“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles
After many hours of worry and rewriting, I finally finished the first draft of my middle reader novel, Sarah Finn. Much of the anxiety and editing involved in coming to that milestone regarded whether or not the book’s ending should be “happy.”
I had to stop and ask myself some questions.
- Should I “stop my story,” as Orson Welles suggested, at an earlier stage that could be deemed “happy” because most of the obstacles and challenges presented to my characters had been resolved?
- Do young people expect the books they are reading to conclude with a “happily ever after”?
- Is an ending that involves a sorrowful situation really a negative if it is based in reality and offers hope?
After posing these questions to myself, I considered the stories presented in some of my favorite children’s books: Old Yeller, Tuck Everlasting, and Bridge to Terabithia. None of those wonderful books were sugar-coated, prince-saves-the-princess fairy tales. Their themes involved great sorrow. But, they also offered the reader great hope. In fact, Katherine Patterson, the author of Bridge to Terabithia, wrote an essay for the New York Times in 1988 about sad endings in children’s books entitled, “Hope Is More Than Happiness.” She wrote the piece after a child asked why her novels did not have “happy endings.” Her essay may be found online at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/06/books/review/revisiting-katherine-paterson-on-happy-endings-in-childrens-books.html.
Patterson theorized that to offer her young readers anything less than a realistic vision of life would diminish their own challenges and struggles. It would trivialize the pain felt by her characters and, thus, the pain a young reader may also be experiencing. But, beyond that reality – that sad ending – Patterson professed to provide something more than a mere “happily ever after.” Her stories offer hope and, as the title of her essay states, that “hope” is more than happiness.
With the words of Katherine Patterson in mind, I went back to answer the three questions I posed to myself. First of all, I decided not to “stop my story” at the point in which much of the conflict was resolved. My novel’s ending will not be a traditionally happy one. That led me to my second question regarding the expectations of young readers as to a book’s ending. There are just too many books loved by too many children that include sad themes to believe children always want a “happy ending.” Some may want that from the stories they read, but many others want to feel what they read relates to their own lives with all its ups and downs. Perhaps, seeing how the book’s characters deal with similar issues will help readers with their own struggles. Finally, I could answer the third question with an emphatic “no.” I believe a story that ends in a sorrowful circumstance should not be deemed “negative” if there is an offering of hope – to both the book’s characters and its readers.
Sarah Finn is a novel of historic fiction that takes place in 1963 rural Oklahoma amidst the civil rights movement of that time. But, it is also framed in the Christian optimism and inspiration of Cathryn, the eleven year old girl who is its main character. So, when death comes to some of the people in Cathryn’s life, she does not see only the sorrow in their passing. She sees the hope of eternal life in heaven that her Bible promises.
An ending that involves a death may not be a traditionally happy one, but I believe it is one that will give Sarah Finn’s readers the “hope beyond happiness” Katherine Patterson suggests.
by PortiaLily Taylor
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