Just in time for the long holiday weekend—if your holiday weekend to-do list includes weeping—here’s a list of children’s films and books that are guaranteed to open your adult tear ducts for the coming deluge.
(Don’t say we didn’t warn you.)
This 1942 Disney classic was my very first movie, ever, which I caught at a special screening at my local picture house at the age of 5. When a hunter appears out of nowhere in the first few minutes of the film and blows away baby Bambi’s devoted mom with a gunshot, I nearly had a nervous breakdown in the theater.
The powerful opening montage of this sweet 2009 tale from Pixar has you deeply grieving for a widower and his deceased wife—who you’ve known for exactly 10 minutes, yet whose love and loss you feel so profoundly, it’s like your own.
When Nemo gets separated from his pop Marlin in the vast ocean, every parent who’s ever even briefly lost sight of their kid in a shopping mall—the equivalent of the Pacific for land dwellers—feels a deeply disturbed jolt of nauseating panic. Grab the Kleenexes, quick.
The Lion King
Try sitting with a child during the agonizing Mufasa death scene, in which the brave father lion saves his boy Simba from a stampede and nearly succumbs to it himself, only to barely crawl up a cliff to his waiting nemesis Scar, who promptly throws him off it to his death. Go ahead. Just try.
Toy Story 3
Forget the incinerator scare. It’s the closing scene—when college-bound Andy gives his beloved toys away, including Woody, Buzz, Jessie and all the rest, to a girl down the block—that truly slays. I confess, my kids sniff a little when we watch this bittersweet moment together … but I outright bawl. A total ugly cry. I’m not embarrassed about it, either.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Poor E.T. lying among the rocks on the river bank, lifeless and cold-bodied. Little Elliott in the medical tent, inches from death. E.T. dying, then being resurrected with his glowing red rib cage, a sign of warm love. A lonely boy and his friend’s touching forever-goodbye. My kids howled with grief after the final credits rolled on this 1982 Steven Spielberg classic, and woke up the next morning with puffy, almost alien-like faces.
The Velveteen Rabbit
Margery Williams’s 1922 story of a beloved toy rabbit who must be burned when the boy who adores him comes down with scarlet fever is a tear-jerker for the ages. Our velveteen hero escapes his fiery fate and instead becomes a real live bunny, one the boy spots in the wild the following spring and immediately recognizes as his old friend. A poignantly uplifting tale that offers hope to all who long to see a deceased loved one, one more time.
The Giving Tree
Some hate Shel Silverstein’s famous book, others sob with pleasure after reading it. The tree gives her favorite boy the fruit of her branches—and still he returns for more, and more, and more, until she’s relegated her to a mere stump. So she offers herself up as a seat. Any parent who’s ever sacrificed for a kid can identify at least a little bit of what this means.
Oh, Wilbur! You’re S-O-M-E P-I-G. And Charlotte is the most amazing BFF of them all, even if she does have eight legs. When Charlotte’s short life cycle inevitably clocks out, who can help but blink rapidly, then blame pesky allergies for those too-wet eyes? Still, while hundreds of her hatched children sail off for fairer farms, three small spiderlings remain in the barn with Wilbur, who promptly names them Joy, Nellie and Aranea. A full-circle moment. Thank you, E.B. White.
If you’ve done something as dangerous as love a dog, you understand the unique grief that comes with losing one. Travis Coates is a 14-year-old boy in this 1956 novel written by Fred Gipson, later turned into a classic film. When a mangy mutt appears on his Texas farm, at first Travis keeps it at arm’s-length. When Old Yeller goes on to save his family on numerous occasions from attacking wild hogs, a bear and a wolf, an unbreakable bond is formed. Travis is devastated, and so, too, will you be, when he’s forced to shoot his best friend after one of the attacks leaves the dog with rabies.
Love You Forever
Part stalking tale, part plight of universal parental angst, this book reduced me to a blubbering idiot every single time I read it to my kids. And I read it to them at least once a week for years when they were little. Even as part of me bucked against the illustrated mother climbing into her adult son’s window to tuck him in at night, the mama in me who knew she might one day want to do the same overrode such skepticism. When the grown man rocks his elderly mother during her final days, I couldn’t help but squeeze my children, already sensing how soon they’d be grown up and gone.