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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.

Why do YA readers so often hate the endings of YA novels?

The other day an article in the Washington Post asked, “What book has the most disappointing ending?”

“So much of how we feel about a novel depends on how the novel ends,” writes Post book critic Ron Charles. His piece veers into comedy: After an online retailer “sifted through reviews on Goodreads to identify the Books with the Most Disappointing Endings,” it found that “British writers are particularly disappointing. That hack William Shakespeare wrote the worst finale of all time. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson’s friend Milhouse: ‘How could this have happened? We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but instead it ended in tragedy.’ ... And gazillionaire writer J.K. Rowling magically takes two spots.”

And to me, here something very interesting: The ten worst-endings list also includes Lord of the Flies, Bridge to Terabithia, The Giver, and Stephanie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn. So out of ten consensus choices, five are young-adult novels — or six if you count Lord of the Flies, seven if you add Where the Red Fern Grows.

I have a theory about this, from personal experience. Young readers tend to hate my books’ endings. One called the last chapter of my novel Falling “retarded,” and many (very many) have shared their exasperation with the ending of The Revealers. I’ve had that conversation at least a hundred times.

And the way those novels end is: life goes on.

As Falling ends, ninth grader Matt knows that by keeping a dangerous secret from his girlfriend Katie, he put her at a serious risk; and though he hopes to earn back her trust, he doesn’t know if he can. At the end of The Revealers, we don’t know absolutely that Russell, Elliot and Catalina won the Creative Science Fair with their multimedia project about bullying. Kids want that certainty. Also, they ask, what happens next in their lives?

But for me, that’s the thing: life does go on. A story has an arc, and the arc comes to a place where the story ends — but realistic fiction, at least, should also mirror real life. My characters will come back to school tomorrow. Everyone will not suddenly be nice, there will be things to deal with, and if we are lucky, there will be another day after that.

I wonder sometimes if this is one of the quiet functions of good YA fiction: It helps young readers graduate from childhood stories that tend to be more neatly wrapped up, to stories that are more open-ended.

“We hate endings that are too predictable, and we hate endings that are too surprising,” writes Ron Charles. “We hate endings that are rushed, and we hate endings that are drawn out. And we really hate the endings of books we read in ninth grade.”

Well, what do I know. But maybe this is why.

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