Tag Archives: happy endings

No Happy Endings

Sunrise

photo credit: RoganJosh / Morguefile.com

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.

A Bride Married to Amazement

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Photo credit: Rachel Giese

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

                                                          (Mary Oliver, 1935 – )

I belong to a Unitarian Universalist Church, and I often joke that Mary Oliver is Saint Mary Oliver for us, her poems are so often used as readings in our services. (One of the principles of Unitarian Universalism is that scripture is not closed. We find our inspiration in the contemporary sacred as well as the ancient.)

I also find this particular passage an excellent mantra for those of us who write for the young. “A bride married to amazement … the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

All the years I have been engaged in writing for the juvenile market there has been an on-and-off discussion about the single, most basic requirement that makes our work distinct. Hope. We are, we often remind one another, compelled to bring hope to the page.

In the earlier days of that discussion, hope meant simply a happy ending, everything coming out all right in the end. Or at least that’s what it seemed to mean to me. But as literary standards in our field have grown more fluid, not every story ties itself up in a neat bow. And not every problem presented has to prove fixable.

On My HonorMany teachers have found a way to help their students cope with their frustration over the unresolved ending of my 1986 novel, On My Honor, often used in fifth and sixth-grade classrooms. They write their own Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters, and this practice is one I’ve encouraged.) My readers can decide for themselves what to do with the unresolved death, the body that hasn’t even been found. Some hold a funeral and help Joel, the main character, to move on. Some bring Tony, the boy who has drowned, back to life. He’s simply teasing, hiding in the bushes, not drowned. Some, interestingly enough, use their new ending to punish Joel, blaming him for his friend’s lies and risk-taking.

But even if the readers aren’t prepared for the unthinkable to happen, for a boy their own age to actually die in a story, at the end of my Chapter 12 I leave them with Joel’s father, solid and reliable. I leave them with a real world and real pain, but one in which love is real, too. Not every parent would be capable of bringing such grace to the tragedy Joel had endured, but this is my story, and Joel’s father’s grace is the gift I had to offer in my writing.

We live, all of us these days, in an uncertain world. One in which war, racism, climate chaos, inequity, violence, political stalemate, and disease confront us with the rising of every sun. These are realities to be faced into if we are to survive, realities for our children to face into, too.

Surely our stories must explore that uncertain foundation beneath all our feet.

But we also live surrounded by beauty, amazed by it if our senses are alive. We live capable of love, forgiveness, compassion, hope. Amazing love, forgiveness, compassion, hope.

The stories we tell our young people must be honest and true. If they aren’t, why are we telling them?

But if they aren’t filled with our own amazement then what is the point?

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Joy in Fiction?

4_1We are programed, each of us, to pay attention to the negative emotions, fear, anger, jealousy, sorrow. Being aware that we are afraid and tending to that fear is a matter of survival, even today. We don’t need a saber-toothed tiger waiting to pounce to justify our fear. A semi barreling toward us will do very nicely. Or a rumor that there are going to be cut-backs at the office.

But joy is another matter entirely. It comes on the breath of a spring day and is gone with the passing breeze. Tara Brach, in a recent dharma talk, recommended pausing for ten breaths when we are visited by joy. Ten breaths to catch it, hold it, and let it penetrate our bones. Because if we don’t pause to notice joy, it flies away.

Fine advice for living a life, but I found myself asking, how does that piece of wisdom relate to the stories we tell? Is the fact that we are programed to notice and to keep thinking about the negative emotions the reason the great tragedies have so much more power than the comedies, why Paradise Lost has more impact on the psyche than Paradise Regained?

The complaint circulates often, especially about young-adult fiction, “But it’s so depressing! Why does the literature for our young people have to be so depressing?” And part of the reason is certainly that, in our culture, happily ever after endings have come to be seen as unsophisticated. But I suspect some of the answer lies here, that the happy stories, the funny stories melt away. The ones that pull up dark feelings stay. And we all want our stories to stay.

Part of the reason for darkness in our stories lies, of course, in the very nature of stories. Stories are based on struggle. If you don’t have struggle, if your character doesn’t have a problem that feels really important, at least to that character, you don’t have a story. At a father-son book club, a father once asked me, “Why does the father in Runt have to behave the way he does? Why can’t he be kinder? Why can’t he acknowledge and support his son?” And the only answer I could give was, “Because this is a story. If the father had accepted Runt as we all want him to, I would have no story to tell. If all had been fine in Runt’s world, you wouldn’t care. You would, in fact, be bored.”

This “rule” of storytelling is so strong and so built into our unconscious expectations that if a story starts out, as they sometimes do, with all being right with the world, we read tensely, waiting for disaster to strike. It’s a story, after all. Disaster has to strike. Our lives can sometimes go along smoothly for days, months, years, but lives as they are lived don’t make good stories. A life can only become the material of a story when someone begins selecting, leaving out all the too-easy bits, perhaps, too, leaving out the joy.

No, I’m not advocating more happy endings to our stories. A story’s ending must reflect what a story means, dark or light. But I wonder, is there a way, while we’re dealing with struggle, while we are creating an emotional connection to our readers through strong negative emotions, to occasionally build in ten breaths for the savoring of joy?

It’s just a thought.