The Way Things End

My classmates and I grew up in the 1990s and came of age in the 2000s. We lived, we were told, in the era after history. The Cold War had ended; the first Gulf War had gone well; the stock market was exciting but benign. AIDS had been, if not tamed, then at least partially defanged, though I don’t recall my hometown paper covering that last point as assiduously as it did the first three.

The country was strong and prosperous. That message was everywhere, from our textbooks to our televisions. It was implicit in the prevalence of fast-fashion chains and in the chaotic flash of the consumer electronics boom: go ahead, spend that money! You won’t need it later. Tomorrow would be better than today, and if we were smart and did our homework and ate all our vegetables, we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be, because the dragons had all been slain. All that was left was spot cleanup and the glorious joy of the Future. We were growing up in a happily ever after.

You can guess where I’m going with this, because we’re all living through it. Surprise! Here we are, and the world holds neither the unquestioned joy of “happily,” nor the comfortable cosmic certainty of “ever after.”

This is not a woe-is-us post. We’re hardly the first people in history to confront a world that doesn’t match the rhetoric, and it’s not as if the rhetoric described everyone’s worlds in the first place.

No, this post, like pretty much all of the posts that will hopefully follow it, is about stories.

There was a small shelf of fairy tales at one of my favorite libraries when I was a teenager, and I liked to poke through them on occasion. Their plots honestly run together. The many ways to trick a troll or a witch or the tsar turn out to be remarkably similar, and the hero is almost always young and beautiful, or anyways young. I loved to read those stories. Some day I might talk about one or two of my favorites. Most of them, though, evaporated from my memory as soon as I turned the page.

What stuck with me were the endings. Every book had some happily-ever-afters, but there was a wide spectrum to visit beyond that. In a tall volume of Norwegian tales I found the equivocal “and if they’re not dead, they’re still alive.” In Russian stories there were mysterious instances in which the speaker, at the end, would announce that he was in fact witness to the close of this story—the wedding or the party or the execution, whatever it was—and that he had drunk soup there, and that, at least in the translation I remember best, “it ran down my mustache but didn’t go into my mouth.”

I say soup. Sometimes it’s soup, sometimes it’s beer. This is a blog about children’s books, but I’m not going to pretend it’s always soup.

I’m not going to pretend, either, that I understand the full significance of these endings in their original languages and contexts. But even in translation, there’s a kind of suspension that fills your heart to the brim in an ending where the characters’ fates are given in only the very broadest, very most factual terms: they’re either dead or alive, and that’s the truth. And there’s something better than closure when, at the finale of a tale told well, the formerly anonymous narrator announces that he and his mustache were in fact present at the events described. It brings the fantastical world of the story into our world after all, our world with pots and pans and soup and mustaches.

Happily ever after is good sometimes. I’m just noting that there are options.

Those options, for the record, are specific to fairy tales. We don’t get to pick and choose from them in our own lives. We don’t get to decide whether we end up with a mug and a mustache or an ever after. No matter how we want to tell our own stories, no matter how perfectly we set up our narrative arc, things will go wrong that we have little control over, or none at all. No one chooses an autoimmune disorder or a house fire. No one chooses a hurricane, a civil war, or the murder of a friend. Sometimes we lose. I hope when we do we can go back and try our hardest to pick up where we left off, or that we start again from where we are. Still, it’s a true thing: sometimes we lose. Sometimes the dragon swallows us whole.

No matter what we were told as children, and no matter what we may tell ourselves, we don’t live in the blank pages after the story ends, free to pen our own personal narrative from scratch. We live instead in a complex, sprawling, ungainly mass of words somewhere in the middle of a draft that several thousand people are editing simultaneously. We fight to make a story we want to live in, but a large part of what most of us strive for, regardless of whether we have kids or grandkids or simply people and institutions that we care about, is that the story keeps going after us. We strive to build a narrative where we don’t live to see the end.

In that narrative, we tell stories. We wash the dishes and turn down the lights and spin tales for one another. It’s the one time we get to make a unilateral decision on what happens next. It’s the one time we get to wrap everything up for ourselves. We decide, in our tellings, whether Cinderella marries the prince or instead goes into business with her fairy godmother making temporary carriages for local pubgoers. We decide whether only a royal family gets a happily-ever-after, or whether we can imagine what one might look like for a refugee. We decide what stories we’re willing to end with the admission that we were there, and we drank the soup: we saw what happened, and we celebrated, or we saw what happened, and we drank our soup anyway.

Stories by themselves don’t make us who we are, and they don’t make the world what it is. Even so, they’re how we make sense of ourselves and the people we see around us, and because of that they’re indispensable. The point of this blog is to talk about stories—specifically some of the stories we make for kids, which are frequently just as good for adults. Mostly it won’t be as philosophical as all of this. Definitely it won’t usually be this long.

Sometimes things will run this long because they need to be said all the way through.

Mostly it’s going to be stuff about books and pictures. There will be the occasional dragon, too. I think we can agree that they haven’t all been slain, and also that maybe that’s sometimes just as well, all things considered.

But that’s a conversation for another day. In the meantime, welcome. Glad you’re here.