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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A mouse, a science fair, and vague endings

Young readers are often exasperated by the endings of my books, because they tend not to wrap things up neatly enough. One reader called one ending “retarded,” which is a word better applied to books than people, at least. But today I discovered I’m in company with a far far better writer: E.B. White used to get much the same complaint, if in different vocabulary.

Most young people who read any of my books read The Revealers in school, and if I visit with them to talk about the book and answer their questions, as I’ll do at the West Rutland (Vt.) School tomorrow, they’ll often take issue with the way the story ends. How come we don’t find out if Russell, Elliot and Catalina won the Creative Science Fair? What’s going on inside Richie’s family that makes him so angry? And — this is projection into the future, which a lot of middle schoolers seem to do — will one character wind up in a romance with another? Will (I’ve been asked this) they get married and have babies?

The most honest answer is I have no idea, but I try to be cooperative. Some of the questions, I’ll say, get answered in the book’s followup novel, True Shoes — but some are just plain left open, or left to the reader’s imagination. I’ll say that since I write realistic stories, I want the story to feel like real life, which goes on. Russell and Elliot, after the end of The Revealers, will have to come back to school the next day. The same kids will be there. Nobody will have turned into pure saints or pure sinners; they’ll all still be people. Life will go on.

This satisfies nobody, pretty much. I wonder if maybe the transition from reading stories for children to reading stories for young adults and then adults — the transition my middle-school readers are in — involves developing some tolerance for stories that aren’t all wrapped up at the end. But are children’s stories, always? That’s a much bigger subject than I can get into; but today, as I mentioned, I learned that E.B. White got years of similar feedback.

Children and school classes wrote the author of Charlotte’s Web to say they were curious about, if not unhappy with, the ending of Stuart Little, his first novel for young readers. I remember wondering about it myself. As the story closes, Stuart the mouse has set off on a journey to find Margallo, the bird he loves. We have no idea whether he’ll ever succeed. To the author, that doesn’t seem to be the point.

“Quite a number of children have written me to ask about Stuart,” White wrote in April 1955, in a letter collected in Letters of E.B. White, which I’ve been re-reading. “They want to know whether he got back home and whether he found Margallo. They are good questions but I did not answer them in the book because, in a way, Stuart’s journey symbolizes the continuing journey that everybody takes — in search of what is perfect and unattainable. This is perhaps too elusive an idea to put into a book for children, but I put it in anyway.”

I think when I’m asked about my endings, from now on I’ll just talk about this letter. I’m pretty sure nothing in my stuff has ever symbolized anything — but White was a great writer, so he may have known how to do that. At any rate, it makes me happy or comforted to know I’m in such high-level company. And maybe telling this story will satisfy more readers than I've been able to so far.

I figure it's worth a try.

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