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.

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!


They’re the Great Pumpkins, Charlie Brown

I like Halloween just fine, but since our daughters stopped trick-or-treating ten or more years ago, I don’t go all out for it. I don’t care to wear a costume and haven’t carved a pumpkin in years (our front porch now sports a plastic plug-in jack-o-lantern from Target). But when I saw online posts about decorating pumpkins like story characters, well, my interest in Halloween became renewed.

Pongo, Fancy Nancy, Harry Potter, and Wesley the Owl. All very cute!
Pongo, Fancy Nancy, Harry Potter, and Wesley the Owl. All very cute!

So the flyers advertising our Inaugural Story Character Pumpkin Decorating Contest went home in early in October. I’d talk up the contest to my classes but didn’t get much feedback, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the first of three pumpkin turn-in days rolled around on October 21, but I was excited to get to school and meet my volunteers for the 7:30 a.m. drop-off.

Lots of Cat in the Hat, and a little Notebook of Doom.
Lots of Cat in the Hat, and a little Notebook of Doom.

We got four pumpkins. Four. I was feeling kinda Charlie-Brownish.

I was pretty sure it was going to be a flop. Four pumpkins. We didn’t even get enough to have one for each of the five categories. But then I had six classes that day and many of the students were very interested in the four pumpkins.

During Thursday’s drop-off, about 12 more pumpkins arrived. That day, six more classes had library and the feedback was very enthusiastic. By the end of Friday’s drop off frenzy, our total number of entries was 41. 41! That’s about 10% participation. For a first-time event, that was amazing.

Very Hungry Caterpillar and Imogene (from Imogene's Antlers) are from primary grade students; Timmy Failure (bottom left) is a family entry.
Very Hungry Caterpillar and Imogene (from Imogene’s Antlers) are from primary grade students; Timmy Failure (bottom left) is a family entry.

We had judging and prizes for first place in five categories (primary grades, intermediate grades, middle school grades, family, and teachers & staff), as well as runners-up. But receiving gift cards wasn’t the purpose of the event. The purpose was to have family fun, be creative, and celebrate reading. Everybody did that, so everybody won. I even discovered a couple of books that I want to get my hands on, thanks to some of the entries.

The remainder of this post features more pictures of the creative, fun, amazing entries. Enjoy and be inspired! Until next time, keep reading!

Our middle school entries. Some wonderful creativity!
Our middle school entries. Some wonderful creativity!
Top picture has entries from grades K, 1, and 2; bottom picture is from the family category.
Top picture has entries from grades K, 1, and 2; bottom picture is from the family category.
Top picture, primary grade category. Bottom, intermediate.
Top picture, primary grade category. Bottom, intermediate.
From students in grades pre-k through 2.
From students in grades pre-k through 2.
Some teachers and staff got in on the fun.
Some teachers and staff got in on the fun.
From students in grades 3 through 5.
From students in grades 3 through 5.
And the winners are... Primary -- Crumpet from Too Hot to Hug; Family -- The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Intermediate -- David from No, David! Middle School -- Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Teachers & Staff -- Charlotte and Wilbur from Charlotte's Web.
And the winners are…
Primary — Crumpet from Too Hot to Hug; Family — The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Intermediate — David from No, David!; Middle School — Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; Teachers & Staff — Charlotte and Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Read

Beware! Scary books are everywhere!
Beware! Scary books are everywhere!

Whether you prefer your Halloween creepy or cute, there are books out there for you and your children to enjoy this time of year. Here are some suggestions for a variety of readers. Not all are Halloween stories but they fit the theme. Any age ranges are guidelines. You know what your children can handle better than authors, publishers, or well-meaning bloggers.

For the Littlest Pumpkins (infant-age 3)

Discerning babies know the best books.
Discerning babies know the best books.

A new favorite I came across at our recent Scholastic Book Fair is a fun little board book entitled Boo! A Book of Spooky Surprises by Jonathan Litton and Fhinoa Galloway. It’s part of the My Little World board book series. The combination of colorful illustrations and rhyming text is perfect for little story lovers.

Mouse’s First Halloween by Lauren Thompson is a sweet little board book that takes Halloween symbols and turns them from frightful to delightful. Adorable illustrations in warm colors and text that rhymes and uses onomatopoeias make for a comforting story.

The Halloween title in Roger Priddy’s Bright Baby Touch & Feel books is the delightfully interactive Spooky. If you aren’t familiar with this series, think of this title as a sort of Pat the Bunny for Halloween. It has big, bright pictures of familiar Halloween symbols, a variety of textures to go along with each, and simple vocabulary.

Treats for Readers Aged 4-8

Counting down to Halloween has never been so much fun.
Counting down to Halloween has never been so much fun.

Gus Vasilovich’s The 13 Nights of Halloween is a favored read-aloud among our youngest library patrons. It’s a clever countdown to Halloween night (think The Twelve Days of Christmas). Even someone who can’t carry a tune with a handle (that’d be me) will sing along to the witty little ditty with a roomful of second-graders. The vibrant illustrations brilliantly combine cute and creepy. This book gets checked out of our library long past Halloween.

You know Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame would have a Halloween winner. Specifically, The Hallo-Wiener. It’s a super-fun read aloud that features a picked-on dachshund named Oscar who becomes a hero when he saves trick-or-treat for his doggy peers (the same ones who were picking on him!). The book’s positive message is delivered subtly and humorously. And it’s fun to do a Julia Child voice while reading as Oscar’s mother.

For the kid who wants facts with their Halloween fun, there’s J is for Jack-O’-Lantern: A Halloween Alphabet by Denise Brennan-Nelson. This is one of many alphabet books from Sleeping Bear Press that entertains as it educates. From autumn to zany, young readers learn about Halloween symbols, traditions, and facts. There are even recipes for hot apple cider, witch’s brew, and other treats that would be perfect for your Halloween party.

Tricks for Readers Aged 9-12

Originally published in 1968, The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase has a slightly different writing style and vocabulary than today’s middle-graders are accustomed to reading. Encourage them to read it anyway. It’s neither screamingly scary, nor gross-out gory. It’s subtly creepy, which is good for kids who want an itty bitty fright but don’t like to be terrified by their books. A nasty and mean girl named Maureen (now she’d be characterized as a bully) meets her match in the seven ghostly Messerman sisters who inhabit a dilapidated old mansion. But is it enough of a match to make the supremely stubborn Maureen change her ways? Read it and see.

Three books for middle-grade readers who love a slight fright.
Three books for middle-grade readers who love a slight fright.

Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, is a master of the fantasy genre. That expert touch is used perfectly in the light horror of The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns. This collection of six short stories will have you leaving all the lights on. Those not frightened by what lurks in the dark can turn them off and use a flashlight to get the full effect. Jacques, an Englishman, deftly employs British vernacular which may take some getting used to for middle-grade readers unfamiliar with that dialect. Parents (or grandparents) who have enjoyed years of Monty Python can shine during read aloud time.

Neil Gaiman can terrify and entertain readers of any age. In Coraline, the eponymous protagonist is a bored little girl who stumbles into a ghastly world. That’s frightening enough. But when that hair-raising realm invades Coraline’s real world, the creepiness factor increases exponentially. Dave McKean’s eerie illustrations lend an even more sinister air to the story. Don’t make the mistake of passing up this book because your kids have seen the movie. The movie does not do this story justice. I know librarians always say that. As usual, it’s the truth.

Teen Screams (ages 12-15)

Eve Bunting’s many children’s books are well-known, but she also has an impressive list of Young Adult titles to her credit. Among them is The Presence: A Ghost Story. Though set during Christmastime, it’s a great YA ghost story. It has a lot of what readers this age are looking for – mystery, tragedy, the supernatural, romance, and suspense. Bunting’s ghost is that of a handsome young man who lures teenage girls to their doom, and he’s chosen a new victim. As an aside, Bunting’s latest YA suspense novel, Forbidden, will be published on December 1.

These books are great if you're ready for something a bit more frightening.
These books are great if you’re ready for something a bit more frightening.

Cirque du Freak #1: A Living Nightmare by Darren Shan was at the peak of its popularity during the recent vampire lit obsession. We’ve moved past vampires and this series has, unfortunately, gone by the wayside. This is a ghastly introduction to the 12-book Cirque du Freak series. At the height the series’ popularity, I asked an eighth-grader why he liked it. While he enjoyed the scary stuff, he said what he liked best was the good vs. evil theme. It’s a good bridge from Goosebumps to Stephen King for readers who like some gore with their fright.

You can’t be a Marylander recommending scary stories and not include Edgar Allan Poe. For this age group to get a taste of the great and disturbed genius that is Poe, try Stories for Young People: Edgar Allan Poe edited by Andrew Delbanco.  It features five of Poe’s most iconic tales – “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Oval Portrait.” The Stories for Young People series makes classic, unabridged literature accessible to students who might otherwise bypass it. With vocabulary and analysis provided for each tale, young readers can read and understand Poe’s genius. And have nightmares after the fact.

Here’s hoping you find something frighteningly fun to read this Halloween. Until next time, keep reading!

Picture This: 5 Classic Picture Books Every Child Needs to Know

One of life’s greatest pleasures is a beautiful picture book. That’s especially true when it’s the kind that can be enjoyed by children and grownups alike. Novels are great for losing yourself in words and ideas. But there’s something about combining words and ideas with gorgeous or unique illustrations that makes the picture book experience extra special.

Of all the things I love about my job as an elementary/middle school librarian, a particular favorite is that I have the opportunity to share new picture books with my young students, along with discovering new authors and illustrators. With so many wonderful books to choose from, it’s easy for the older ones to get pushed aside and forgotten. That is a mistake. It’s our duty as parents and teachers to make sure those classics don’t end up on the ash heap of picture book history.

In this post, I’m going to share with you some of those classic picture books that should stay in our read-aloud rotations and find a place on our family bookshelves. There are so many of them, one post won’t do it (I feel another continuing topic coming on). The five covered here have publication dates spanning from 1932-1963, which means all of them are older than me. This bit of information, by the way, usually causes gasps of amazement among my little story time friends.

  1. Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932). This is not the book for which Marjorie Flack is best known (think The Story About Ping or any of the Angus books featuring a playful little terrier). In this story, a little boy named Danny is looking for a birthday gift for his mother, a very wholesome picture book theme.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.
    The wonderfully bright Ask Mr. Bear.

    His search takes him from one talking animal to another until he gets to Mr. Bear, who gives him the best idea of all. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Danny ends up with the simplest and best gift. It’s a sweet and very relatable story, with a subtle anti-materialism message. The book’s illustrations really stand out because of the bright colors. Many of the picture books from this era contain illustrations in more muted tones. This one uses bright pinks, greens, and yellows that really catch the eye.

  2. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, illustrations by Robert Lawson (1936). Probably one of the best stories ever written that basically tells children “just do you.”
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.
    Ferdinand, being Ferdinand. Perfect.

    Big, strong Ferdinand the bull had no desire to be like all his peers and head butt his way to the great bull fighting rings of the big city. He’s the original stop-and-smell-the-flowers character. There’s a lot of political analysis that’s been done regarding this story that I won’t get into here. Just suffice to say that if Adolf Hitler hated it and Mahatma Gandhi loved it, it must be awesome. Leaf’s clever words and Lawson’s beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations combine for a charming tale.

  3. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrations by Clement Hurd (1947). I probably don’t have to convince anyone that children need to know Goodnight Moon. This is the quintessential picture book.
    “In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon…”

    Whether in paperback, board book, or hardcover, you’ve probably owned a copy at some point in your life. The sweet illustrations, the depiction of a bedtime routine, and the soothing rhythm of the words make it a perfect bedtime story for the very young. This is one that you’ve probably read so many times you know it by heart and you secretly find that it soothes you as much as it does most children. Like most enduring books, there’s so much more to this one than meets the eye.

  4. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962). What child doesn’t love a snowy day? All that bright, white frozen fluff to run and tumble in, sled on, and roll into a snowman, along with the promise of an unexpected holiday from school! The cover itself is suitable for framing.
    Children love to wake up in Peter's world.
    Children love to wake up in Peter’s world.

    The brightly colored illustrations bring to life every child’s exuberance that bubbles up when they look out the window and see a fresh, clean, snow-covered world. They want to put on snow boots and join Peter, the imaginative little boy whose feet go through the snow with “…his toes pointing out, like this…pointing in, like that.” This picture book is more than a delightful story with brilliant illustrations. More than 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine for those who didn’t live through the heart of the Civil Rights Era that The Snowy Day was also a picture book torchbearer, being “the very first full-color picture book to feature a small black hero” ( Peter is an every-child who most children can relate to. God bless Ezra Jack Keats for bringing us Peter in this and subsequent books, and for finally opening a door to children’s literature that is hard to believe was previously closed.

  5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963). If I’d have written this post more than four months ago, I would have put Where the Wild Things Are in the same category as Goodnight Moon – a book everyone knows and loves. However, while doing a classroom activity with my seventh-graders I was dismayed to find out that this Maurice Sendak classic may not be as widely known as it should be anymore. Many of those 12- and 13-year-old students were only familiar with Spike Jonze’s 2009 film version. I wanted to cry. But like any librarian in this predicament, I stopped the activity, got our copy of this timeless treasure, and read it to them. I did the appropriate voices and shared the beautifully bizarre illustrations. Such a wonderful story of reassurance can’t be allowed to go by the wayside.
    All children need to know they're loved, even after a wild rumpus.
    All children need to know they’re loved, even after a wild rumpus.

    All children need to know that no matter how “wild” they may be, they will always have a place where they are loved. And that supper will be waiting for them, and it will still be hot. And if that previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you, then you need to stop what you’re doing and read Where the Wild Things Are.

I hope this list gives you some titles to look for the next time you’re browsing your local bookstore or perusing the stacks at your public library. If you have special memories of any of these titles, please share them in the comments section.

Until next time, keep reading!