"Why Don't We Ever Read Anything Happy?" YA Literature and the Optimistic Ending
My Students Help Me See the Problem
I finish reading Sharon M. Draper's Tears of a Tiger and close my book. I am struck by its sadness. Through the novel, we follow Andy Jackson, a teenager who must deal with what he has done: while driving drunk, he crashes his car and kills his best friend. We hope, page after page, that he will make it because we, as fortunate outsiders, see Andy's good side; we know he is not a murderer at heart. Yet Andy, not able to step outside of the situation, does not recognize this; he never finds a way to cope. "The younger child, Monty, age six, noticed blood on the ceiling. Mrs. Jackson went to her son's bedroom where Andrew's body was found with a fatal gunshot wound to the head" (Draper, 1994).
My own sadness brings me back to something my ninth grade students at Fredericksburg Academy, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, asked this past year: "Why don't we ever read anything happy?" I heard their question and filed it away for future use, but now it has immediacy. My students must have felt, at the end of each book, just as I do now--sad, confused, upset, a little angry. Teaching a book year after year softens these emotions, because the end is expected, not a surprise like it is to the brand-new reader. Now I am the brand-new reader of Tears of a Tiger, and I have to deal with its sad ending.
I do give Draper credit for how the other characters react to Andy's suicide. One says, for example: "I never realized the price you were paying for that mask you were wearing. I'm glad I found out -- I like myself a lot better now" (Draper, 1994). My students are not impressed by Andy's suicide, and they do not glorify him. Instead, they are angry, hurt, and saddened by the loss, and they do not condone suicide as an option. This is a powerful and important lesson for the adolescent readers of Tears of a Tiger, and it does offer a glimmer of hope in the darkness. Draper paints the scene where there will not be copycat suicides and the other students will find a way to cope. Yet, this does not wipe away the pain for us, characters and readers alike, of seeing Andy decide there is no hope. Instead, we must find that way to go on that Andy did not find. No easy task.
So, what is it that my students and I are reacting to? While I read Tears of a Tiger, my students read Night, The Once and Future King, Antigone, Hamlet, and Of Mice and Men. They encountered the living death of Elie Wiesel (Wiesel, 1960), the destruction of all King Arthur worked for (White, 1958), the loss of a girl to the corrupt laws of a kingdom (Sophocles, 1995), the tragic hero's death in his quest for revenge (Shakespeare, 1995), and the sacrifice of a best friend to the lesser of two evils (Steinbeck, 1965). Not an easy load to bear. All of these works justify my students' question. They truly do not have optimistic endings.
Moving beyond my students' specific desires, the use of the optimistic novel is important in a broader context. The pessimistic ending is easy to find--nightly news reports and TV talk shows are two of the most obvious examples. In contrast, movies and cartoons often have happy endings, but their happiness does not deal with the consequences of reaching that point. Star Wars, Men in Black, The X-Files, and Power Rangers are strong examples of the "easy" happy ending where consequences are nonexistent for the "good guys." Where are the realistic optimistic endings?
Finding and recommending such literature is imperative for us as teachers, because "adolescents need to know that they are not alone in their wishes for a better world and desire to believe in the goodness of people as well as in their pain" (Reid & Stringer, 1997). We can balance the death and destruction with windows of hope through literature. And it is just this that is the real basis for my students' question. They want to know how they can couple the ever-present images of pain and pessimism with the hope and optimism that they believe exist in this world. Our duty as educators is to keep alive and nurture this belief. Yet, the question then becomes, where is the optimistic ending?
Kenneth Donelson and Alleen Nilsen, in Literature for Today's Young Adults, identify seven general characteristics of young adult literature. While the list is interesting in its entirety, characteristic number six is the one which is important here: "Young adult books are basically optimistic, with characters making worthy accomplishments" (Donelson & Nilsen, 1997). It would seem, then, that this is our answer. Yet, Tears of a Tiger is young adult literature; The Once and Future King can be defined as young adult literature (granted of an older generation). These books do not have optimistic endings, so can we make such a sweeping generalization about young adult literature? Is it really the answer?
Before we can answer this question, we need to pin down the term on which all of this hinges: optimistic. What does it mean for a book to be optimistic? It is easiest to begin defining this quality by looking at what is not an optimistic ending since we have examples aplenty at this point.
An ending that leaves the reader with no hope is not optimistic. In Deathwatch, Robb White's survival novel (1972), Ben, a hunting guide, is hunted by his wealthy client, Madec. At the end, Ben makes it to the police to tell his side of the story, but Madec's wealth and connections win out as the police believe his false version over Ben's truth. After Ben is able to prove his story by finding the evidence Madec tried to destroy, he decides the system is not worth the problems it produces, and refuses to press charges. While Ben does survive, the reader is left with no hope as Madec walks away untouched by what he has done.
In Cynthia Voigt's Tell Me If the Lovers Are Losers (1984), a different type of hopelessness is shown. Three college roommates, Ann, Niky, and Hildy, are struggling to get to know each other. In the midst of this, Ann and Niky are also struggling to get to know themselves while Hildy is a beacon of kindness and understanding. Then, Hildy dies in a senseless bicycling accident, leaving the other two roommates to learn how to make it on their own. While Ann and Niky each do find a new peace and an increased sense of self, Hildy is a sad sacrifice to reach this point. The reader is left feeling muted happiness for the two survivors, because Hildy's death has left a pervading sense of hopelessness.
Inevitably combined with leaving no hope, a pessimistic novel also leaves the main character with the appearance of no options. This is the case in Draper's Tears of a Tiger. Draper, while showing that the other characters will survive, does not offer insight into how Andy could have. Andy tries all the options his friends speak of in their final letters to him--talking to others, moving forward, forgetting, writing to his friend's parents ... None work, and Andy dies. We have no sense of what his answer should have been.
Another quality of pessimistic endings can also be seen in Andy: a lack of connection to family and/or friends. Without this connection, Andy is left alone to struggle to survive and fails. Relationships with others are crucial to anyone's happiness, so a lack thereof most often leads to unhappiness.
Finally, a pessimistic ending involves a choice based on "the lesser of two evils" rather than on what is inherently good or right. Of Mice and Men is the classic example of this kind of ending, as George chooses to kill his best friend, Lennie, because he knows he cannot stop the impending mob. Even though there is deep friendship between these two men, George is left having to make the least cruel action rather than the best one. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967) offers another example, as Dallas is driven by the world around him to force his own murder. While Ponyboy does survive and offers one vision of life that involves making the right decision, Dallas's death offers an equally strong view of how a boy/man feels unable to do anything but the least of two evils, which, for him, is to go out in a blaze of glory. The Outsiders is a good example of how an ending does not have to be entirely pessimistic to leave a feeling of gloom with the reader. Hence, while Donelson's and Nilsen's characteristic of having an optimistic ending can fit for this novel in terms of Ponyboy, it does not, by being so general, tell the whole story.
So, what is an optimistic novel in light of these pessimistic qualities? First, we need to look at Donelson's and Nilsen's defining characteristic of the main character making a worthy accomplishment. While this certainly must be involved in an optimistic novel, I argue that it is equally likely to be involved in a pessimistic one. The Outsiders again provides an example: Ponyboy makes a worthy accomplishment, but Dallas dies, combining optimism and pessimism. In Night, Wiesel survives the camps, a worthy accomplishment, but is left, at least temporarily, as a spiritual corpse inside a physical body. Wiesel does not want us to feel optimism at the end of his novel. In Tears of a Tiger, the friends succeed by not glorifying the suicide, but that does not negate the fact that Andy kills himself. Hence, the definition of optimistic, based on how students react to novels, must go further than merely having a worthy accomplishment made. What is it that makes a novel truly optimistic?
First, the ideally optimistic novel has the protagonist make it completely out of the problem with which he or she has been struggling. Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger (1977) and Karen Hesse's Letters from Rifka (1992) are two examples of how the main character rises above the struggle and is set entirely on a new path of life. Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli (1996), also exhibits this trait; Zel and her prince live happily ever after, since the novel is based on the fairy tale of Rapunzel. This last novel points directly to the one issue which makes this type of novel not as widely written: its fairy-tale qualities. For everything to work out perfectly is, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, an ideal situation.
While the fairy tale ending is idealistic, these novels show an important trait of the type of optimistic ending I hope to bring to the attention of my students. There are many novels that are optimistic from the first page on, but these are the kinds of novels in which I am interested here. The key is there must be a problem within the novel to warrant the development towards optimism, rather than a steady flow of optimism throughout. The reason I am focusing only on this type of optimism is because it is more realistic to adolescents' lives: not everything works out perfectly all of the time, but finding a way to take a positive step out of a problem is a skill we all hope to master.
This stance leads to the more realistic novel with an optimistic ending, an ending that leaves the reader with relative certainty that the main character(s) will be okay. These novels end with hints at the positive steps the characters will take next. Lois Lowry's The Giver (1993) has such an ambiguous ending that the reader is not sure at all if Jonas and Gabriel will be okay. In contrast, Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (Staples, 1989), Candle in the Wind (Wartski, 1995), In Country (Mason, 1985), Children of the River (Crew, 1989), Lyddie (Paterson, 1991), Izzy, Willy-Nilly (Voigt, 1986), Shizuko's Daughter (Mori, 1993), and Owl in Love (Kindl, 1993) all have protagonists who have inner revelations that point toward the positive steps they will take next.
Many of these novels also show the importance of having relationships in order to find inner peace and happiness. Shabanu (Staples, 1989) has her loving aunt who offers her refuge which opens up Shabanu's options. The girl knows she will have a place to live if she defies her father's edict to marry. Owl (Kindl, 1993) has her understanding parents who accept her as a wereowl and, thus, enable her to help Houle accept himself. In Blue Tights by Rita Williams-Garcia (1989), Joyce's mother helps Joyce realize how urban girls often make the wrong decision to become pregnant, thus allowing Joyce to learn to love herself. At least one strong relationship exists in each of these novels to help the protagonist reach the fulfillment of the optimistic ending.
While coming to the brink of making the right step is one type of optimistic ending, the strongest optimistic ending goes further. The type of optimistic ending that I hope to have my students read combines qualities of the ideal and the real. The most powerful optimistic ending has the protagonist actually take the next step based on the self-revelation. These novels differ from idealistic ones because the pieces do not fall so neatly into place once the step has been taken. Also, while being realistic and maintaining relationships, they differ from the previous set of realistic novels by having the protagonist actually take the next step rather than ending just prior. In Kyoko Mori's One Bird (1995), Megumi, through her friendship with Dr. Mizutani, realizes she has a right to see both her father and her mother. She actually takes the step of telling her father this and making plans to live part of the year with her mother. As in the Bible, Miriam (Mary Magdalene) of Song of the Magdalene (Napoli, 1996) chooses to follow Christ and tells us, in the final paragraph, briefly of her time with him. Jennifer, in Chinese Handcuffs (Crutcher, 1989), after coming to terms with being sexual abused, takes the step of pressing charges against her stepfather. Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade (1993) has Jolly's return to school in the middle of the novel, while her realization that it truly is what she wants to do comes later, after she has been back at school for awhile. Finally, Gayle, in Like Sisters on the Homefront (Williams-Garcia, 1995), sends a letter to her friends in New York telling them of the new life she has chosen for herself by remaining in Georgia. The power of these novels is that the reader sees the next step be taken. While imagining the right step will be taken is good, seeing that step taken, and seeing it succeed, offers a stronger sense of optimism to the reader because any doubts about how the step will be made are erased.
There is a subset of this final category that deserves mentioning: the teenage-to-adult novel. In this type of novel, the protagonist takes the right step, but the novel does not end there. Instead, it follows the character into adulthood and sometimes throughout her whole life. Black Ice (Cary, 1991), Of Nightingales That Weep (Paterson, 1974), and Halsey's Pride (Hall, 1990) follow the protagonist into adulthood after she has taken the crucial right step as an adolescent. Steal Away (Armstrong, 1992) follows the two protagonists until their final years as grandmothers while Thousand Pieces of Gold (McCunn, 1981) stays with the protagonist until her death. These novels offer a special insight into the positive step taken as an adolescent. The reader sees the repercussions of the step, thus extending the optimism throughout the protagonists' lives. This is not to say that nothing goes wrong in their lives after making the initial steps; to do so would harken back to the fairy tale category of optimism. Instead, their lives play out realistically with both setbacks and successes, but the authors continually tie the protagonists' experiences back to the moments of self-revelation and the steps that followed.
So, what makes an optimistic ending? We have three categories. First, there is the ideally optimistic ending in which everything works out for the best. Second, there is the optimistic ending in which the character gains a self-understanding that will lead to a positive step, but the book stops prior to this step being taken. Finally, there is the optimistic ending in which the character actually takes the step, and the reader sees the positive consequences of making this decision. This last type is the most powerful of the optimistic endings, because it involves both the inner optimism of the character and the exterior result of this optimism as the character acts. This is the type of optimism my students and I hope for: one that guides us to find and take the right actions. This is the type of optimism we should offer our students.
Two Outstanding Works of YA Optimism
Because of the power of optimistic endings in which the characters take the next steps, the best books to look at fall into this last category of optimism. This is the first category we should turn to when we are looking for optimistic novels to share with our students because these novels offer the greatest optimistic impact. The two following novels derive their excellence by maintaining reality while offering this optimism.
Gayle, in Like Sisters on the Homefront, is a teen mother who is pregnant ... again. The novel opens as Gayle's mother forces Gayle to have an abortion and then to leave her familiar home of Jamaica, Queens, to live with her relatives in Georgia. Gayle's path to self-understanding begins as she is put into this nest of familial relations, one of the key aspects of optimistic novels. Yet, her family in Georgia is not the fairy tale family who accepts Gayle for who she is right away. Instead, this family pushes Gayle to be more than she ever thought she could be. While offering love and support, Miss Auntie also expects Gayle to do her part and to be an active mother and member of the family. Uncle Luther is the strict presence in the family, offering Gayle a sense of what it means to behave according to others' beliefs, thus allowing her to learn what she believes is right rather than what her world in Jamaica told her. And Great shows Gayle that she is a key member of the family. Gayle is the recipient of Great's "telling" as she has proven herself worthy of this role in the family's heritage.
Yet, it is the ending of this novel that holds the true power of where all of this family support brings Gayle. Gayle must come to the realization that she has led her cousin Cookie down the path she used to walk in Jamaica. It is up to Gayle to stop Cookie from going to her boyfriend's house to have sex, and, in doing so, Gayle stops herself from following this path of her past life. Gayle realizes and accepts that she is ready to be "saved" by "all yawl" in her family, and the novel ends with her telling her girls back in Jamaica, "Yawl shud come on down. Its so nice." She has found home.
It is Williams-Garcia's honest characterization of Gayle that makes this novel so powerful in its optimism. Gayle is a real adolescent who is confused by the pressures of her life in Jamaica, Queens, so much so that she is giving her body to every boyfriend she can get to prove herself worthy as a woman who can become pregnant. Gayle does not have an easy transition to her life in Georgia. It is only through her misguided but intentional corruption of Cookie that Gayle realizes she does not like who she is. At this point, the tough girl breaks down in tears and becomes Gayle who likes who Gayle is. This novel teaches us all about the pressures of urban life and how adolescents have the strength to succeed.
One Bird, by Kyoko Mori, offers a different culture's view of adolescence. Set in Japan, the novel traces the life of Megumi after her mother leaves her and her father. Wrapped tightly in the Japanese expectations of family and propriety, Megumi's story shows how one girl can rise above expectations to find what will make her whole. Through her relationship with the independent and nontraditional Dr. Mizutani, Megumi is able to put her own needs before society's expectations, and she creates a life for herself in which she can live with both parents.
One Bird offers a thought-provoking look into how a culture can overpower individuals. It also looks at how religion can play into this control. By showing an adult, Dr. Mizutani, who has survived after pulling away from these expectations, One Bird offers a solid example to validate the solution Megumi chooses. While learning about the Japanese culture, readers learn of the power an individual.
Both of these novels are deeply entrenched in their chosen settings; the settings offer teachable focal points. Both novels also have strong character development; in the novels, readers meet realistic and memorable characters who speak, think, and act as regular teenagers. Finally, the optimistic themes involving the triumph of the spirit over the pressures and expectations of one's culture, whether in an American city or Japan, are key lessons to teach young people today in a society where too often such triumphs are not celebrated.
I return to the question: are young adult novels the answer to our search for optimistic endings? The answer is, yes, many young adult works offer the optimistic endings students seek. The key to remember, though, is that, despite Donelson's and Nilsen's generalization, not every young adult book has an optimistic ending. But this gives more credit to the young adult field, a field that recognizes the nuances and contrasts of the subjects and styles of the authors and their books. The world of young adult literature is not so narrow as to encompass only optimistic endings.
The worth of young adult novels with optimistic endings cannot be overestimated. First, notice the titles my students read this year. Most are considered "classics" as opposed to young adult literature. The pessimistic ending abounds in works we deem "classic." Add to the list other selections from the traditional school canon: Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare, 1969), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald, 1953), Animal Farm (Orwell, 1946), and Othello (Shakespeare, 1970). For varied reasons, many of the "classics" do not have optimistic endings. Hence, we have a compelling reason to incorporate young adult literature into our students' reading as these novels can offer us optimistic endings.
We have another reason to use young adult literature. As Donelson and Nilsen point out, most of our students see pessimism every day on television. Talk shows provide one example. An onslaught of problems being aired and dismissed in an hour desensitizes us to feeling emotions and working through problems. Novels can give us these sensitivities back. Authors of the type of optimistic novel my students and I are interested in take the time to work realistically through problems and show how the next steps can be taken. Without such knowledge, high school students can get a skewed view of how humanity works.
The use of young adult literature is especially helpful in this area. "The impact of young adult novels is strong because they tend to deal with issues that are immediately relevant to adolescents and to use a style that is so accessible that it bypasses the need for translation by the intellect into emotional imagery" (Reid & Stringer, 1997). We need to recognize this power and use it to our advantage by offering optimistic young adult novels to our students.
Looking into the future of novels with optimistic endings, the road seems pretty smooth. While we do not want to be fooled, my students and I do not want to see only the dark and grim. We want a better world for ourselves and for our children to have a better world. Young adult authors know this, and those who write to satisfy this particular need will continue to write novels with optimistic endings that show how problems can be addressed, and how next steps can be found and taken. This does not disregard authors such as Robert Cormier, who admits that he does not worry about his audience when he writes (Cart, 1996). There is room for both types of books, since so many different types of students read the novels. The optimistic ending will survive, just as the pessimistic ending will, because both are part of the reality of adolescents' lives.
Returning, finally, to the original plea of my students, I can only answer: I do not know why we did not read anything happy this year. But be sure that this will change because the world is not just a place of pain and sadness, and literature is not either. There is optimism in many places; we should take advantage of it and learn from it so we can find it in our own lives.
Reid, S., & Stringer, S. (1997). Ethical dilemmas in teaching problem novels: The psychological impact of troubling YA literature on adolescent readers in the classroom. ALAN Review, 24(2).
Susanne Nobles is a teacher of English at Fredericksburg Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Reference Citation: Nobles, Suanne. (1998). " 'Why Don't We Ever Read Anything Happy?' YA Literature and the Optimistic Ending." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.