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Sad Endings in Middle Grade?

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Hi everyone,

For YA I've always heard that sad endings are okay, provided there is a kernel of hope somewhere in there. Is this the rule for MG as well or is a sad ending too tough a sell?  The only MG books with "beyond-bittersweet" endings that really come to mind are Bridge to Terabithia, Charlottes Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. Thoughts? Examples? Thank you!
#1 - September 21, 2014, 04:25 PM

I just finished Ellen Klages' Green Glass Sea, which, SPOILER, has the mc's dad die 3/4s of the way through, and ends with the bomb going off at Hiroshima. However, the characters aren't aware of what's going on, as its just background noise on the radio. They feel fairly secure at the ending, on a nice family vacation, the girl whose dad died feeling some resolution and part of a new family now. But of course, the Hiroshima mention is hugely sobering and shades everything for the reader. And beautifully written, I must say.

Though I wonder if the rules for historical fiction are slightly different.
#2 - September 21, 2014, 04:46 PM
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I hope they are OK, I'm more partial to Tragedy than Comedy.

Generally speaking I take such statements as guidelines anyway.

Thanks for asking, I was considering asking the same thing.
#3 - September 21, 2014, 06:47 PM
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I'm working on a middle-grade trilogy right now. I've heard all kinds of rules about kids' books, but people break the rules all the time. JK Rowling broke SO many rules and look how successful she is!

I made up my own rules. None of my protagonists die. They get into mortal danger, but always manage to survive. One very likeable character dies in Book 3, but she's a minor character. One main character moves away forever in Book Two after a twisty ending. An old lady dies of natural causes. NO animals die, even old ones. A few "bad guys" bite the dust. I sincerely believe that kids like happy endings and need them, even if they're preceded by lots of danger and excitement. That's why we read fiction, isn't it? It's not supposed to be like reality, which is harsh.

That's just my opinion!!  :coffee3:
#4 - September 21, 2014, 07:10 PM

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Although Where the Red Fern Grows is one of my all time favorite books, it's still a devastating read in places. So I've made a personal decision not to kill off any pets in my books. Aside from that, endings don't have to be all happy and tied with a nice bow, but I do think they should at least end on a hopeful note. I personally prefer happy endings.  :flower
#5 - September 21, 2014, 08:59 PM
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Honor the story. Don't let anyone else dictate that. If I'd listened, I never would have published my book. It's sad, about mom death and quiet. All no-no's if I'd been listening. In fact, the story only covers the eight weeks or so after the mom's death. So the MC is really in the thick of her grief.

It's all about balance. And I believe if you have enough hope, character development and plot, it will balance out.

Good luck!
#6 - September 22, 2014, 10:46 AM

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I've heard many people say they'd prefer happy endings in MG. Honestly, I'd prefer realistic endings. but I think it also depends on who is your MG audience. While it's best to query under MG, most agents recognize that MG spans 3 groups. I write Upper MG which is a bit more mature than say Chapter Books. So I think that's important too. (The age group you are seeking)
#7 - September 22, 2014, 11:40 AM
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An ending can be both happy and realistic. In real life, there are happy moments and sad ones. The key for a satisfying ending in MG isn't to make things perfect at the end, but to end on a moment with brightness, peace, or hope, whatever happened before.

#8 - September 22, 2014, 01:10 PM
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I think the ending should follow the tone of the overall book. And if it is sad, it should be a meaningful "sad" with some hope, or good that comes out of it. Nothing worse than a pointless sad ending for me.

I always prefer happy and/or funny, though. When I was a girl, I reread Gone With the Wind nine or ten times hoping for a different outcome. Never happened. (Not that that's a middle grade!)
#9 - September 22, 2014, 02:12 PM
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Ena, that's so funny. I would've written my own ending. I did that when books ended in a way I didn't particularly care for, or were too ambiguous. I liked the loose ends tied up with a pretty bow. But now I'm all grown up and don't mind bittersweet endings, but even now I need to have hope.

Tracy: "Honor the story." This.

Vijaya
#10 - September 22, 2014, 03:06 PM
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The Cay, Sounder, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry immediately come to mind. And Stone Fox. There are a lot of "dead dog" books in MG.
#11 - September 22, 2014, 06:10 PM

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It's interesting that the books we're mentioning that end sadly are all older books -- are there any recent ones, published in the past five years?

I'll tip my hat here. The only one of the sad-ending books mentioned that I've read is Charlotte's Web. I prefer happier endings -- even when MG books that are otherwise realistic end on almost magically happy notes.

(And I was piqued by a current bestselling novel based on a real-life person in which the ending is a tragedy that did not happen to the real-life person. Tragedy is not always more realistic or literary.)
#12 - September 22, 2014, 08:01 PM
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MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE, Sterling, 2016

I guess I broke all these rules.:/

But there is still the second book. I might make it more hopeful.

One of the problems I find, sense I used to plot with the resolution in mind first, that it was hard to make the ending happy on revision and make everything else ring true.

Hence the problem of the seven point structure I guess.
#13 - September 22, 2014, 09:33 PM
« Last Edit: September 22, 2014, 09:35 PM by SarahW »
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Bridge to Terebithia and even better, The Great Gilly Hopkins are both "sad" books. Katherine Paterson says something about it may not be the ending you want, but it is the inevitable ending. Those are both young middle grades.
#14 - September 23, 2014, 10:02 AM

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Those are all great titles, but are there any recent examples? Most of the books mentioned are more than 30 years old, and I wonder if a book like Charlotte's Web or Bridge to Terabithia would be published now as they were written.

Many of the books listed are from the 1970s, and I wonder if that is a sampling effect reflecting the childhood reading of the board, or if tragic endings in children's books were actually a trend of the 1970s, which was quite a pessimistic decade. When current books cover tragedy, often the tragedy occurs before the book begins (like Secret Hum of a Daisy or Mockingbird), and the end is hopeful.
#15 - September 23, 2014, 10:58 AM
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I believe The Green Glass Sea is 2006. So not recent, but a lot more recent.

What about See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles? I haven't read it, but my understanding was the ending was sad.
#16 - September 23, 2014, 04:29 PM
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Oh, good example ... See You at Harry's. I've seen it listed as both MG and YA but I consider it MG.

Another MG/YA cusp book that ends sadly (and devastatingly) is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.
That reminds me that a lot of readers were mad about a plot point in The Knife of Never Letting Go that was common in sad 1970s books ... While that's YA, where sad endings happen with some frequency, it may suggest lower reader acceptance of sad endings in newer books.
#17 - September 23, 2014, 04:55 PM
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SEE YOU AT HARRY'S is close...though the sad part happens about halfway through.

Does "sad ending" in the context of this thread mean "someone dies in the last three chapters?" Or just that the feeling you are left with at the end of the book is sadness rather than...hope?
#18 - September 23, 2014, 04:56 PM
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My definition of sad is more, the hero doesn't get everything they want. Not necessarily death.

In YA, it could be a break up. It middle grade, they might not get the Golden Goblet. But they survive, wiser from it.

There was a time I prefered dystopian endings. But I sort of lost taste for it.
#19 - September 23, 2014, 05:05 PM
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There are certain fiction books written about kids with AIDS, cancer, etc. Those are probably very sad, realistic, and hard-hitting, but kids realize what they're getting into before they start reading. I imagine that kids with cancer want a MC they can relate to.

To me, "sad" doesn't mean boy doesn't get girl. It means boy dies and girl mourns, as in "The Fault in Our Stars". I know it's wildly popular, but I can't bring myself to read it. It would give me a stomachache. Maybe I'm just too sensitive.
#20 - September 23, 2014, 06:33 PM

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Ah, yes. OK, so what are recent MG novels that leave us feeling the way we did at the end of TFIOS.

I need to think about that!
#21 - September 24, 2014, 04:30 AM
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A friend's son, eight, refused to listen to the end of CHARLOTTE's WEB.  His mother read it to him. Although they were very close to the end of the book, he refused to hear any more, after a certain character died. No amount of reassurance about happy endings changed his mind. He was very angry.

Some kids are more sensitive than others. They want good things to happen to their characters and are traumatized by tragedy, sometimes because they get enough of it in real life. The kid in question's grandfather had just died. Maybe my friend thought that the book would help him deal with death.

Not every kid will like every book. My personal preference is for happy, or at least hopeful, endings.

P.S.: I, as an adult, won't read certain kinds of books, which would include TFIOS. Maybe I'm more like my friend's son than  I thought.
#22 - September 24, 2014, 05:27 AM
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Oh, thought of another one! Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nichols is a boy dies of cancer book for MG. British, though, so not sure that helps the argument for US pubs.

And not sure this counts, but I was fascinated by the end of Kate Messner's Sugar and Ice. It's not sad, but the MC chooses to give up on pursuing a dream because it's not making her happy anymore. There's not many stories like that, though that happens a lot in real life, and is an especially big part of growing up.
#23 - September 24, 2014, 04:06 PM
« Last Edit: September 24, 2014, 04:10 PM by annemleone »
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SarahW, I'm working on a story where the protagonist ultimately doesn't get what he wants (because of a death), and that's what got me thinking about sad endings in MG. He gets what he "needs" though, so I'm hoping that balances things out enough not to make it too much of a downer. If you guys have seen Road to Perdition, it's got a similar spark of hope at the end for the kid. The movie was R-rated though and the book is MG, so that's what's got me  :eh2
 
#24 - September 27, 2014, 09:00 AM

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When I read Anne of Green Gables as a kid, I was shocked when Matthew died in the second-last chapter. I just didn't see it coming and was really upset. The book does end on a hopeful note, though.
#25 - September 27, 2014, 09:13 PM
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