WRITERS AT WORK, Wrestling with Endings (Part 3)

Hi everyone,

I don’t know where the time goes but here it is Tuesday again and time for another installment of WRITERS AT WORK, our ongoing chat about the nuts and bolts of writing. Regulars here will know that Sandy Asher and I carry the chat from week to week and change the topic each month. In March we invited Jane Yolen to choose a topic and go first. Sandy added her thoughts last week and now it’s my turn.

You may find the entire exchange per month by going to America Writes for Kids and clicking on WRITERS AT WORK. Don’t let the picture of Sandy and me throw you. It was taken years ago when we were starting America Writes for Kids. You think we need an updated photo? Maybe we can get one taken of us when we both appear next week at the Children’s Literature Festival in Warrensburg, Missouri on the campus of Central Missouri State University.

Topic 6: Wrestling with Endings
Response 3: David
March 15, 2011

Thank you Jane and Sandy for bringing so much wisdom and practical advice to this month’s subject. Sandy, you lamented following Jane’s grand opening. How do you think I feel following both of you?

But name me one writer who doesn’t have an opinion about writing and I’ll show you where he’s buried. You want good endings, how about the one in Barbara Robinson’s fabulous story, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER? In the beginning we meet the six Herdman kids, who lie and steal and smoke cigars and disrupt school and traumatize kids, parents, and teachers alike. They take over the annual Christmas pageant at school and threaten to wreck it.

But things change in surprising ways. The last sentence in the book could only be uttered by a Herdman, and you wouldn’t “get it” if you hadn’t just witnessed a remarkable transformation in Gladys Herdman, who stands there yelling at the audience, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” I’ve read that book a number of times. Every time I get Goosebumps and tear up with joy. That’s what a good ending can do.

Jane and Sandy, you both give good examples of how authors struggle to find just the right way to end a story. Part of the mystery of writing is that we don’t always see the whole vision when we set out. It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle and getting down to the last, odd-shaped hole in the picture, before the final piece, the ending, falls into place.

Jane spoke about novels and Sandy brought in picture books. I don’t write novels but occasionally write long nonfiction books. I think in my next response it might be fun to talk about endings to nonfiction books and maybe even poetry. But this time I’ll pick up on Sandy’s comments about picture books.

Sandy, I think what makes the ending of a picture book important is that it can trigger the reaction in the young listener that authors love to hear: “Read it again!” Some endings are sad but as Jane points out, children’s literature abounds with happy endings, or at least ones that seem fair and fulfilling and maybe inspiring. I loved Pat Brisson’s book, WANDA’S ROSES. Her heroine cleans up a junky lot and enlists the help of the adults she meets, all of whom know that the thorn bush Wanda keeps calling a rosebush will never bloom no matter how hard she tries to encourage it.

In the end, Wanda’s enthusiasm and trust inspire the adults to do more than help clean up. The last sentence says it all. “And later that summer the whole lot was filled with the biggest, most beautiful, sweetest-smelling roses that anyone had ever seen – just as Wanda had always said it would be.” With such a satisfying ending, the only thing left for a child to say is, “Read it again!”

I remember other books like that, stories that left our daughter Robin and her brother Jeff begging for another reading, and another. What a great way to expand vocabulary and engage thinking and imagination in children. Of course the whole story has to be good but the ending matters hugely.

The 30th thing I wrote, in 1967, was a picture book called LITTLE TURTLE’S BIG ADVENTURE. A small turtle loses its home by a pond when a road is built through it and must set off in search of another place to live. The journey is long and lonely and sad. Eventually a pond is discovered and the turtle settles into its new life. I knew all that would happen before I started writing. What I didn’t know was how I would end the story. At the end of the first draft I still didn’t know. I don’t remember how many drafts it took before the final piece of the puzzle revealed itself but, eventually, it did, and it seemed totally inevitable and right. “He closed his eyes and took a nice long nap in the warm sun.” It was a happy conclusion to a desperate adventure that ended well. Captain Kangaroo read the story on his show.

Sandy, Jane, have you ever used the kind of ending that I call, for lack of a better term, the boomerang? The beginning returns as the ending. The first sentence in WHEN COWS COME HOME begins, “When cows come home/At the end of the day.” The last sentence is, “Farmer winks/And milks away/When cows come home/At the end of the day.” Between the first and last lines the cows go off on a rambunctious holiday behind the farmer’s back but, in the end, I needed to bring them back to reality, back to the barn, home to be milked. I tried all sorts of endings before I realized that what I was trying to say is that some things don’t change. No matter what, cows come home at the end of the day. I think young readers and listeners feel reassured when they can count on the day ending the way it should.

Okay dear Sandy, dear Sandy, back to you for your second hitch at this wrestling business.