movies to your must-watch list.
18. The Sweetest Days by John Hough Jr. (2021)
The Sweetest Days delves into the love story between two people, Pete and Jackie, who’ve been married for 34 years, as they grapple with their past. The two are en route to celebrate Pete’s book signing while dealing with a devastating cancer diagnosis. The novel dips into their past and the tragedies along the way. If you’re looking for a book on long-term marriage and the ways in which couples sacrifice and adapt, you can’t go wrong with this one.
19. The Fortunate Ones by Catherine Hokin (2020)
If you love the harrowing details of World War II historical fiction, this is the novel for you. Some reviewers mention crying throughout this heartbreaking love story, so keep your tissues handy. Set in Berlin, it spans a 15-year period as Felix and Inge cope with war, separation, and hardship. He’s relegated to a concentration camp, while she’s married off to a Nazi doctor.
20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
John Steinbeck’s tragic novella follows two migrant workers, George and Lennie, as they struggle to subsist during the Great Depression. They’re driven by the American Dream to own their land, but their best-laid plans go awry. The novel exposes social justice issues of its time period, which remain relevant for contemporary readers. The shattering turn of events speaks to the universal desire for dreams and justice and the ways they are so easily thwarted for those who are oppressed. Since Of Mice and Men is usually read in English classes around the country, it may be one of the first sad books that teens come across.
21. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
Partly set in Afghanistan, this best seller chronicles the friendship of two young boys who fly kites together as children despite vast differences in their social statuses. The story follows the devastating betrayal of one boy by the other and how they age and grow apart over time, and it shows that while you cannot change your past, you may be able to atone for it—though that atonement is rarely easy or complete.
22. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning masterpiece is still taught in English classes because of its universal themes and ever-relevant lessons about race, class, and gender. The story follows a young girl, Scout, as she watches her father, Atticus Finch, defend Tom, an innocent man wrongfully accused of a vicious crime. If you want to delve further into issues of race in America, these insightful books about racism should be at the top of your list.
23. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s whimsical novel has moved adults and children since the 1940s. The story is about the titular prince, stranded and lonely in a vast desert, who meets the narrator, a pilot whose plane has crashed there. The two form a close bond as the Little Prince tells the pilot of his adventures on other planets. But the tragic ending of this classic children’s book hits hard, and you’ll find yourself crying at what is devastating and beautiful at the same time.
24. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2016)
Set in Nazi Germany and narrated by the character Death, The Book Thief follows the relationship between a young girl, Liesel, and her foster parents as they live within the brutal regime. Max is a Jewish man who they hide in the basement, and as he bonds with Liesel over their shared love for books, the two manage to forge hope out of desperation. Readers confess to crying throughout this beautiful sad book about the power of kindness and love amid hate and atrocity.
25. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
This memoir reads with the language and depth of a novel as it recounts the illness of its author, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. He begins the story in his youth, discussing his love of books and literature, though he is eventually drawn to science. He’s at the start of his career and marriage, with a baby on the way, when he receives a devastating diagnosis. The book recounts his thoughts as he grapples with the beauty of a life well-lived. For other first-person accounts, try these autobiographies that will help you look at the world in a whole different way.