Thursday, August 31, 2023

And They All Live Happily Ever After ...Not! Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

 Has this ever happened to you? You've invested hours, days, weeks of your precious reading time in the Novel of the Season. The writing is wonderful, the plot a page turner. The characters have become like members of your family. The  book resides in your brain when you've not reading. This is the best book ever until...

Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am... it's over. It's over and you feel cheated. What a terrible ending! Maybe it was ludicrous, given the 400 previous pages. Maybe you didn't see it coming...and not in a good way. Maybe the writer got tired and looked for the nearest exit ramp.

Endings are your final impression of a book. A sucky ending is not likely encourage you to read another book by that author. And we authors do like return readers. (So do publishers.)

One of the reasons I became a writer was the awful endings of books as I read as a kid. The books available to me in the 60's were primarily written in the 50's and 40's, the Era of Perpetually Happy Endings. No names mentioned, but there were a couple of "teen romance" writers whose plain but brilliant female main character always landed her dream boat by the last page. If Dreamboat had discovered the inner beauty of Plain Jane, I would've been happy, but that's not what happened. In every single book, Jane suddenly became a curvaceous beauty, with a perfect complexion and shimmering hair. I can't tell you the number of times 10-year-old me threw a book across the room, yelling, "Real life isn't like that!" I vowed to myself I'd become a writer of books with Real Life endings.

The first Real Life ending I encountered (although I didn't realize it) was Charlotte's Web when I was 8. I cried for days (one of the few books that have made me cry.) I didn't really think very much about why E.B White chose to end his book that way, until I was in the Vermont College MFA program. Someone on the faculty--if only I could remember who--said, "Endings should be inevitable." Light bulbs! Fireworks! Lightening! Yes! But the lecturer was still talking, "Inevitable doesn't need to be predictable. The ending should be organic to what has come before." Ding ding ding! In two minutes, I learned the secret of a good ending.

Now all I had to do was write one.  

There are people who don't write without an outline, complete with ending. I'm not one of those people. I know the beginning, I know some of what happens in the middle...but the end? The end is always as much of a surprise to me as I hope it is to the reader. If I have to think hard, then the end is neither inevitable or organic. It's just an ending.

In writing both of my middle grade novels, Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars, I thought I had the end firmly in mind and then... In Yankee Girl, several new characters came out of nowhere, jumped in the scene and took it to another place all together, with me, racing behind, trying to keep up. Jimmy's Stars had my main character remember something from chapter one--something I had forgotten--that ended the story for me. Organically. Inevitably.

Picture books are a little easier to end, because the story isn't as complicated. However, I had no idea how to end First Grade Stinks. I didn't so much write that one, as take dictation. My daughter came home from school every day with a new complaint about first grade. Why wasn't it cool, like kindergarten? I couldn't use reality here, because my daughter and her first grade teacher never came to terms. I had to let that one "germinate" in the computer files for a year as I contemplated what my character... wanted from first grade...and what she really needed. What she needed was a new attitude. Once she found that...the ending came all in a rush. Happily-ever-after-but with a twist of reality.

Not all my readers appreciate my endings. I've lost count of the kids who've asked  "Why did such and such have to happen?  That was so sad!"   I ask them, "So what would the story be if that thing didn't happen?" The answer is usually, "Well then Ellie/Alice Ann/Lily would be happy." 

"OK, now tell me your version of the story," I say. The young reader starts to retell the story until the troubling plot point. They fumble around for a minute, before saying "And they all lived happily ever after." Pause. "That's not a very good story, my way, is it?" Nope. (No conflict, no story...but that's a different post.) How the character (and author) handle and resolve conflict realistically makes a satisfying ending.

 I'm sure there are kids all over the world, throwing my books across the room, yelling, "What a dumb ending!" But I'll bet they don't say "Real life isn't like that."

And they always ask about a sequel.

P.S. Indulge me a minute. This is my daughter, on the first day of kindergarten, and the same daughter, heading off to her first week of teaching her own Pre-K class. I could not be prouder of her. She also uses "extra story time" as a class reward. If you're a picture book writer and you're my friend, your books are in her classroom library.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, August 18, 2023

Once upon a time...


Once upon a time, I had the good fortune to learn from the late 

and oh, so wise award-winning author and teacher Richard Peck.

When it comes to crafting story, he taught me, 

“In the beginning is the end, in the end is the beginning.”

It matters little what my character seeks –

a problem’s solution,

a need’s fulfillment,

the realization of a dream,

the granting of a wish.

Somewhere within the story’s requisite inevitable yet surprising 

satisfactory resolution lies its start.


Mr. Peck’s sage advice has become a mantra of sorts, one I gladly 

repeat to myself as well as my writers and students when we find 

ourselves facing unreachable endings to our stories.

His words provide the perfect Rx.

Revisiting a story’s beginning allows us to reconnect with our 

characters to finally see their narrative arcs, to remind ourselves 

what our story is about, to remember our story’s promise to the 


The beginning and end need to be of a piece so the story works as 

an harmonious whole.


Even better, though, especially for picture book writers, revisiting

 a story’s beginning words – those we chose when we launched our 

story, often reveals hidden nuggets that await discovery and 


A word ripe for word play or repetition.

A phrase worthy of a refrain.

A reader-grabbing sentiment, revealing the story’s heart.

For example, in my There Goes Lowell’s Party! (Holiday House), 

with his faith in his family’s love and resourcefulness to over-

come all obstacles confirmed, Lowell confidently casts all doubt 

aside and declares: “Here comes my party!

In my Fancy That (Holiday House), Pippin Biddle honors his 

“Though far, I am near, cheering you on!” promise to his sisters to 

save them from the Poor House, prompting the sisters to in time

exclaim, “Though far, you were near, cheering us on!”

My chosen story structure in Chicken Soup By Heart (Simon & 

Schuster) – a story within a story – begins and ends with, “Here it 

is, from start to finish, how such a nice boychik saved the Chicken 

Soup Queen.”


Of course, and fortunately, Richard Peck taught me far more than 

the craft of writing. He modeled for writers, published or not, 

dedication to craft and dogged pursuit of one’s dreams.

Yes, our stories’ ends must hold their original beginnings and vice-


But his multitude of singular characters showed me what all of our 

story characters come to learn if they are different for the Journey:  

like all ends, THE END inevitably births new and surprising

 satisfactory Once upon a times!


Thanks to Molly at Nix the Comfort Zone for hosting today’s Poetry 


Here’s to Happy-Ever-After endings – my favorite kind!


Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, August 4, 2023

Last Echoes


I once walked a family member through the process of writing a eulogy. They were grief stricken by the loss but also about to step into battle with the surviving family members over the inheritance.  Before the death, the family found themselves in a tangled web of nastiness.  

When I arrived in town to help the family member tasked with delivering the eulogy, I found that he had written very little for the service the next day and what he had written was a mess of ego-based, one upmanship of the family members he was outraged over. A self rightous attempt to gain control, He was ready to air the dirty laundry of the family to the captive audience attending the funeral. My writing skills kicked in and I began the very painful rewriting process, moving him away from using the pulpit to shame the relatives and toward telling his father’s life story.  My message was strong, clear, and unwavering. 

“ You are retelling the highlights of this man’s lifetime.  Your are telling this man's final story. It is the one and only time it will get told succinctly to those who have gathered to say goodbye. This is the last echo of his life.

I surprised myself that I was able to tease a decent eulogy out in the wee hours of the morning before the funeral.  But then again, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  It’s how I approach the ending of most of my stories.  The ending is the echo of the heartbeat of the story, whether it’s a picture book, a graphic novel, or a YA novel that I’m writing.  My two published picture books and my other stories that are out on submission end with that echo…the bookend of a circular story if you will.

 Egyptian Lullaby Illustrated by Hatem Aly  (Roaring Brook Press)

Hello, Little One:  A Monarch Butterfly Story Illustrated by Fiona Halliday  (Page Street Kids)

As an artist and writer, I tend to be somewhat metacognitive. I spend a significant amount of time reflecting on my process and analyzing my intentions.  My why as an artist is the desire to provoke discourse.  I want to challenge thinking and create dialogue so that people communicate, connect, and think…even small children.  That ending echo is the most important  beat of the story.  It ensures that engagement occurs and for me, what is art without engagement?

I love the quote that April highlighted in her last post and her description of serpentine endings. 

"One way to end the poem is to turn it back on itself, like a serpent with its tail in its mouth." ~ Maxine Kumin

Her post helped give me context to what I do.  She helped me name and identify my approach to endings.  I hope that our two posts back-to-back bring to you some thoughts and reflections on your own writing process as you explore… HOW DO YOU APPROACH ENDINGS?

For me…whether it’s a picture book, a graphic novel, a YA novel, or the eulogy at the end of one’s life, the ending is the final echo of the story.