Sometimes Endings Aren’t Happy

And they all lived happily ever after. Everyone loves a story that ends that way. But what about the stories that don’t? Can we love a story that doesn’t have a happy ending?

Yes, we can. We should at least try. Books can provide a wonderful means of escape, but we shouldn’t live on a steady diet of that type of reading. We need books for escape, but also to challenge us or to get us to face reality. Some of the stories that do that the best are those without happy endings. One such story is Emil Sher’s YA novel Young Man with Camera.

young man with camera cover

The reality of bullying is a big part of Young Man with Camera.

I want you (yes, you!) to read Young Man with Camera, so I’ll try to not give away too much. It gives a very realistic picture of the worst kinds of bullying. The protagonist is drowning in circumstances not of his making, but doesn’t grab the life preserver in front of him. As an adult long removed from situations like those in the story (and thankfully never involved in anything as intense), I wanted him to react like an adult. But he’s an adolescent and reacts like one. Mr. Sher’s characters are complex, just like real kids. And just like real kids, they don’t always make the best decisions. But the decisions they make can sometimes be explained by their life experience and what they’re dealing with.

I don’t want to give the impression that the ending is one of hopelessness and despair. While giving a more realistic picture of bullying than most adults are probably comfortable with, it allows its intended audience to see a glimmer of hope at the very end of the book. And when I say see, I mean it literally. The story is told in both powerful words and photographs. I encourage you to read a Q and A with Mr. Sher by children’s publishing powerhouse Scholastic, Inc.

outsiders cover
It’s a heartbreaking story, and that’s okay.

The closest thing I can remember reading in my youth with a similar ending is S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I’ve expounded before on my fascination with that book. The class/clique conflict grabbed my 13-year-old heart and wouldn’t let go. It’s the first book I can remember reading where characters who came close to being like kids in my school and my neighborhood didn’t get a happily-ever-after ending. I was in tears by the time Johnny said, “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.” It was perfect. I’d read Romeo and Juliet and other tragedies in Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, but those settings and characters were so far removed from my late-1970s life as to not have nearly the impact of Cherry and Dally (not a perfect analogy, but you get it if you read it).

Not-happy-endings aren’t confined to YA novels, nor should they be. I don’t suggest you sit little ones down in front of cable news so they can see what the world is like. But it’s not a bad thing if they get a little peek of reality now and then through story books. That’s especially true when a loving, trusted adult is there to help them work through what they read or hear in the book. These books don’t usually just plop down a sad ending and leave it there. Rather, they give their little readers a picture (literally and/or figuratively) of some of life’s disappointments, often with coping tools built in to the story.

YearJungle-Cover
Children can benefit from realism in storybooks.

An excellent book for this is Suzanne Collins’ (yes, she of Hunger Games brilliance) The Year of the Jungle. It’s a poignant autobiographical story about life for little Suzy while Daddy is in Vietnam during the war. Through brilliant storytelling and illustrations, you get a sense of the concern and confusion that fills the heart and mind of a child in this situation, including when Daddy returns home but is not quite the same. I’ve shared this story with my second-graders for the past couple of years. We have a lot of military families at school so I was interested to see how the story would be received by my young audience. Every time I’ve read it, the response has been positive. They ask a lot of questions and make insightful comments.

Don’t be afraid of a character who doesn’t live happily ever after. Go with them on their journey. Share their heartache, get mad, cry – whatever the story moves you to do. If it at least makes you think or at most makes you confront an issue, you’ll be better off for it. You can always comfort yourself with some fun escapism afterward.

Until next time, keep reading!

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Author Crush Part 2 – Keeping Your Gidwitz About You

Book Nerd Truth
Book Nerd Truth
The only thing better than a long-awaited new book is a long-awaited new book by one of your favorite authors. Adam Gidwitz is the author. The book is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – So You Want to Be a Jedi? It’s part of a trilogy by three terrific authors (Gidwitz, Alexandra Bracken, and Tom Angleberger). I just finished the book yesterday (yes, I read it out of sequence). I read the book not as a Star Wars fan (I like the original Star Wars trilogy just fine, but I’m not an aficionado), but as an Adam Gidwitz fan. Now I want to read the other two books. The book was that good and the author is that talented.

I was introduced to Gidwitz’s debut novel, A Tale Dark & Grimm, in March 2011 when I read it for a freelance job I had writing teacher’s guides for audiobooks. Over about 18 years, I probably read somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 books for that job. This was one of my all-time favorites. It was as if I’d discovered gold. I told my then-seventh graders about it. They asked me to read it to them, which I did when they were in eighth grade. It was a hit, always in circulation, and had excellent word-of-mouth reviews by middle schoolers. There aren’t a lot of books that enjoy that kind of widespread popularity across that 11-14 age group.

If you aren’t familiar with it, A Tale Dark & Grimm features Hansel and Gretel wending their way through some of the Brothers Grimm lesser-known tales. And Gidwitz tells it like it was, with all the grim gore these stories originally possessed. Jacob and Wilhelm would be pleased. No one in these stories is whistling while they work. This book is gruesome and frightening, which kids kind of like (whether their parents like it or not). But you know what else it is? It’s funny. Something that sets this book (and Gidwitz’s subsequent novels, In a Glass Grimmly and The Grimm Conclusion) apart from scare-me books that kids enjoy is humor. Gidwitz’s narration interjects witty warnings and asides throughout the chapters, just when they’re needed to ease the tension.

Gidwitz has a quality that all children’s book authors need, but not all of them have. He understands kids. He knows what entertains and interests them. He can get them to think about right and wrong without being Mr. GrownUpPreachy. He speaks to them, not at them. He’s a traditional storyteller with a modern-day twist.

Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of about 100 middle schoolers.
Gidwitz, working his story-telling magic on an audience of approximately 100 students.
We were fortunate enough to have Gidwitz visit our students not once, but twice. Both visits were successful beyond my expectations.There aren’t a lot of people who can hold 100 students in grades 5 through 8 in rapt attention for an hour, but he can and did. As part of his second visit, we were able to have 25 students attend an after-school writing workshop with him. It was an amazing opportunity and I still have parents and students asking when we’re going to do it again.

Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
Gidwitz took the time to work one-on-one with our aspiring writers during an after-school writing workshop.
It’s hard to pinpoint the best things to come out of those visits and the popularity of the Tale Dark & Grimm series among our students. The best I can do is narrow it down to two. The new interest in/appreciation for the fairy tale genre and the number of students who expressed an interest in someday being authors were possibly the greatest outcomes. A strictly personal third fantastic outcome was a job for my eldest daughter, but that’s a long story for a different type of blog.

In July 2014 I happened upon this YouTube video from Disney Publishing WorldWide announcing the upcoming Star Wars books. It was great to see Gidwitz included among a cadre of accomplished children’s book authors who would take on the project (note: the slate of authors changed from the time this video was produced). While, as stated earlier, I’m not a Star Wars mega-fan, the original Star Wars trilogy is iconic for my generation. I remember my workaholic dad taking the day off to take all five of us kids (ages 14 to 5) to see the first film, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, during the week that it opened. We kids knew it was a big deal. Not only did Dad take a day off, but he was taking us to the movies – he almost never went to the movies – and without Mom along to help him. So I eagerly awaited the publication of this new book. While the Star Wars franchise has many fairy tale elements, I was very interested in how Gidwitz would interpret Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I've read them?
My dilemma is do I put them out for the students now or make them wait until I’ve read them? P.S. I love the cover art!
It’s terrific. In this novel, Adam Gidwitz does what he does best. He gets the reader immersed in the story. You are Luke Skywalker. You are training to be a Jedi. You have to save your dearest friends and battle your greatest foe. I thoroughly enjoyed it. What is really unique, really gives it an inimitable twist, are the 24 Jedi lessons interspersed throughout the book. As I read each one, I thought how much fun they would be as class activities and how much excitement they would add to the read aloud experience. Now I really want Gidwitz to come back to our school and teach our students how to be Jedi.

Until next time, keep reading!

The Good Fight: 8 Ways to Get Middle Schoolers to Read

Quizzical Look

Middle schoolers. I love them. They can be a jumble of hormones, feelings, doubts, defiance, humor, ambivalence, aloofness, and questions. Little by little they’re leaving behind childhood for the teenage years. The late Sister Helene Fee, IHM, was principal of our school for many years and encountered more than her share of middle schoolers. She used to hand out to their parents a wonderful little essay called “The Cat Years” during the back-to-school meeting in August. It sums up what those parents were about to experience.

I see a version of “The Cat Years” in our library. Students who couldn’t wait to check out a book from pre-kindergarten all the way through fifth grade now come to the library and look at me like I’m insane when I suggest they use silent reading time for silent reading.

Quizzical Look
You want us to read? In the library?

I’m not talking about children who have learning differences that make reading difficult. That’s a much more complex topic. I’m talking about those who read with little or no difficulty but who have lost their interest in reading. For parents and teachers, getting those 11- to 14-year-olds to read can be a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting. It doesn’t have to be all-out war.  Here’s what we can do to give ourselves an edge in the battle.

  1. Take away the no-time excuse. This one is probably the most prevalent and yet the easiest to fix. Everyone has 20 minutes to read most days of the week. If a middle schooler can’t eke out that kind of time, perhaps parent and child need to sit down and see where their time is being spent and what can be juggled or cut out.
  2. Eliminate distractions. Most people (myself included) have nearly uninterrupted access to electronic distractions. We can watch TV pretty much anywhere at any time. That goes for playing video games and browsing social media. If this is the culprit robbing your child of reading time and attention, consider placing limits. You might be the bad guy temporarily, but it’s for a good cause.
  3. Provide access to reading material. You needn’t break the bank buying books. Public and school libraries can be your best friend. Make a date to browse the stacks for favorite topics, genres, and authors. Too busy to browse? Let your child spend a little time at home on your public library’s online catalog and make a list of titles, authors, and call numbers so you can get in and out quickly. Or, check a list of recommended titles like those you can find on Goodreads.com.
  4. Give the adolescent people what they want. I seldom ask students of this age “What do you like to read?” The answer will often be a stonewalling “Nothing.” Instead, I ask them about hobbies and interests, likes and dislikes. With that information and a catalog search, we usually find a winner. Once you have that, pile on.
    A great series can be the answer for middle-school readers.
    A great series can be the answer for middle-school readers.

    If they like graphic novels, find as many as you can. Sports? Mike Lupica might become their go-to author. Video gamers might like a fiction series with dystopian themes like The Giver, The Hunger Games, Legend, Fever Crumb, or Shadow Children.

  5. Make reading socially acceptable. Lots of kids this age don’t want to be seen as uncool and sometimes (to my amazement) reading gets tagged as uncool. It doesn’t have to be that way. Try adding a social aspect to make reading more appealing. Get together with other middle-schoolers and their parents for occasional book swaps, or start a book club. It can be as infrequently as monthly or quarterly. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are tried-and-true ways to make this happen.
  6. Share the books you loved at that age. I am thrilled beyond words that our three copies of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders have been in almost constant circulation since last spring. I told some sixth-graders that when I was in junior high (the prehistoric version of middle school), I holed up in my bedroom and read that book in one day, and then cried my seventh-grade eyes out. That got the ball rolling. Now it’s making the round with eighth-graders. I’m trying to get them to read Betsy Byars’ The Summer of the Swans, but the dated cover makes it a harder sell.
  7. Read together. Try to find the lovable puppy hiding beneath the surface of that aloof cat. I know this is something I beat into the ground. It’s been in past posts, and will be in future ones. Believe it or not, they want to be read to. I have proof.
    Your middle-school child might just be okay with being read to.
    Your middle-school child might just be okay with being read to. These seventh-graders are.

    For a back-to-library assignment, one of the things I asked my seventh- and eighth-graders to do was to write what they would like us to do during library time this year. I was pleasantly surprised that many students said they wanted me to read to them.

  8. Communicate and investigate. Talk to teachers, librarians, and other parents of middle schoolers to see what has worked for them. Investigate blogs and articles. If you’re having this issue, you know many other parents have faced the same problem. Kids continue to read so someone somewhere is having success.

I love a good quote about reading. Even more so when it’s from a great author like Kate DiCamillo who said, “Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty.  It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” And what parent would miss the opportunity to give such a gift?

Until next time, keep reading!