Why is there a question about happy endings?

I was just at Transporting Tales, which was held yesterday on a very grey, windy, cold, wet day. It was rather nice to be snug in the Glen Eira Town hall talking about fairy tales! However, I will tell you about that later as I’m off this afternoon to give a paper on princesses at the Australian Children’s Literature Association Conference and I still have to check that all my slides are in order and… you know, get dressed so that I’m not delivering a paper in my pyjamas.

However, this is something close to my heart. Before I headed off to Transporting Tales, I saw a piece in the guardian, “Should children’s books have happy endings?” Seriously, I thought, that’s a question? Still? This has been a debate raging for a while in children’s literature and I find it particularly frustrating. Surely there is room for books with all kinds of endings? And what is so wrong with a happy ending, anyway? Sometimes things do work out. People achieve their dreams on the odd occasion. In the article, Robert Muchamore writes:

Happy endings necessitate a black-and-white world. But what is the mindset of a child who has grown up exposed only to goodies, baddies and happy endings? A hundred years ago, young men queued at recruitment offices to fight the evil Kaiser. Today, they watch online propaganda, switch fast-food uniforms for Kevlar and head for Iraq and Syria. After childhoods crammed with clear-cut villains and happy endings, is it any wonder they’re conditioned to believe in fighting for justice and that ultimate happy ending: the promise of eternal life?

I would profoundly disagree. Happy endings can occur in a world of greys as easily as an unhappy ending can occur in a world of black and white. Happy endings can provide hope and motivation to make positive change. They can also provide comfort. Meg Cabot wrote a wonderful blog post about this issue, in which she articulates how books about trauma and misery might be attractive to some teens, but as a teen herself, handling a number of serious issues, she wanted an escape from that and she found it in romance fiction with all its happy endings. I think the ‘fight for justice’ card is a little overplayed too – I’m not convinced that reading a book with a happy ending will prompt any teenager to sign up to the military. I’ve read a lot of books with happy endings and I can assure you, I myself have no desire to sign up. This goes beyond fiction and involves a great many political and social factors. Fiction can provide a possibility of the happy ending. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. And those happy endings aren’t all about eternal life or the ultimate justice – many happy endings are about finding a family, celebrating friendship, healing old wounds or simply discovering that the hero is going to be okay after all.

When I began my journey into children’s lit. scholarship, I read a lot of articles deriding novels like Pollyanna, but the thing to remember is that the heroine had to journey through grief, loss, despair, loneliness and disability before she could find her happy ending. There was a reason she had to play the ‘glad game.’ Don’t look at the happy ending and judge the book by it.




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