On happy endings

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As a child, I had two favourite kinds of books: those that were funny and those that were sad but had happy endings. My favourite author until I was well into my teens was Jacqueline Wilson, who definitely fell into the second of these categories and I loved her for the gritty reality in which her characters lived. I remember progressing quite suddenly from Pippi Longstocking and Paddington Bear onto The Suitcase Kid and being under the distinct impression that I’d moved onto something that in a wonderful way was only semi-fiction.

In many ways the world that she wrote about was so close to real life that the backdrop wasn’t ‘fictional’ to me. I’ve often tried to pin down how she managed this and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the way that she portrays her characters’ emotions. In The Suitcase Kid, Andy spoke about her parents’ divorce, about feeling left out from her mum’s new family, about problems at school… Her life certainly improved towards the end of the book, but her parents didn’t magically get back together, and as such, there was no traditional happy ending.

Yesterday, Kevin Brooks was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal for The Bunker Diary, his fictional account of a boy who is kidnapped and held hostage in a bunker. He said: “There is a school of thought that no matter how dark or difficult a novel is, it should contain at least an element of hope. As readers, children – and teens in particular – don’t need to be cosseted with artificial hope that there will always be a happy ending. They want to be immersed in all aspects of life, not just the easy stuff.”

But what is most interesting is that Brooks also said that he felt he could have got his book published much earlier (It took ten years from when he first started) if he had changed the ending. The only reason why he didn’t was because he felt that it would have been dishonest. Jacqueline Wilson has frequently spoken about her initial difficulties in getting published back in the 1980s due to the difficult subject matter that she handled and the fact that her books didn’t have happy endings. In the three decades that have passed have things changed in this regard? What are your thoughts?

My favourite books without a happy ending:
– Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses
– Patrick Ness A Monster Calls
– John Boyne The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
– Jacqueline Wilson The Illustrated Mum
– John Green The Fault in our Stars

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Two sides to every story

I recently finished reading Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story – an incredible book about a boy from the Philippines who travels to the UK to join his family after many years waiting for a visa. Bernardo suffers from gigantism and all the burdens that the condition carries – painful joins, an inability to move at a normal pace, and fainting episodes (touchingly described as the earth falling on top of him).

The book has many marvellous qualities, but one thing that I thought Candy achieved particularly well was the interaction between the two narrators – Bernardo and Andi, his sister. Andi was brought up in the UK, has an English father, and in contrast to her brother, is very short.

In the chapters (written by interchanging narrators) we find out about both characters’ reaction to the same events, their thoughts on each other and their growing friendship. The narrative technique is exciting, as it leaves you desperate to find out what the other character thinks.

Rick Riordan also uses a  brother-sister pair to narrate his series, The Kane Chronicles which is centred on Egyptian mythology. Carter and Sadie sometimes have a difficult relationship and very different ideas of what is important, so their narrated chapters complement each other well. 

And Jacqueline Wilson, an ongoing favourite of mine, uses the dual narrative technique in Double Act, in which twins Ruby and Garnet take turns writing in a journal of their life. Although outwardly identical, they have entirely different personalities. Garnet is much quieter and shier than Ruby, which is highlighted visually through the much shorter length of her entries – she can only write these when given a chance by her bossy sister.

It’s tricky to do the dual narrative well, but inspired by these authors, I might just take on the challenge…

The struggle with ‘Once upon a…’

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The one piece of advice given by literary agents and publishers the world over is to have an opening paragraph that will hook your audience so much that they won’t be able to stop reading.

Speaking to other writers at SCBWI, I’ve heard that it’s this opening paragraph that causes the most headaches. It is repeatedly agonised over and reviewed, often rewritten tens if not hundreds of times.

With this in mind, I decided to take another look at some of the best opening paragraphs of children’s books to see whether there’s  some kind of alchemy – a mixture of suspense, challenge and intrigue perhaps, which makes children (and adults) want to dive straight in. The answer of course is no. They’re all gripping, and all entirely different. But there are elements from each that new writers should definitely learn from.

In Suitcase Kid Jacqueline Wilson lays the cards out on the table and tells the main characters’ problem from the outset:

“When my parents split, they didn’t know what to do with me. My mum wanted me to go and live with her. My dad wanted me to go and live with him. I didn’t want to live at my mum’s new place or my dad’s new place.”

David Almond does the opposite in Skellig, setting a mysterious scene which reveals little enough to keep you hooked:

“I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon. It was the day after we moved into Falconer Road. The winter was ending. Mum said we’d be moving just in time for spring. Nobody else was there. Just me.”

In Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men, there’s a sense of the reader standing on the verge of a big event:

“War,” says Major Prentiss, his eyes glinting. “At last.”

“Shut up,” I say, “There ain’t no at last about it. The only one who wants this is you.”

And then there’s the immediate comedy in Roald Dahl’s The Twits:

“What a lot of hairy-faced men there are nowadays. When a man grows hair all over his face it is impossible to tell what he really looks like. Perhaps that’s why he does it. He’d rather you didn’t know.”