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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Death in children’s fiction

It features in many of the books that have dominated children’s bestseller lists over the past few years – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Maze Runner trilogies all contain it in abundance. But how much should death be present in children’s fiction? And is it OK that at times it is almost brushed over as we are so keen to move onto the next action point in the story?

Winston’s Wish, the childhood bereavement charity, recently released its findings that every 22 minutes a child in Britain is bereaved of a parent, which equates to 24,000 newly bereaved children each and every year. It’s a subject that is difficult to deal with for both the teachers and friends of the affected child, because bereavement is a subject that isn’t commonly spoken about between children.

I would argue that the inclusion of the death of a loved one in children’s books is therefore important, because, if nothing more, it demonstrates to a bereaved child that others have gone through similar emotions. At the same time it can help its peers to understand their situation and hopefully to react to it more appropriately.  

Certainly, books such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece both tackle loss in a poignant way, devoting a lot of attention to the changing nature of the protagonist’s emotions.

You then get into the tricky territory of books in which death is prevalent and the plot is so action-packed that there isn’t time to dwell on the emotions that it generates amongst those that remain. I completely understand why the authors have presented it in the way they have – the narrative wouldn’t work if you slowed it down to examine the grief that follows death. But I feel that it’s important to at least acknowledge it. James Dashner does this very effectively in the first book of the Maze Runner, in which the protagonist Thomas, continues to think about his friend Chuck, long after he has died.

But however well described the reaction to death, most narratives tell only a small part of the story. All too often, dying in fiction is connected with a sense of heroism or a desire for avengement, whilst in reality this is rarely the case, as grief takes over the lives of those closest to the person that has passed away. Of course, there’s no golden solution other than to encourage children to read widely and in doing so, engage with the subject from a range of very different angles.

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.”