Thursday, 11 October 2012

The End by Paeony Lewis

It was a cute kitten video clip (just 28 seconds) that got me thinking about the endings in picture books. I watched it and thought, hey, that’s a perfect picture book ending . And I challenge you not to squeal, ‘Ahhh…’! Click here for the YouTube link.


Long ago, I remember an editor asking me to add more of an ‘Ahhh…’ ending to a picture book (using that exact phrase – and I think it’s a good one). I suspect we all know picture books that make us go ‘Ahhh…’ When my children were small, as a mum I’d choke up when I read the last line of Martin Waddell’s Owl Babies: “I love my mummy,” said Bill. I've heard it took the author a long time to come up with that line, but it was worth it (in the context of the story). An ‘Ahhh…’ emotion resonates with the adult reader.

Excerpt from final page,
Big Bear, Little Bear by David Bedford,
 illus by Jane Chapman (Little Tiger Press)

For the child who listens to the picture book, perhaps it’s  not so much an ‘Ahhh…’ as a comforting reassurance that all is right with the world. Most young children need that before they go to sleep. Here’s a perfect goodnight “Ahhh…”  image from the end of  Big Bear, Little Bear (and it reminds me of the kitten video).


Of course, no ending will save a below-average book. However, a good story won’t work if the ending isn't right. Sometimes an author will know the ending before anything else has been written. Sadly, sometimes we haven’t a clue how it will end and we scratch our heads for days, weeks and months (and no, it’s not because we have nits!).


Paeony Lewis, practising
scratching at a young age (no nits)
A picture book is read many times, so the ending is heard many times. This means it has to satisfy again and again, even though the adult and child know the story. So a trick, clever ending that relies solely on being a surprise won’t be enough, unless it’s a satisfying surprise that can be enjoyed night after night.

When I first wrote Hurry Up, Birthday, I thought the ending should be the birthday. After all, the entire story had been building up to this. A couple of editors suggested adding something extra to the end, but at first I wasn't convinced. Off and on, I thought about this for months and then out of the blue it came to me.

The story was about an excited bunny who bounced extra fast in an attempt to hurry time and make his birthday arrive quicker. So, when his birthday finally arrived, why not turn things around? Therefore, on the final page I had the bunny bouncing slowly because he didn't want to hurry his birthday. That might sound obvious and simple (as so much does in picture books), but it took me a long time to come up with that ending. Far too long!

Adding a little twist to an ending is popular in picture books. It makes the story fun and is less predictable (especially when it’s obvious that everything will turn out fine). Twists make us smile at the surprise or encourage a discussion about the story. At the end of my No More Yawning, the little girl finally falls asleep (after too much yawning), but then she’s woken by Mum’s loud yawn. That’s a little twist, and it also makes gentle fun of the naughty mum (children grin when they come out on top – not adults!).



Occasionally the twist is just a question, encouraging parent and child to interact.
Who Do You Love? by Mandy Stanley is a good example. All the way through the book we discover who the animals love, and then on the last page the question is directed at the reader.




Excerpt from final page,
Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus
 by  Mo Williems (Walker Books)
Picture book endings aren't only about clever ideas and twists. We have to think about the emotional needs of the child who’ll be listening to the story. Most picture books are read at bedtime, so almost all are reassuring and end happily with a satisfying resolution (remember the cute kitten video). In Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, although the pigeon is thwarted and isn't allowed to drive the bus (phew!), his disappointment is tempered with hope. He spots a truck and on the last page we see him imagining a pigeon driving a truck. Hope is a powerful and positive emotion. Plus the story comes full circle and once more the pigeon dreams of driving a vehicle.

Driving buses is one of the many things a child can’t do and it frustrates them. Adults are always taking control. Therefore in picture books it should be the child character that solves the ‘problem’ in the story (sometimes with a little help). Adults shouldn't just take over and solve the problem for the child. As in real life, a child will have to learn to overcome difficulties. Plus it’s more satisfying for the child to see another child work things out (or even get one up over the adults). In The Gruffalo, the mouse (the child?) foils all the big threatening animals (the adults?) and finally gets to eats his nuts, rather than let himself be the snack.

Even if the child solves the problem, that doesn't mean the adult reader is ignored. An ending can be on more than one level, so it’s enjoyed by the child whilst including something extra for the adult. All parents will relate to the ending of Jill Murphy’s classic, Five Minutes’ Peace, whilst a child will just see it as funny. Mummy elephant finally gets some peace: “And off she went downstairs, where she had three minutes and forty-five seconds of peace before they all came to join her.”


Jane Clarke’s Gilbert the Great is another story that may be read on several levels. To a child, the book is about a friend leaving and a new friendship. To an adult it’s about death and new beginnings. Plus at the very end is a lovely little joke that an adult can explain, or simply enjoy. Illustrated by Charles Fuge,  it’s the perfect image to end this blog.
The End.




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Paeony Lewis is a children's author and writing tutor. www.paeonylewis.com


32 comments:

  1. Paeony you are absolutely right. The ending is crucial and we spend so long trying to get it perfect. I often want mine comforting without being cheesy - it's hard to pull off so I try on so many versions before I find the best one!

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    1. Thanks, Abie. I share the dilemma - when does comforting become cheesy? Tricky!

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  2. Still going awww! after the kitten clip. What a great ending-feeling to strive to evoke. I agree, it often takes ages and heaps of re-writes to find the right ending. Re. Gilbert - I wasn't thinking of an end page after the ending - I just wrote 'fin' instead of 'the end' on the original manuscript - and was thrilled when the publishers kept it in and asked Charlie to illustrate it.

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    1. Awww... so that's how 'fin' became a part of your lovely book - great! Thanks Jane.

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    2. Too cool on how the ending came to be!

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  3. Sometimes I have the ending in mind before I have the beginning sorted. I do like a happy ending but I love the twist in the tale in 'Tadpoles Promise.'

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    1. I've just looked up Tadpole's Promise, Lynne. Opinions are diverse - no happy ending. I'm intrigued! I'll order it from the library - thanks.

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  4. Thank you, Paeony! This is a fascinating blog. It's interesting to think why some endings are just so 'right', will take reading again and again. I think it's akin to a good poem - every line carefully added to make the whole a satisfying piece of work.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Moira. I agree that good picture book stories are akin to prose poetry. I wonder if poets agree?!

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  5. So important to get the ending right. And that's a great clip to illustrate the sense of safeness you often look for at the end of a picture book (and my children will love it too when I show them after school!). Thank you.
    Clare.

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    1. Hope your children enjoyed the sugar overdose, Clare. I'm a sucker for cute animal videos!

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  6. Great post. And with picture books, it's important to have that ending where the child asks, "Read it again."

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    1. Many thanks, Dotti. Your 'Grandpa for Sale' has a great, succinct ending: 'Ding! No sale.' Though imagine if she did sell Grandpa - I'd love to see how that would be reviewed!

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  7. Think I have a penchant for the 'clever ending that relies on surprise'. Might have to rethink that one. Thanks :)

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    1. Oops, Wendy, I don't think I explained myself very well (sadly, that's not a surprise!). I think a surprise is excellent if it's also satisfying, or perhaps makes us ask questions. Ho hum, I'm still not being clear. Coffee is needed...

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  8. Ahhhh...what a great post! This gives me something to think about when writing or revising my stories. This is the beginning of the end. Thank you!

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    1. Delighted you found it interesting, Romelle. Thanks.

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  9. Lovely & useful post - and don't we all need an "Ah!" moment at times?

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    1. We do, Penny, most definitely. Thanks!

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  10. Really interesting. I had thought a really clever twist at the end was something to aim at, but it's a very good point that the story will be read often, so the surprise won't necessarily keep working. Loved the clip, and the illustrations!

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    1. Thanks a lot, Sue. I think twists and surprises are great and I suspect the child enjoys being 'in the know' when it's a story with substance that's read again and again. I just don't think surprises are effective when the entire story revolves around a surprise at the end and the story isn't about anything else. Being clever for the sake of it isn't enough and we need it to matter to the character. Yikes, I'm waffling!

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  11. I agree with you totally. Aah endings are vital - they make children want to hear the story again.

    And it's not just picture books that need good endings. It's the ending that makes all the difference to whether or not I recommend a novel or film to other people. Apparently the Shawshank Redemption was going to end with Morgan Freeman driving away on the bus but it works so much better with that final reunion - the aah ending.

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    1. Yes, you're so right, Diana. I don't need an 'ahh' moment with a novel, but I do need to feel satisfaction and that my time wasn't wasted. However, I'm one of those really bad people who sometimes sneak a look at the ending. It's just to check I'm not going to be too upset or annoyed (though with ebooks I'm less likely to do this). All novelists will now fling tomatoes at me!

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  12. Ahhh...for sure! Such a cute video that really got your point across. Thanks for such a wonderful post with such great examples for us to refer to.

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  13. I keep Owl Babies in my night-table stack, because I sometimes like the 'ahhh' moment before going to sleep myself! Do you have any tips on testing that ahh moment in what we hope is that polished final draft?

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    1. Can you believe that some people don't like Owl Babies? It's true! Like me, you're obviously not one of them.

      Testing an 'ahh' moment? Ho hum, I wish I could give a helpful answer. I can only think of the obvious stuff and I don't necessarily get it right myself (it's easier to see what works in the manuscripts of others, than when it's your own work).

      So what can I suggest? If it still gives you the warm fuzzies after thirty revisions, then great. Or if you've left it to stew for six months then that helps. It's a good sign if a child seems to enjoy it and asks for it again (though for those who aren't illustrators it can be tricky). If you listen to someone else read it and you don't feel the need to cringe and apologise to them (and they enjoy it too, that's good. If there's nobody around to read it aloud or listen, it can even help if you read it aloud to a pet (an audience seems to make a difference). Good luck.

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  14. Lovely post, Paeony
    The Ahh! and comforting ending is so important in picture books. Last thing at night with a toddler you want them reassured and calm so that they are ready for sleep and comforted.
    I think a picture book works well when it comes full circle and the end feels satisfying as well as comforting.
    Like so many things the best picture books, like those you have mentioned, look really simple when in fact they are not simple at all.

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    1. Linda, I'm glad you've mentioned books coming full circle. I only hinted at that, and you're right, it came be really effective. Thanks.

      Ha ha, yes, picture books can appear so simple. Out of context there doesn't appear to be anything special about the line, "I love my mummy," said Bill.

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  15. Thank you Paeony. I love endings. I also love wrapping gifts and endings are like the final flourish you add to gift wrapping. I like endings that tease you and leave you wondering 'what will happen next', or endings that leave you feeling high with a smile and a twinkle in your eye, and yes, sometimes endings that leave you feeling rounded, warm and fuzzy. In picture books I often like a subtle hint at an ending that is shown through the illustrations. Thanks for getting my brain thinking again.

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    1. Many thanks, Kerry. I like your analogy. By the way, I see from your blog that you have a hen that will inspire stories. Snap!

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  16. I have to say I almost ALWAYS have a twist at the end of each of my stories. Maybe it's a sequence that is about to happen all over again if one thing happens, or something the reader wouldn't guess - but I am often told that children like safe and predictable and to know that the story has ended when it has ended. I however love the idea of a child continuing the story in their head ( even if whilst sleeping ) after the story has ended. Surely a child is more excited by a twist? I am very much enjoying your blog, it's made me think a lot ( as sadly you've witnessed by my onslaught of comments tonight )

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