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Apres la guerre

Pursuant to an article coming up next year in the Magazine, we were having an old discussion today: how do teen readers feel about downer endings? Conventional professional wisdom has long been that teens themselves and open-minded adults applaud (where appropriate) an “uncompromising” conclusion to a book, and only conservative, rigid adults who don’t like to read insist upon endings in which the good guys win and there is Hope. So we were thinking through some of the recent Apocalypsos (thank you Motels) to remember how they ended, but realized that with the series imperative and all, they frequently don’t! Katie Bircher, who reads a lot of these books for the Horn Book, said that the endings she could recall were varied in the amount of hope they presented but usually there was at least a glimmer. (Katie had just finished Ilsa Bick’s Shadows, second in the Ashes trilogy, and estimated that the third book had an awful lot of work to do if it wanted to come to a ‘triumphant” conclusion.)

My next question is about young readers: are they as sanguine about we’re-all-fucked conclusions as we assume they are? People talk about Radical Change and all, and how kids lead hard lives and hate phony intimations of justice prevailing, etc. etc., but most people like happy endings to their entertainments. Why do we assume teens are different? Sometimes I think we ascribe to teen reading more seriousness than we do our own.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. First, Roger, yes! I think we DO ascribe more seriousness to teen reading than we do to our own reading–at least if all the adults who talk to me about teen reading and their own kids are an adequate sample. But I’m actually posting to talk about happy endings, particularly in Apocalypsos and trilogies. I confess I often do expect this formula when reading a trilogy, or considering it for acquisition: First book: get you really into the story. Second book: way down into the darkness. Third book: great darkness and massive battle until things get tied up and if all doesn’t end happily, at least there’s a resolution and some kind of peace for the characters. I think Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings both follow that formula somewhat. And Malorie Blackman’s trilogy Naughts and Crosses, which I adore and which is huge in Britain, follows that formula for sure. As for Ilsa J Bick’s Shadows, 2nd book in the trilogy? As publisher, all I can say about the third book is we promise an answer to all the reader’s questions. We’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether those answers are “triumphant.”

  2. That cover of “the Chocolate War” caught my attention, because when I was a teen in the 70s that book saved me. I was sick and tired of stories with happy kids leading happy lives. I couldn’t identify with them. For me, “The Chocolate War” was the first honest story, the first to depict the dark side of real humans, kids and adults, and to show the despiar that often comes in a person’s life. The ending didn’t depress me but invigorated me with the knowledge that at least ONE adult understood what many teens experienced.

    I’m curious how teenagers today react to such stories. I guess I don’t worry about whether there are a lot of YA books with downer endings because there’s a choice now. They can pick up a bummer story or they can pick up Happily Ever After fluff. The teen years are a time of disappointments, unpleasant revelations, losses, and bitterness when facing the hypocrises of the world, perhaps more so than middle-year years. It seems appropriate to me that there be a lot of serious books for 13 to 19 year olds. And if they find certain tales too grim and nihilistic, they can turn to lighter stories.

  3. YA and children’s books serve many “functions”–the most important of which is that they serve no function at all. Books just ARE. But kids’ books in particular usher children into our adult literary canon, leading the way to the artistic traditions that define and re-define our culture, values, and sense of meaning. Sad endings are a part of that package for a reason.
    I recently re-read The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires. No one is bleecker that Emily Dickinson, in her own winged, feathery way. I wrote a post about the way the book eases kids into her ideas:

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