It’s a complaint heard often: why can’t stories for kids ever have happy endings these days? And heads nod solemnly, agreeing it’s a shame, the darkness our kids are subjected to.
In a world where dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games garner the largest readership and turn into the most popular films, the question has a certain validity, despite its overstatement. (An equally valid question would be, what’s happening in our world that prompts young readers to turn toward such darkness?) The truth is, though, that there are lots of happily-ever-after stories offered to our young readers. Or at least there are lots of books with resolved, hopeful endings. And the younger the reader is, the more likely the story’s ending is to be traditionally “happy.”
As a society we agree that our youngest members should be protected from what we adults know to be, at least potentially, a harsh, a dangerous, a disillusioning world. The disagreement comes over deciding the right time to begin to lift that protectively happy scrim. At eight? At twelve? At sixteen?
I’m not a specialist in child development. In fact the truth is that I write out of my gut, not out of that kind of specialized psychological knowledge. My gut tells me, though, that the ten- or eleven-year-old who reads On My Honor is old enough to deal with the imagined death of an imagined friend. Even if he finds it shocking because he has never encountered death in a story before.
My gut tells me that I don’t have to bring the dead boy back to life at the end of the story to make everything all right. It also tells me that the feelings my young readers carry away from the story will do them no harm. Those feelings will, in fact, enlarge young psyches, making room for more compassion, a deeper understanding.
I’m not talking about bibliotherapy, either. Reading the right book may help a child through a traumatic experience, but that’s not what stories are for. Feeling our way through fictional events helps every one of us explore the fundamental questions of being human, and that exploration happens best in the quiet of our lives, not in the midst of our own trauma.
We adults don’t demand that stories written for us have “happy” endings. Why? Because we know that sometimes happy endings are a lie. And we know that truth—at least in fiction—is more important than good feelings, even if truth brings tears.
I’m not talking about sad stories as bibliotherapy, either, though a book can be an effective aid sometimes. I’m talking about sad stories as one—not the only but one—representation of human experience. An experience we must learn to parse at any age, because sadness is part of all our lives. The advantage of a sad story over the sadness we live is that we can stand back from a story, feel it without being crushed, and thus have a chance to sort it for meaning.
My personal guide in creating stories never changes whether the story I am writing is for three-year-olds, adolescents or adults. I ask that whatever my characters—and consequently my readers—may feel along the way, pain or joy, my story always follows a thread, however gossamer, of hope.
That isn’t a literary standard. The sun rarely rises at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Rather it is a moral one. My own very personal morality. Life can be painful, yes, but it is precious. Life without hope is without value.
Each day I rise to embrace life, to rejoice in it, to hold it dear, whatever difficulties may come. I vow never to offer my readers less.
And hope is, I believe, much larger and more important than a happy ending.