Monday, 8 January 2018

How would you end this story? • Francesca Sanna (guest blogger)

The Picture Book Den welcomes guest blogger, Francesca Sanna. Her first picture book, The Journey, received wide acclaim and is endorsed by Amnesty International UK for reminding us that we all have the right to a safe place to live. Francesca's many awards include the 2017 Klaus Flugge Prize, which is presented to the year's most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. 

In this blog post, Francesca talks about the debate surrounding the ending to The Journey.

My first book, The Journey, is the story of a family and of the journey they undertake when they realise their home is not a safe place anymore. As I briefly tried to explain in a note at the end of the book, it was inspired by many stories of many people I spoke with, from many different countries and backgrounds. A part of the research was even focused on historical documents about immigration in the early 1900. I didn’t want The Journey to be a specific story; I wanted it to convey the idea that everyone has to right to have a safe place to live. For this reason, in the book I try to give as little information as possible about where, or when, the story is set. 

The Journey by Francesca Sanna, Flying Eye Books 2016

A few months ago, during a reading with Year Two children in a school in London, a boy asked me, “How do you end a book that is inspired by a real story if that story is still going on?”

Questions are always a challenge, and I love the process of thinking about them and trying to come
up with good answers – though I often fail – but I found this one particularly interesting. 
It made me think about another question I get asked quite often, mostly from adults: “Why does The Journey not have a proper ending?” The story I wrote does in fact have an ending, but it is a quite open one. The journey of the family we follow through the pages is not concluded in the usual way. Instead, the book ends leaving the family on their way to a new home, without showing any arrival, and this element has caused much discussion. Someone during a conference even told me I had cheated as I had gone against one of the main rules in children’s literature: a children’s book needs a happy ending. 

Journeying on the ferry, from The Journey by Francesca Sanna

A couple of years before I finished the book, I decided to do some research around the topic of immigration and in particular of refugees, because of what was happening (and sadly still is happening) in Italy, my home country, and in the rest of Europe.
 I was quite frustrated by having the same discussion over and over with people I knew, and by reading the comment sections of many posts on social media. In Italy the public opinion was – and still is – increasingly becoming more intolerant and turning against newcomers. When I first moved to study and work in other European countries (Germany first and then Switzerland) I saw that the same discussion and attitude was spreading there too. 

Border guard, from The Journey by Francesca Sann
I finished the illustrations for The Journey in May 2015, right before one of the worst moments of the refugee crisis in Europe. After that I was encouraged many times to change the ending of the story and to make the family finally arrive at their new home. I considered the idea and even tried some rough sketches of an ‘arrival’.

Finally, with the help of my publisher Flying Eye, I decided not to. Leaving the story open and the journey unfinished was, in my opinion, the best way to start a discussion on this topic with the children through a proper tool, a book, that gave to this discussion all the time and space needed. In this way I could give an ending to a story that still does not have one, leaving it open. 

Keep moving, from The Journey by Francesca Sanna
After the book was published, The Journey had its own journey. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet an incredible community of librarians, teachers, activists, and most importantly readers. I went around schools in different countries (Spain, Austria, UK, Italy, Germany and Switzerland) and saw the reaction to the book I wrote, discussing it with children and teachers.

Stories of escape, from The Journey by Francesca Sanna

The reactions to my open-and-maybe-not-so-happy ending were varied, as were the general responses to the book in every class and every school.
 Sometimes, when I read the story, I would finish reading the last lines and then I would have to say “and this was the last page of the book”. Normally this moment is followed by surprised gazes and a few whispered “What???”. Some of the children like the idea of different possible ways of ending the story on their own, while some hate the concept of a journey that does not reach the destination.

Migrating birds. Final image from The Journey by Francesca Sanna
Back at the beginning, my idea of a blank ending was more a symbolic idea, to leave to parents or teachers the space for a discussion with their children about what happens next. Later I took it more literally with workshops where children completed the story however they wanted. I'd read the story,  discussing some pages and the choices I made when writing and illustrating the story. Then I'd answer all their question until finally I'd ask them one question: how would you end the story?

“They buy a house and have a beautiful life!” An ending by Saphir, 7 years old

Drawing from a reading at the City Library of Geneva (Switzerland)
with children from Year 1 to Year 4

Further information
Amnesty International useful classroom resources on The Journey pdf 
The Klaus Flugge Prize
Francesca Sanna website


Jane Clarke said...

Just hopped on to say thanks for your post, I'm a great fan of your book, Francesca, I love your powerful open ending that by its imagery speaks of freedom and peace and new beginnings and provokes the readers to think about the family's ongoing journey. A couple of times I've written texts with open endings, but on both occasions an editor has persuaded me to write a happy ending - more reassuring perhaps, but less true to life.

Lucy Rowland said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, Francesca. 'The Journey' is such a beautiful book and I really loved seeing the example endings from the other children too!

Paeony Lewis said...

Francesca, you've really made me think and yes, I believe it was the best choice to leave the ending of the story open to the imagination of the reader and/or further group discussion. It is such a thoughtful book. I've also read the resource sheets you produced with Amnesty International and Flying Eye Books (I put the link at the end of your great blog post). I encourage others to look at the resource sheets as they are brilliant for gently encouraging discussion about the book and refugees, humanising 'the news', and promoting visual literacy (they even nudged me to notice things in the illustrations that I'd missed).

Lynne Garner said...

An interesting post and I disagree with the person who said all children's books should have a happy ending. One of the best books I've read is 'Tadpole's Promise' which most definitely does not have a happy ending (although it does teach a very good lesson in animal behaviour).