“The end never comes when you think it will. It’s always ten steps past the worst moment, then a weird turn to the left.”-Lena Dunham
I’ve been struggling with endings lately. So I did my usual thing—went back to some of my mentor books. And I found three books I want to talk about:
- I Don’t Like Koala, written by Sean Ferrell; illustrated by Charles Santoso
- Bike on, Bear, written by Cynthea Liu; illustrated by Kristyna Litten
- Bob, Not Bob!, written by Liz Garton Scanlon & Audrey Vernick; illustrated by Matthew Cordell
In each of these books, the ending circles back–in some way–to the beginning. It’s a type of ending I find very satisfying, for a few reasons:
- These endings often bring in a last drop of humor—always a good way to engage readers (and listeners). Humor can (in a good way) undermine the story theme just a little bit, making that theme more “digestible” for a young child.
- They can give the child a chance to make connections. This adds to their sense of themselves as a reader, which—in turn—takes them a step deeper into loving to read.
- They can re-open the story from a new angle or pose the possibility of a new story that branches off from the old one. These endings help a child step into imagination and discuss what could come next and how it might be the same or different as what has come before.
Bike On, Bear
Bear is good at everything except riding a bike. He tries over and over, even follows all the instructions from a book on bicycling. But he can’t do it. At least, he can’t until a kid (yes, a baby goat!) is in danger. Then everything Bear has learned comes together. He jumps on a bike and—without even thinking—he rides to the rescue. Bear is honored with an award and with the lines “In fact, Bear could do practically anything. Bike on, Bear!”
But those lines aren’t the ending. One more turn page and one more word: “Except.” Because Bear also doesn’t know how to swim.
Note: There is not a drop of “message-y” feel to Bike On, Bear. I love it—Bear is delightful, and the book is a beautiful example of using sets of threes to tell a story. But the book does have a theme; it goes something like: If you persist, you’ll achieve your goal, with a corollary of, Often, when you least expect it.
But, with the “Except,” the author has loosened up the beautifully wrapped packaged, just a little, making more room for the child to identify with Bear. They always have to try new things, definitely more than once, and so does Bear. This connection can deepen the child’s empathy with Bear, and—in doing so–can deepen their understanding of that extra story layer the author is trying to share.
I Don’t Like Koala
In I Don’t Like Koala, Adam repeats the title sentence over and over, about Koala—a plush toy someone has given him. Because Adam is afraid of Koala, he tries everything to get rid of the toy. But Koala always shows up again. Not only that, but Adam’s mom and dad keep reminding him not to “forget” or “lose” Koala. The story resolves at the end of the day, when Adam can’t go to sleep because the shadows in his bedroom are too frightening. Once he realizes, however, that Koala’s scariness works on the shadows and that Koala will keep him safe, Adam falls sound asleep.
Again, that’s not the ending.
On the final page, Adam’s parents see Adam asleep, with Koala beside him. And Adam’s dad says… “I don’t like Koala.”
Children will recognize the final repetition of that sentence, and they’ll see that this is a new twist on the words. They’ll laugh, and they’ll wonder whether Adam’s dad is afraid of Koala now. Connections like this are the building blocks of reading and, equally important, of a child’s beginning to identify themselves as a Reader. Children will feel a sense of ownership about the sentence; many will demand to “read” it each time they ask for the story. Which, in all likelihood, will happen again and again.
B♡ b, Not Bob
Little Louie sneezes, the first sign that he has a cold—a cold that makes “Mom” sound like “Bob,” the name of Little Louie’s slobbery Great Dane. Every time Louie calls for his mother, he gets Bob. The confusion and the frustration and build until both Louie and Mom are exhausted. Worn out, they curl up together for a nap—pretty much what Louie has wanted all along. Louie eventually gets better, playing happily by himself again, and calling—this time—for Bob to join him. Louie doesn’t need his mom quite so much now, but, ”…he thought it was awfully nice when she came running too.”
Ending? Ha! Turn the page.
Mom sneezes. And Mom’s sneeze creates an opportunity for more story, presenting one of the best and most important questions a book can ask a child: “What happens next?” How will Mom sound with the cold? How will Louie take care of Mom? How is Bob—despite being so well-meaning—going to get in the way this time around? An ending like this sparks a child’s imagination, making room for their ideas about ways they might add onto the story or even go back and change part of it. Now the book is not only helping to grow readers, it’s helping to grow thinkers and—depending on how each child chooses to express their ideas—writers, actors, illustrators (and probably a few veterinarians).
The circle-backs in each of these books does more than one of the things I listed above. Pick them up, read them through, and explore the endings for yourself.
After years of reading long Victorian novels, Becky Levine worked in closed-captioning, where they basically paid her to get rid of words. Somehow, that early mash-up of story and editing led to the picture-books she writes today. Becky is the author of two books for Capstone Press and is a member of SCBWI. She lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains and works as Grants Manager for a regional nonprofit. In her free time, Becky travels with her husband in their Vanagon, including frequent road-trips to visit their son, and knits very simple baby blankets.