Revisiting Katherine Paterson on Happy Endings in Children’s Books

In 1988, Katherine Paterson wrote in the Book Review that children need not only the happily-ever-after of fairy tales, but also “proper endings” in which “hope is a yearning, rooted in reality.”

Not long ago a child asked me, “Why are your endings all so sad?” The question threw me a bit. I know sad things happen in my books, but I certainly don’t perceive them as all having sad endings. It forced me to take another look at my work, or at least at the endings of my novels, and I must confess that none of them have what might be conventionally called happy endings. But does that make them sad?

Now the child who asked about my sad endings was asking for more than I could give her. I think she was expressing a wistful yearning we all share for “happily ever after.”

This world looked at squarely does not allow optimism to flourish. Hope for us cannot simply be wishful thinking, nor can it be only the desire to grow up and take control over our own lives.

I know children need and deserve the kind of satisfaction they may get only from the old fairy tales. Children need all kinds of stories. Other people will write theirs, and I will write the ones I can.

As a writer I have a responsibility always to come humbly and childlike to the empty page — a responsibility always to be ready to be surprised by truth, ready to be taught, even to be changed. It is a joy to write for the young, for most often they will come to my story eager to be surprised, to be taught, to be changed and to give their unique vision to the filling out of my imperfect one. And in this exchange of life and vision, of heart and mind, we come to know that we belong to one another.

One such reader wrote me about “Bridge to Terabithia.” “I really respected this book,” she said. “You stuck to reality, and you also stuck to a dream.”

Read the essay here.

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