In direction of one of the most famous stories of Hans Christian Andersen "The Little Match Girl", I want to write a tragedy for children; a story dealing with children who are suffering and who may not even have hope for the future. I want to acknowledge such children, who are rarely mentioned in mainstream children's fiction. But I don't know what kind of endings I can write which will be interesting and less horrific. Some of my professional writer friends who read one of my drafts said that the atmosphere of my work is too dark for a child. One of them said: "It is dangerous for a child to read this because its ending is too interesting and dark for a child, and there is a fear that he/she lose his/her way of life in this darkness!"

How can I tell, by myself, the difference between a tragedy for children and a tragedy for adults? What differences are appropriate, in endings or other parts of the story? What kind of usual tragic endings are adequate for children?

I would like very much to see examples from famous tragic books for children (as appropriate endings) and quotes from drama theoreticians or other professionals (for inappropriate endings).

  • I am a professional mathematician interested in writing as a hobby. – user6242 Nov 14 '13 at 15:02
  • I am not certain that "The Little Match Girl" is a tragedy since she goes to heaven. Cinderella/rags to riches stories (where the child is in a miserable state at the start of the story) are common, but tragic endings are unlikely for stories for children. – Paul A. Clayton Nov 14 '13 at 15:51
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    @PaulA.Clayton "The Little Match Girl" isn't a tragedy; it's a horror story. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 14 '13 at 16:08
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    @PaulA.Clayton: I think "the little match girl" is really a tragedy first because dying by cold lonely on the curb and when almost all people of the city are in their warm homes beside their families is not a pleasant way for going to heaven! Furthermore I think Andersen tells us explicitly that "this is a tragedy based on a true story" when he describes the crying people who are coming out of a tragic theater and ignore the poor girl who appeal them to buy a box of her matches. So he tries to say that people used to cry for tragic imaginary stories and ignore tragic realities. – user6242 Nov 14 '13 at 16:23
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    Friendly plug: this question and its answers qualify for our Genre Q&A Contest! – Standback Nov 14 '13 at 19:59

Many of the original Grimm and Andersen fairytales had tragic elements in their endings. The Little Mermaid got legs, but every step felt like walking on broken glass, and she doesn't win the prince; she dissolves into seafoam and bubbles without ever getting her voice back. Cinderella's stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit the glass slipper, and her stepmother had to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she dropped dead. Sleeping Beauty was raped in her bespelled sleep, and only awoke when one of the twins she bore sucked on her finger and pulled out the poisoned bit of wood. These were stories for children.

I guess the difference between tragedy for children and for adults is mostly in degree, not in kind. The Grimms don't talk about how the knife feels cutting through the foot, or how the blood fills the toe of the slipper and spills out onto the floor which Cinderella (originally Ashputtel) spent so many hours on her knees scrubbing. You get the idea.

  • Andersen is an exception among writers for children because of his special character and mental diseases. He had a nervous breakdown and suicide when he was a young man. I think his really special tragic stories for children comes from his really special mind. – user6242 Nov 14 '13 at 18:58
  • @SaintGeorg "Special" is certainly one way of putting it. "Lovecraft on steroids" would be another. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 14 '13 at 20:05
  • Yes. Who saw "Old Yeller?" Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? (John Winger, played by Bill Murray, in Stripes). – J.R. Nov 15 '13 at 23:57
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    @J.R. Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, A Day No Pigs Would Die... there is no shortage of heartbreaking books for tweens. Are they tragedies in the Little Match Girl sense? I don't think so. More like Bildungsromans. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 16 '13 at 1:15
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    @LaurenIpsum - Charlotte's Web, too. Oh, that was rough when Charlotte died... – J.R. Nov 16 '13 at 14:53

I don't think you will find any tragedy for children found acceptable in these times. Grimm and Andersen got "grandfathered in" for being classics, even though they were rewritten in more "acceptable" forms for wide public. Currently though, when Uncle Tom's Cabin is found racist for using real language of times it describes, when Harry Potter is bashed for promoting occult practices, when you hear angry voices of angry moms whenever a cartoon displays anything but sweet cheerful imagery, the market for tragedy for children is pretty much dead.

There's a hundred good ways to do this, but you can be sure there will be people outraged at the very idea, and unable to accept even the most gentle of them.

Some examples:

  • Extend the story past death. The soul finds peace.
  • Reunion when it's too late. Finding peace while mortally ill, on deathbed.
  • Ride into the setting sun - abandon hopes that were ruined, give up in a vain struggle.
  • ...and on moonless nights you can see a ghost picking flowers, where...
  • The life was such a struggle, that a peaceful death is a welcome respite.
  • Sentenced to an eternal duty, never able to get the deserved rest. The ultimate fate is bad, but isn't the worst.

Try to make the ending bittersweet, not just bitter. Give the reader a small candy.

I can give you one modern example: Spielberg's A.I.. It would be a story of futile search sentenced to ultimate failure, but it's given an extra ending, where the protagonist is given one day of his wish.

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    A.I. is an excellent tragic story for children with one of the most horrific real endings when the poor child robot kills himself by falling into the sea from the top of the tower of his dreams! I think the film actually ends here and the picture of this scene remains stable forever, the piteous picture of the suicide of a child just because nobody loves him in the world! Unfortunately here the extra ending is totally useless and unstable because the bitterness of the primary ending is too much and one can not sweeten it by any other imaginary extra story line and secondary endings. – user6242 Nov 15 '13 at 11:33
  • @SaintGeorg: That's how it works for adults. Children are more willing to suspend disbelief, seek comfort, and accept the extra ending. That way the goal is achieved: we have a tragedy that is just as tragic for adults (who reject the candy) as for children (for whom the harsh early ending would be too much, so the impact is softened by the unbelievable but nice second ending.) – SF. Nov 15 '13 at 11:44
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    In fact both "A.I." and "The Little Match Girl" are a tragedy for both children and adults. But I think in the case of A.I. the secondary ending is a bit complicated to follow by a child (or even an adult!). I don't forget my emotional reaction when I saw the film for the first time: after the primary ending I said "Excellent! That is a masterwork!" and after the secondary ending I said "What? It is a terrible ending for such an excellent story!" – user6242 Nov 15 '13 at 12:00
  • @SaintGeorg: Heh. This is what master writers do when pressed by editors/legal/etc. They write a kludge that satisfies the conditions but is outright rejected by informed audience. The child will understand the key phrases and ideas, and won't dwell on whether that's probable or not, because of the complexity. An adult will just reject it. Take a different such ending: the anime Death Note. The "Good wins" ending is in fact a depiction of "This is why Good just couldn't win." A set of circumstances so ridiculously implausible the audience will outright reject it. – SF. Nov 15 '13 at 12:08
  • +1 and even "grandfathered" stories are subject to PTA parents types who won't let Bamby die or Grandma to be eaten by the Wolf. However compromising the story because narowminded people object to it may not be an acceptable option. – Reed -SE is a Fish on Dry Land Aug 23 '16 at 1:20

I read aloud to my children regularly, and, knowing nothing about the book other than it had won a Newbery Medal, I naively picked up Bridge to Terabithia for our nightly read-alouds. If you're not familiar with the book, it has, shall we say, a very tragic plot twist.

Years later, when a movie based on the book was released, I remember reading a lot of consternated letters from irate parents. Apparently, many parents were caught off-guard in a similar manner, going to the theater with excited smiles, and driving home wiping tears from their cheeks.

Assuming it's very well-written, if you end up authoring a book that doesn't have the usual storybook happy ending, be prepared to face both high praise and sharp criticism. Terabithia has received plenty of both in its day. Some give high praise for the way the author handles its delicate and mature subject matter, some express ire at giving children so much to grieve over.

Bottom line? Remember your audience. Find some way to let the kids down easy after you've punched them in the gut and knocked the wind out of them. Do not be graphic about a beloved character's demise.

I read nightly to my kids for about 20 years. We went through some very memorable books, but no book ever hit me harder than Terabithia. That said, if I had a chance to go back in time and make a more informed decision, I would take the book home again without hesitation. Sure, it was a rough read, but we had more than enough fairytale endings in other books to make up for it.

As an epilogue, all my children seem very well-adjusted to this day.

  • I think reading books for children is the best gift which parents can give to their children. My mother gave me such a gift. I wish you a merry life. – user6242 Nov 16 '13 at 0:12
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    Terabithia similarly broke my heart, but it's a beautiful story and I will read it to my offspring as well. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Nov 16 '13 at 1:18

A classic one can be for example the Spanish "Lazarillo de Tormes", I am not really sure if it is adapted, but it is really important in my country: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazarillo_de_Tormes

Then a modern one can be "The boy in the striped pyjamas", the main idea of the plot is different, but you can feel how the boy suffers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boy_in_the_Striped_Pyjamas

Edit: both are tragedy about children, but not for children.

  • Thanks for your references serfe. I don't know why but it seems there is a powerful trend in Spanish literature for writing tragic and horror stories about (and probably for) children. I can not read the Spanish texts perfectly now but I can bring some examples by movies: "El laberinto del fauno", "El Orfanato" and "The Others" (Written and directed by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar). – user6242 Nov 14 '13 at 17:20

God save the next generation from adults who don’t want children to feel sad, ever, for any reason (except perhaps for failing to follow the advice of their elders). If I ever write a story that makes children cry the way that Bridge to Terabithia made me cry, I will feel like I’ve accomplished something.

There is a series of DVDs on paleontology (dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals) that my kids just love. Each episode tells the story of some plucky little animal, emblematic of its era, and in most of the episodes, the hero is tragically eaten, or starves to death, or chokes on dust kicked up from a meteor strike, or some such.

Of course, this show was produced by the BBC. If an American company had made it, all the stories would have happy endings.

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    This is a good example of a tragic documentary movie. Another example of B.B.C tragic documentaries is "Dangerous Knowledge" about the lamentable fate of three famous mathematicians Georg Cantor, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing to madness or suicide. It is obvious that the "real life" has two "happy" and "sad" faces like masks in a theater logo. I believe we should show both of these faces to our children in their childhood because this can prepare them for our merciless world. The effect of reading "the little match girl" for a child could be learning to pay attention to little match girls. – user6242 Nov 18 '13 at 17:28

There are actually quite a lot of popular and critically acclaimed children's books with tragic elements. Many kids dislike these, of course: I remember despising Bridge to Terebithia as a child, and Gordon Korman even wrote a book called No More Dead Dogs mocking the prevalence of the dead pet subgenre of children's books. However, they are popular among parents and teachers, and even some children love them.

However, unlike adults, who have some experience of both life and literature to fall back on, children are new to the world, and things can accordingly have a much more powerful impact on them. They may take what they read as a model to follow, or a foreshadowing of what life will actually be like for them. For that reason, I'd suggest either writing a positive, life-affirming book with tragic elements (Charlotte's Web) or a bleak, dark book with a happy ending (The Wolves of Willougby Chase) because where an adult might find a bleak book followed by a bleak ending cathartic and even perhaps pleasurable, a child is likely to just find it horribly depressing.

You might ask yourself why you want to write this book for children. There are a number of tragic books about children but for adults, is it possible you want to write one of those? Typically most serious children's book have some aspect of teaching, what do you want your reader to learn? Most tragic children's books have the theme that death is a part of life, but life is still worth living. If you're contradicting that lesson, you'll get a lot of resistance (and perhaps rightfully so).

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