The Picky Reader: Unhappily Ever After
This month, I’d like to talk about that rare and controversial thing, the picture book with an unhappy ending.
At the beginning of each semester, my graduate students expect two things: that a picture book teaches a lesson and that it ends happily. They want children to learn from books and feel optimistic about the world. This assumption is so deeply held that they look at me like I’m crazy when I ask what might be gained from a picture book with a sad ending, or at least an ending that contains some ambiguity.
There are a couple of answers to this question. The unpopular one is that the world isn’t always a happy place, and to say that it is in books is a misrepresentation of reality. “But they’re just little kids!” my students cry. Keep in mind that childhood contains numerous moments of loss, such as the death of a pet. Children also strive for things unsuccessfully, like a spot on a team or a part in a play. Though we’d like them to be, children are not immune to adversity and feelings of sadness.
Moreover, encountering a story with an ambiguous ending is often delightful in its unexpectedness. As adults, we crave variation in our stories – why would children be different? (This argument is usually the easier sell with my students.)
I’d like to feature three recently published books with the same kind of ambiguous ending, one in which the main character dies. Edgy, right? I urge you to try them with your children and watch their reactions.
EGG DROP, Mini Grey. Knopf: 2009.
An egg wants to fly and climbs to a very tall tower. It jumps off and has a moment of bliss soaring through the air before the reader is told: “But the Egg was not flying. It was falling.” The egg winds up sunny side up on a breakfast plate, with a smile on its yolk face. It’s an unhappy ending that manages to feel bizarre and also warm and fuzzy.
THIS IS NOT MY HAT, Jon Klassen. Candlewick: 2012.
A little fish steals a big fish’s hat and tells us he’s convinced he’ll be able to hide in some tall, dense plants. We watch the big fish swim into the plants and return with the hat on his head. Our silenced hero has presumably been eaten, but his death is somehow both fitting and blackly humorous. This is Not My Hat won the 2013 Caldecott Medal.
BLUEBIRD, Bob Staake. Schwartz & Wade: 2013.
New this year, Bluebird is getting a lot of buzz. It is perhaps the truly saddest of the three books, as the bluebird, sole friend to a friendless boy, dies when a bully throws a stick at the boy and the bird flies in its path to defend him. The ending might be read as religious, or at least fantastical, as birds of different colors lift the boy into the sky to offer the dead bird up to the clouds/heavens. This powerful story assumes not only that children can handle loss but also that they are capable of appreciating that a sad ending is sometimes a beautiful thing.
Holding books for children to the highest standard, Elaine Dimopoulos teaches writing and children’s literature at Boston University, Simmons College, and Grub Street. Find her at http://www.elainedimopoulos.com.