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It is a common practice for a story for children to have a happy ending. Would it be considered inappropriate and disappointing for the young reader if his hero/heroine will suffer a horrible tragedy in the end? Or not maybe a horrible tragedy, but just a small unfortune.

Is there an example of such a book?

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This is not "in" nowadays, but personally I'd love to see a (tastefully) sad children's book. (Also, not an ending, nor a book, but Disney's UP shocked me with its introduction, and it was very popular.) –  andyvn22 Nov 29 '10 at 22:12
    
I genuinely love this idea. Teach them what life is really like; bring tears to those big, dreaming eyes. Superb. –  Edward Rose Sep 15 '11 at 4:22
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"And then the very hungy caterpiller, who was now a butterfly, was eaten by a passing crow". –  Schroedingers Cat Mar 21 '12 at 15:43

8 Answers 8

up vote 14 down vote accepted

It seems to be something which has fallen out of practice, but many fairy tales were originally written with horrible gruesome endings, mainly in order to scare children into good behavior.

The original The Little Mermaid, for instance, would have emphasized the importance of being an obedient daughter and not accepting favors from shady characters. Several other examples here.

I doubt you'd sell a lot of copies of such a children's story these days with the way parents try to shield their children from any sort of disappointment.

It would be interesting to know if anyone has any successful modern examples, but I suspect there are none. It seems to be a lost art.

Update: Actually, Robert Munsch does come to mind as an author who has been highly successful writing endings which are not stereotypically happy. The Paper Bag Princess, for instance, has a very neutral ending, with the princess realizing she is better off not having rescued the prince.

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thanks for the awesome links! I've actually read these when I was a kid, and I don't think I'm scarred for life from them :) –  Axarydax Nov 20 '10 at 17:00
    
Actually, all such stories are the same story: smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1866#comic –  Phira Sep 15 '11 at 11:12
    
I wouldn't exactly call The Giving Tree a "happy ending," and that's sold loads of copies. –  Aerovistae Mar 21 '12 at 0:10
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"The Giving Tree" is a HORRIBLE story. The ending is just the fecal cherry on the vomit icing on a turd of a tale. –  Lauren Ipsum Mar 22 '12 at 17:12

mootinator makes a good point. But I can imagine a public that, while not interested in unfortunate endings per sé, might be interested in "neutral" endings, namely the skeptic community. Real life is not supposed to suck, neither is it supposed to be good to us, it's rather "indifferent" to our fortunes, although the word "indifferent" is a bit too antropomorphic to my taste here.

I think it is a real challenge to write a story that is appealing to humans, yet is not taking an either all is good or all is bad view. Most interesting stories are interesting because they appeal to our prejudices in some smart way, and yeah, a public will want to see a nice ending, another public will crave for an apocalypse... but the public for "things happen" is certainly not so broad. Just write down what a typical week of your life is and try to sell it in bookform, fail guaranteed. Yet, I think there's something there. There must be a way to combine the two forms. After all, many history books are just that. If history books for the great public or books inspired on historical facts were just as dry as the academic stuff, nobody would read them. They somehow manage to be interesting by weaving a story out of the otherwise boring succession of chance and necessity.

There are many classics that are "morality neutral" in this way. For instance Dostoievski, although he was a fervent but doubting christian, writes in a fairly a neutral style. I've never felt that he pushed his own ideas onto me. Yet, his books are all about ideas. There are no good or bad endings in his stories, for some characters, things turn out well, for others things don't. And the distribution of good and bad outcomes is not correlated to the goodness of the characters in any way. Of course, Dostoievski is quite high level literature, not accessible to children, but I was just looking for an example.

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Dostoyevsky also believed that writing about truly good characters (who deserve truly good things) was significantly more difficult that writing believable truly evil characters, so this might explain why he's not often writing very happy works. –  justkt Nov 22 '10 at 15:08

I've only read the first two, but... isn't there a whole set of books called A Series of Unfortunate Events? Which make a point of saying they don't have happy endings?

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they don't but it's sort of such an obviously delightful play on the usual happy endings that it is far less intense than say a traditional fairy tale before Disney got hold of them. –  justkt Sep 14 '11 at 22:33

Don't mistake "a happy ending" with "defeated the monster". Fairy stories of old had several goals, one of which was to show children that the monster can be dealt with. Note that that does not mean everything will turn out alright. Sometimes it's a choice between two terrible things, one of which is worse than the other.

Modern fantasy works are spiritual successors to the old childrens' fairy tale. Things might turn out okay in the end, but there is often a lot of loss along the way. Mistakes are made. People die (or are killed). And so on.

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(Completely personal, subjective, emotion-based opinion follows. Your mileage emptor. Caveat when prohibited. Void may vary.)

With some limits. Boy and girl don't end together, OK. Magical portal between real world and fantasy world is closed forever, OK.

And then there's some monstrosities like that Disney cartoon about the singing whale, or the Hanna-Barbera one about the Eskimo Curlew. Saw those as a kid. Am I grateful for that? HELL NO.

You know what I recommend? No More Dead Dogs.

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This doesn't answer the question. If it were shorter, I'd convert this to a comment. –  Neil Fein Mar 20 '12 at 20:20

It also depends on the target age group. Conventional wisdom indicates that older children - say, preteens - can handle more complex and negative stories than small children. Hence why you get the newbery medal syndrome where the dog always dies at the end to teach children about death and moving on from tragedy.

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Don't worry about it. Just balance out the darkness with some charm. If the young reader loves your characters and enjoys the tale, he or she will put up with anything.

Look at J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Those are grim, grim books. Death is a prevalent theme from the outset. Fully one third of the books is about someone's dead parents, or how someone was tortured, or about how the big bad is going to kill everybody, or about how many casualties occurred from dementors, Death Eaters, or Voldemort. She kills off characters you adore, on a regular basis, just to keep you guessing. And you're pretty sure anyone is fair game. Even the principals.

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There a series of children's books about Mog the cat and the last book is called "Goodbye Mog". It has Mog happily and peacefully going off to sleep. Despite being a bit too old for the books by the time it was published, I was still sad! Mog then helps the family's new kitten so the family have a new cat to love so the ending is happy and sad at the same time.

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