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.
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.
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.
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!