Thursday, August 27, 2009

Article: Why children’s stories should have happy endings

Found this article at yesterday: Why children’s stories should have happy endings. This blog is mostly newsy in nature, but sometimes the opportunity arises for more thought or even discussion. You, dear readers, will decide that with your responses to this post, if there are any at all. This is my quick release of some festering thoughts of late, not well-organized and somewhat reactionary. That's my disclaimer. :)

First blockquote:

MODERN children’s stories rarely end with lashings of ginger ale and an assurance that everyone lived happily ever after.

The blue-skied Britain of Enid Blyton may bear little resemblance to modern Wales, but Welsh authors yesterday backed a call by former children’s laureate Anne Fine to balance realism with hope.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Ms Fine stunned an audience by suggesting that the backlash against children’s stories of the 1950s may have gone too far.

She said: “Books for children became much more concerned with realism, or what we see as realism.

“But where is the hope? How do we offer them hope within that?”

And her questions struck a chord with authors.

And, just to show that the article is even more pertinent to this fairy tales blog, it also offers this:

[The Rev Lionel Fanthorpe] said fiction should shine a “lantern of hope” into young lives and present “a hero who will be able to fight her way out” of crises, in the tradition of essayist and author GK Chesterton (1874-1936) who powerfully argued that parents should not stop telling fairy tales for fear of frightening their children.

Chesterton wrote: “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.

“The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon.”

(And please, the second page of the article almost ruins the tone and message of the first page which has some interesting points. The "revisions" of the famous tragic stories, well, miss the entire point of the first page and come across as condescending. Especially since some of the originals offer the exact hope the authors are mentioning. Charlotte's Web is hopeless? Not to me. Sad, yes, hopeless, I don't think so. Romeo and Juliet as children's literature? Not on my planet. On another side note: One of my early influences, Madeleine L'Engle, managed to write some of the earliest hard-hitting stories for YA long before it was the trend and still infuse the stories with the hope that is missing so often today.)

I have more of Chesterton's thoughts on Fairy Tales on SurLaLune. And for those of you who are unaware of Anne Fine, stateside she is best known for penning Mrs. Doubtfire although she has many gems that have been popular in the UK, just not here. I met her briefly at Simmons College years ago and she was one of the most grounded and perhaps even jaded children's authors I've met as her body of work also illustrates. She is not one to hide in fantasies although humor is one of her favorite tools of the trade. So when she says our children's literature needs more hope, she's not into simple wish-fulfillment.

And just to be balanced here's already a rebuttal article that disagrees with Anne Fine and company: Children can handle much more realism than Anne Fine thinks. Granted, I've not seen Fine's full speech but I interpreted her words as a call for hope even in the bleakest stories. It's all up to interpretation, really, as any author can tell you happens once her words are sent out into the world. We all bring our own experience to our interpretations. Overall, I want more hope in my reading.

Now I've said before--and most of the readers here are sitting in choir seats--that traditional fairy tales are not happy little tales served Splenda-sweet--or popular with many detractors, Disney-style--even if most offer the hope of a happy future once trials are overcome. The tales are dark, violent, gruesome, unfair and often horrendous right up to the end. Then the end is overcome and "happily ever after" is offered up. This can be just as much as a storytelling device ending as "Once upon a time..." is a beginning. But the tale also shows how the hero(ine) overcame great adversity with mixtures of cunning, kindness, virtue, perseverance, penitence, serendipity, luck and help from others. The final "happily ever after" comes from knowing that even future adversity can be overcome with variations of the same recipe. There is hope offered up with the ending. (Cardinal rule of storytelling: Leave them smiling.)

Or at least that's the way I see it.

All this and fairy tales still remain controversial for being too dark, too light, too violent, too happy, unrealistic, magical, unfeminist, etc. And then there are the ones who think fairy tales begin and end with the Disney versions and condemn those as fantastical wish-fulfillment. Yes, fairy tales can hit so many sore spots and then the next tale can soothe the same wound into healing. That's their beauty and their curse.

I prefer the happy endings, especially in times like these when economic and other woes have caused more stress and heartache of late than most years of my life have seen. This time, too, shall pass. And isn't it nice that we have several fairy tales entering the pop culture awareness again through film and other sources?

P.S. More food for thought: Romance appears to once again be recession proof for similar reasons. And I enjoyed Meg Cabot's defense of romance a few months ago on her blog which was another response to the articles about dark YA literature. Read her here: Romance, Trauma Porn, and Brazil Dates! She includes links to more articles so I'll refrain here.


  1. I don't mind sad elements in fairy tales or any other kind of story (except romance), provided that somehow, the writer is skillful enough to convey the joys of the human experience.
    Example, Little Women ends pretty happily, but geez, when Beth dies, it's pretty horrible. And to this day, when I think about the dog named Jack dying in the Little House series, I get so sad. And for heaven's sake, The Long Winter, in that series, is essentially a tale of starvation.
    In the classes I teach, my students spend a lot of time analyzing HCA's treatment of his heroines, like the Little Mermaid. The sad ending does not tend to upset my students too much, but then again, they are in college.

  2. The reason you haven't been able to see Anne Fine's full speech is that she did not say what was reported: she has spoken to the Teesdale Mercury, her local paper, and you should read their story here to mget the real scoop.

    Roger Cornwell (Anne's webmaster)

  3. what a wonderful and thought-provoking post.

    I think that many 'dark' stories have elements of hope in them. They don't have to be 'happily ever after' to contain hope - surely we don't wish to treat the kids that stupidly?

  4. I have many thoughts on this, but will try to be concise for the comment page...I think that the darkness of fairy tales is as important as the 'hope' message that eventually surfaces in most of them. I personally think that the outer landscapes or settings in these stories are mirrors for the twisty scary places in the human psyche, and that it's important to acknowledge that shadow side we all live with. And how we all work through it, or own it. Seeing how characters work through adversity teaches kids (and us) to think rather than just to react...also, it teaches that yes, the world is a scary place sometimes where horrible things happen *but* some element of good always survives, albeit changed, and that the process of transformation is part of the point. Otherwise, you end up with what I see too much of (I teach in a poor & rural district in upstate NY), by which I mean you see children--and adults--whose general response to adversity is alcohol/drugs, violence, and a general shutting-down. And this is already the reality for some of these kids by the time they enter first grade; based on what I know of some of their home lives, I hardly think that their reality is any harsher than any of the grimmest of the Grimm's. My own kids were quite young when their father got cancer, and when he died five years later they were still young. I told them once how this was just like a fairy tale--that cancer being the ogre that came and terrorized our village--but that despite that, and despite how much we lost, much good still remains.

  5. I am in complete agreement about that glimmmer of hope necessary in stories. The best stories know how to balance the light with the dark. Just think how tragic many beginnings of Roald Dahl books are. Yet they have such a sweet, sparkle of hope and magic.

    As a bookseller, I used to have customers looking for books for children and they would insist on stories with no sadness or trouble. I even had a woman return a book because the main character's parents were divorced. They could not understand that a story requires a problem and that more importantly books should show children overcoming challenges. This is why the Lemony Snicket books are so enjoyable for some readers.

    Anne's comments above about the make-up of fairytales are perfect and eloquent (I'm also a teacher.) Thank you for sharing.