If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
– Orson WellesThere are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.– Shel SilversteinI don’t think a happy ending should be one of the requirements of a children’s book. Kids want their books to reflect reality. They know that the bully doesn’t always get his comeuppance in the end.– Robert Cormier
CASE STUDY: THE ENDING OF BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA
At the end of this story, Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess’s father helps him accept Leslie’s death and convinces him that it’s not his fault and to hold onto Leslie’s friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.
Quite a few critics have objected to the fact that Katherine Paterson’s novels do not offer young readers any hope. Paterson has refuted criticism by saying that “there is no way that we can tack [hope] on to the end of the story like pinning the tail on the donkey.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
Do children require happy endings?
[Alan Garner] states that a writer must not offer readers solutions or happy endings, but instead make use of something he calls “the method of the open hand” where readers must discover for themselves what the writer has to show. It was the publishers who requested that The Moon of Gomrath (1963) be given a “happy” ending instead of an open and disturbing one.
– from Children’s Literature Comes Of Age by Maria Nikolajeva
I do not necessarily claim that young readers need happy endings. Rather, they are conditioned to see conventional endings, which in our Western tradition happens to be a happy ending, reestablishing the characters in their power position.
– The Rhetoric of Children’s Character by Maria Nikolajeva
Death by Newbery Medal: A Phenomenon
There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more “special” than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.All this is generally accompanied by lots of “end of the innocence” angsting from the main character, along the lines of “That was the day my childhood ended…” Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.
– TV Tropes
Fairytales, Weddings & New Relationships
The “happy endings” of Hollywood films link them with the world of fairy tales, which are often about the achievement of perfection. Fairy tales frequently end with a statement of perfection, like “and they lived happily ever after”. Fairy tales bring the shattered family back into balance, back to completion.
Weddings are a popular way to end stories. Marriage is a new beginning, the end of an old life of being single and the beginning of a new life as part of a new unit. New beginnings are perfect and unspoiled in their ideal form.
Striking up a new relationship is another way to show a new beginning at the end of a story. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart makes the difficult Resurrection sacrifice, giving up the chance to be with the woman he loves. His reward, the Elixir he brings away from the experience, is his new alliance with Claude Rains. As he says, in one of the most famous tag lines in the history of the movies, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
– The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Endings of Carnivalesque Stories
In a carnivalesque story, the lowest in societal hierarchy — in the medieval carnival a fool, in children’s books a child — is allowed to change places with the highest: a king, or an adult, and to become strong, rich, and brave, to perform heroic deeds, to have power. However, the very idea of carnival presupposes a temporal limitation. The child, who has been allowed to leave the security of home and experience breath-taking adventures, is taken back, and the established order is restored. This is what we sometimes call a happy ending. As Pat Pinsent demonstrates, excessive “coincidences” in children’s fiction, which sometimes irritate mimetically minded critics, should not be considered artistic flaws since they are part of this restoration of the initial order.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature
(In general, though, coincidences are okay at the beginning of a novel but not as a way of tying up the end.)
Do Unhappy Endings In Children’s Stories Endure?
We love heroes and heroines from Peter Rabbit to Harry Potter because we know that no matter how bad things get, they will return stronger and happier through what they’ve learnt, and that their experiences will enable them to restore justice. Every work of fiction that we take to our hearts, up to and including Jane Eyre, The Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice, follows this template. A great work of tragic fiction brings about catharsis, but on the whole, we need the consolations of children’s fiction far more.
Not every classic has what you might call a conventional happy ending: the boy in Roald Dahl’s The Witches gets turned into a mouse, and never returns; at the finale of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Will and Lyra must be parted for ever; the hero of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas chooses to die in the gas chambers with his imprisoned friend. Though all have been made into successful films, my guess is that none of these novels will continue to be read with enthusiasm by future generations because of the way they end.