Hands up who’s making a New Year’s Resolution? Team member Julia Etheridge considers her choices.
Puffball skirts. Shoulder pads. Big hair. All fashion disasters I have thankfully put behind me. And every time I come to make resolutions, I am always firmly resolved to keep them there. But then… a new ridiculous style comes along, I spend months mocking the poor fashion-afflicted and then bang! Before you know it, I too am in skinny jeans, shoe boots and faux fur coat, desperately hoping no one will mistake me for some kind of aged lounge singer. Or Tulisa.
Musing on New Year promises has led me, like every teacher unable to stop focusing on work, to think of resolutions in terms of story endings – the course of action determined, the explanation, the solution. Unlike my fashion fright-nights, most stories seem to end happily. There is a section of the library where the novels seep gritty realism and faint disappointment, and wear their readers out with their relentless, grinding, pointless sadness. (Yes, I went through a phase of reading those books. I was wearing a lot of black at the time). But most please their audience with a satisfying, all-loose-ends-tied-up finale, so the books can be closed with a smile, a sigh and a happy customer.
Can the same be said for children’s books? When choosing a great story to share with a class at school, we think very carefully about the ending. We enjoy jolly-hockey-sticks series’ such as The Famous Five and Tilly’s Pony Tails with their relentless positivity, and highly satisfying they are too. We love a plucky character who faces adversity and overcomes great barriers to come out on top – think of Alex Rider, Harry Potter and Biggles. But choose a different type of outcome? Dark? The children might have nightmares. Sad? They may come out of school crying and then where would we be on Parents Evening? But are we too soft on the children? Should we always choose a happy ending?
Maybe Carol Ann Duffy thinks so, as she wrote a book called The Lost Happy Endings, about a magical girl who is guardian of all happy endings until they are stolen by a demonic witch, with the clearly very damp consequence of all the children in the land suffering nightmares and wetting the bed. Heaven forfend.
But some publishers firmly believe we don’t need a saccharine punchline, and will go to great lengths to convince us of this. In a ploy to market the decidedly downbeat Lemony Snicket books, the fictitious Happy Endings Foundation, (slogan ‘Sad Books Are Bad Books’), was created. With a quote from one parent worried over her daughter’s choice of books, (‘Reading Lemony Snicket was making her morose’), it endeavoured to celebrate the feel-good factor in a resolution, to the extent that in a blaze of publicity two gerbils called Gertrude and Lionel were given copies of A Series of Unfortunate Events to gnaw their way through, on a Gerbil-Cam. I am not making this up. The resultant outcry from a fooled public got people talking about their right to a tragic tale.
So are we missing a trick if we don’t include the sad and bad in our school Literary Spine? For centuries stories have included dark characters and strange happenings. G. K. Chesterton argued that parents should not stop telling fairy stories for fear of frightening their children. ‘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 the bogey.’
Reading stories with a sad, unexpected or tragic ending can support children in developing their understanding of the world and of how those in it react, and give them some sort of yardstick to measure themselves by. There is that magical moment in class when you finish the last line and hear silence. A pause, when the children consider the ending and where their feelings fall. A time to be stunned and breathless. Think of Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful and that final moment at dawn, Peter Pan when he gives up on Wendy, or the moment when the children in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights are torn from their daemons. A sad kind of magical moment, but magical all the same.
And key stage two doesn’t have the monopoly on this. Jeanne Willis‘ Tadpole’s Promise is a love story between a tadpole and a butterfly which, *spoiler alert*, ends shockingly badly for the butterfly. Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen has kind and thoughtful Rolf trying to emulate the big bad wolf. It doesn’t end well.
So as far as this resolution maker is concerned, this new year I make a promise to keep sharing the unexpected, the heartbreaking and the grotesque. You are never too young to learn from it. Can’t say the same about my fashion sense though.
If a twisted tale intrigues you, take a look at our Pinterest board for more ideas.