Sunday, January 9, 2011

What's so great about happy endings?

If there’s one thing that bothers me more than a really sad ending, it’s a spoiler. Unfortunately, this blog entry’s going to contain a both; however, please bear with me I think it’s going to be worth it.

Just recently, Megan Messina Bostic, a delightful YA author I met via the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) posted a comment on her Facebook about happy endings in young adult novels. Her inspiration came from a post on the Young Adult section of the ABNA site from the mother of an eighth grader who was disturbed by a teacher who assigned a book with a very unhappy ending.

The book’s entitled “A Soldier’s Heart” by three-time Newberry award, ALAN award, and Margaret A Edwards award winning author Gary Paulson. The tale takes the shocker from my YA days, “The Red Badge of Courage” and goes quite a bit further.

Synopsis paraphrased: Charlie Goddard is fifteen when he enlists in the Union Army believing like many young idealistic men that war’s a great adventure. He quickly discovers the realities as his comrades are killed and he himself is left with lasting injuries. Like many others, he takes the battlefield home with him and is aged beyond his twenty years after the war. The book ends with Charlie taking his own life.

The Mom complaining wanted a happy or at least a hopeful ending. Real life isn’t like that. Soldiers go to war, they get hurt, they die – and many who cannot live with what they have seen and did take their own lives.

The teacher in question followed the reading of the book with a discussion. That’s an excellent idea for any book and particularly this one. I have several reasons for thinking so.

The issues in “A Soldier’s Heart” are very pertinent today. While the US doesn’t condone child soldiers, the practice happens in too many countries around the world.

In addition, far too many of our young men and women have come home from the recent conflicts damaged. PTSD and suicide are on the rise among their ranks. It’s possible that some of those young readers know a returned soldier undergoing this type of stress. Reading the book might help them understand.
Further, kids in eighth grade and younger are watching films and playing video games with just as strong a violent element. You doubt me, just look at some of the trailers for HALO or World of Warcraft. Reading the book will help them understand what the real effects of violence are.

Finally, teen suicide is also on the rise. What better way to illustrate the tragedy of suicide than to have the kids come to like a protagonist and have him take his own life? If it hurts to read about it in a book, how much more so in real life?

I’ll get back to the question Megan addressed. Does a YA novel have to have a happy or at best hopeful ending? I think they need to have REAL characters with REAL lives that engender REAL consequences.

Young adults are already facing a lot more trauma than we ever did. I grew up in the seventies with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. School violence was the occasional fight, knifing, or a brick thrown through the car window. The past has upped the ante on everything, especially violence. I've lost count of how many shootings have occurred in schools just this year. Literature can help prepare them for some of it. They’re looking for help, for characters who’re making similar journeys to their own, or perhaps ones they anticipate making.

What books do I remember from those years? George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984.” Fielding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and finally, “Go Ask Alice.” I took away lessons from each of these books that I will never forget.

I suspect in the years that come many of these students are going to be citing “A Soldier’s Heart” as one of the most memorable books they have ever read—and they’ll be remembering what they learned from the book as well.

Yes, I have "A Soldier's Heart" on order and I'll be reading and reviewing it in this space later on this year. If you're interested in reading the book, or seeing more reviews about it, here's the link:


  1. I ordered it too, Becky. I can't wait to read it because it sounds amazing.

    I totally agree, if we are writing contemporary fiction, realistic YA,not every ending can be a happy one.

    Kids face the hard realities of violence, addiction, loss, some will get through it unscathed, some will not.

    In the aftermath of a school shooting, what could possibly be happy.



    It's just a fact of life. Some endings leave us empty, but many of them are still stories that have to be told.

  2. Good points. The book can stand on its own, but I believe her point was that it was 8th graders reading it (13-14 years old) and that's what makes the discussion that took place so key. Kids might not join in about the true horrors of their lives, but at least they know it's okay to talk about it. They need to know that then, before it's too late.

    I taught in a classroom next to another woman for several years. She taught 2nd grade and one day went home from school and hanged herself. Another, the wife of my husband's friend and the mother of two little kids, hanged herself in her classroom.

    These talks need to happen. And yes, these books need to be written (and read).

  3. Some teachers/librarians make the argument that the kids in their classes have tough enough times in their "real lives" and need to read books with hopeful endings, so that they know the tough times don't have to end badly. What about the child who reads this and thinks, "Well, the guy in that book killed himself, so that's what I need to do. That solves everything." ? (PLEASE NOTE: I have not read the book. It may be that the author offers a counter-argument or offsets the negative ending in some way in the rest of the book.)

  4. I understand that point Scotti, which is one reason why I ordered the book. In the discussion we had, the mother never states if the book had a hopeful ending. But still, with all that has happened in Iraq, the child soldiers all over the world, I think even if this story has an unhappy ending, it's still a story that needed to be told to show the horrors of war.

    I think that's important because like the kids these days play their war video games where it's (war) glamorized. protag in the book thinks it's going to be fun and games and he's sadly mistaken and suffers for it.