The Value in Not-So-Happy Endings

Everyone seems to love a happy ending. In fairy tales and princess stories, the narrator usually tells us the heroes lived “happily ever after”. The prince and the princess get married, all the characters learn an important life lesson, and any fights that happened between characters are resolved at the end.

For any book lover, there comes a day when they flip to the last page of a book, excited to find out how all the strings get tied neatly together, only to discover that this particular book does not have such a neat ending. This is never a pleasant discovery, but it is a necessary one. My first book of that type was The Tale of Despereaux. It is one of my favorite books, and it certainly doesn’t end horribly, but Kate DiCamillo herself tells the reader that it’s not necessarily a “happily ever after” ending, because those kind of endings don’t happen in “real life”.

Then there are the Tragic Books. These are the ones that take the reader’s heart, promising to take care of it, then throw it on the ground and stomp all over it. Spoiling a good book is never a good idea, so my first Tragic Book will remain nameless. My mother is the one who suggested I read it, so I did. The two main characters were lovable, and they played imagination games like the ones I played with my friends. Then the author went and killed one of the characters just when I thought everything was going perfectly well. I was furious at the author, but I didn’t know her personally so I had to resort to being furious at my mother instead. I refused to eat dinner and huddled under the blankets on the family room’s couch, sobbing my eyes out.

Reading books with endings like that don’t make you feel good. They make you feel sad, or frustrated, or angry. But that’s what is so good about them. Happiness isn’t the only emotion a person can feel. We also feel sadness, and frustration, and anger, and many other things. When I think back on the tragic book I was so angry about, I realize that it wasn’t really so tragic after all. It was upsetting for a beloved character to die, but the important thing was the reaction of the other character; the one who lived. He felt grief in his own way, and therefore I felt his grief too. When he later found a way to honor his friend’s memory, I felt the peace that he was able to come to. I felt betrayed by my mother and the author for making me feel “bad” feelings in the first place, but now I know that the author was trying to teach me how to let myself feel those feelings, and how to let them go.

If you haven’t yet read a book like this, you will some time in your future. Don’t shy away from the things it makes you feel. If you think it’s too much for you to handle, that is okay. Talk to an adult about the things you’re feeling, and if you still don’t know how to handle the emotions the book is throwing at you, set it down. You can pick it up later.

And, of course, there will always be Happily Ever After Books to read when you need them.