When I was in graduate school for writing, I attended a lecture by Ellen Lesser on narrative resolution. This was just a few months after the infamous “Sopranos” series finale (in which Tony and his family’s fate is left unclear). At the apex of the final scene’s action, the screen goes to black. The writer who gave the lecture used this example to lead a discussion on such unresolved endings in literature. When is it useful or wise to leave the characters’ fates unclear? Lesser argued that sometimes it’s the only possible way to end a story- hinged on such uncertainty. The trick and mark of a good writer is knowing when no other ending will do. Yes, you could argue this topic does not apply to children, but as I’ve argued in the past, they have a firmer grasp on the rules of storytelling than you’d imagine they would.
    A few posts ago I mentioned that I’d read The Three Little Bears to my daughter for the first time. A simple enough story – and seemingly perfect for a three-year-old currently very interested in sizes (small, medium large) who also clearly understands that somethings belong to her and some do not. She also has a basic understanding of property and what a violation of that property might entail. And so it was with this prior knowledge that she listened intently as I read and reread this classic story aloud to her. What I am left pondering as an adult is the unresolved ending. Do you remember how it ends? You probably recall that the three bears come home to find that Goldilocks has broken in, eaten their food, and slept in all of their beds. She is still sleeping in the baby bear’s bed when they get home, but manages to run away. The final line of the story reads: “And she never went back to the bears’ house again.” Well why was she there in the first place? And why did the three BEARS not chase after her – even if they’re benevolent, don’t they want some answers?
    I should add that my three-and-half-year-old daughter does not have any such issue with this ending. At this point, she seems content that the little girl gets away safely. When does it benefit the reader to imagine the true outcome of a story? Perhaps Goldilocks was experiencing some preteen angst, just trying on a few different identities for size. Then, before it’s too late, realizing her mistakes, she’s able to escape from any real danger. The plot reminds me of another lecture by fellow graduate student Heather Bryant called: “Everything I Need to Know About Plot I learned from Sweet Valley High.” You remember those books, right? And the one on twins for adolescents (Gaffney, remember our slumber parties when we raced to finish the books in one night?) Anyway, this lecturer very cleverly broke down many of literature’s archetypal plots using Francine Pascal’s books as her guide. There is the Tug-of-War Plot, the Underdog Plot, the Queen Bee Plot, the Role Reversal Plot, to name a few. But I believe that the The Three Little Bears would fall under the Out-of-Character Plot, in which: “one character wants something for which he or she is willing to change drastically. The consequences of that change aren’t apparent until it’s too late.” In Goldilocks’s case, we are left to wonder whether or not it was too late. She never went back to their house, but how might this experience have affected or altered her identity? Like Tony Soprano, when the lights go dark and the story ends, are we to imagine her happily living with her family (though possibly recklessly) in a house not too far from the woods? Or, does she never return to the house because she never has the opportunity to? Some literary interpretations and early tellings of this story suggest that she never makes it out of the woods–that the story is a cautionary tale. So what do you say when your child asks you, what happens to Goldilocks? I’ve relayed here that my daughter seems confounded by the end of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt for similar reasons. The plot is illogical, probably a “Forbidden Fruit Plot” Bryant would argue – in which the “character does a forbidden thing with immediate or long-term consequences.” The basic rule of plot is that there has to be a change. In children’s literature – or the watered down version we often read – there often is no change or consequence. I think that’s okay – there is plenty of time for fables and original fairy tales, but sooner or later, the little readers begin to ask questions, ones that we have to be ready to answer…

What we’re reading now: stories by Margaret Wise Brown

Why: they are beautifully collected in our copy of Sleepytime Tales

What I’m looking for: What are your favorite fairy tales?