Children's books with realistic/ambiguous plots
December 2, 2016 7:39 AM   Subscribe

Most American children's books seem to have a predicatable plot with challenges that are eventually overcome with (nearly) complete success. Sometimes it takes three tries, and sometimes there's a twist, but everyone goes home mostly happy. I am looking for kid's books with more realistic depictions of the process of failure and the ambiguity of human experience.

I don't mean depressing, just realistic. Adults know that sometimes you can't make friends with someone, you just have to deal with them / sometimes you fail and fail and fail and only get a little bit better at something / sometimes 'good enough' is fine and you should cut your losses and move on but it seems to me that the majority of books for younger readers are framed in much more optimistic tones. I've found some exceptions (e.g. Jon Klassen--especially Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and the hat books) but I'm coming up mostly empty. Please save me from sappy cheerfulness. English-only, picture books best but up to middle grade is fine.
posted by epanalepsis to Education (34 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The first author I thought of with your question was Roald Dahl.

I grew up reading Matilda, The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In these novels, the good guys don't always meet with complete success (Matilda loses her unchanging, selfish parents, although she gains a new adoptive parent; the boy from the Witches remains a mouse and accepts his shorter mouse-lifespan; and the children in Charlie and the Chocolate factory end up having to live with the consequences of their actions, although Charlie makes it out okay).

I just always loved that Dahl had real consequences. Real villains, but also ambiguously villanous people. Good endings, but not necessarily Happy endings.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:49 AM on December 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
posted by Ideal Impulse at 7:51 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Winston Was Worried - dog winges about his own problems, ignoring the (worse) problems of those around him. He doesn't really learn a lesson. (Text of book)
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:52 AM on December 2, 2016

Perhaps The Man with the Violin, not depressing per se but definitely ambiguous. (Fictionalized picture book on how Joshua Bell played the violin in the subway one day, and nobody noticed it was him.)

I lived the experiences in Peggy Parrish's Willie is My Brother.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder books rarely have happy endings.
posted by Melismata at 7:56 AM on December 2, 2016

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Yes, it says the tree is happy to give the boy a place to sit, but the reality is he's making the best of a situation where he's been cut down to a small stump.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:03 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Karen Cushman's books have some of this. In the ones I read (her first four) as a pre-teen, the protagonist has some goal to start with--have a career as a noblewoman in Medieval England, go back home to New England, go back to the monastery they came from, etc.-- and they end up realizing that that will never happen, and make the best of their situation, often the feeling that the protagonist still has a lot of work to do.
posted by damayanti at 8:05 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

My son loves books like these. Absolutely Roald Dahl - Danny Champion of the World is just the best. Real world consequences, difficulties, and joy. There is so much richness in the book in terms of dealing with hard times, mean people, and adversity and not always winning. I think it is Dalh's best work by far. I must have read it more than 10x with him.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen also comes to mind. Also Holes by Louis Sachar. All of the books mentioned here have "happy endings," but there is real adversity with consequences (e.g., people die and not in a sugar-coated way) in each.
posted by Mid at 8:08 AM on December 2, 2016

Best answer: Funny, I was going to suggest Sam and Dave Dig a Hole before I clicked through! You probably also already know about This is Not My Hat, but if not that would fit the bill exactly.

One I really like reading is Waiting by Keven Henkes. A quiet book but really beautiful and reflective. There is a very quiet meditation on loss that is thrown in there that, in particular, is quite moving.

You could dry Dragons Love Tacos, which is a very funny book that results in the consequences of not getting a party quite right (dragons burn down your home because you accidentally served spicy salsa).

Neil Gaiman is a great author for adding some darkness to stories and he has quite a few children's-to-middle grade titles.
posted by LKWorking at 8:11 AM on December 2, 2016

There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom, also by Louis Sachar, is a really wonderful book about a boy with no friends and emotional problems, and his friendship with his new guidance counselor. It's really funny and lovely. It tragically seems to be out of print, but is readily available.

Dear Mr. Henshaw also comes to mind. Beverly Cleary is kind of the master at taking kids' feelings seriously, and this is maybe her most pensive work, about a boy working out his feelings about his parents getting separated.
posted by cakelite at 8:11 AM on December 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

see also, pretty much every Judy Blume book.
posted by cakelite at 8:14 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It doesn't sugarcoat the reality of life on a reservation, and a number of characters die due to alcoholism - their own or someone else's. It might be for older kids than you're looking for.
posted by FencingGal at 8:23 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Michael Rosen's Sad Book is a children's picture book about his sadness following the death of his son Eddie.

It's illustrated by Quentin Blake, who illustrated lots of Roald Dahl's books like The BFG. The first illustration is of the author, with a huge smile on his face, but then you read the text:

This is me being sad.
Maybe you think I'm being happy in this picture.
Really, I'm being sad but pretending I'm happy.
I'm doing that because I think people won't
like me if I'm being sad.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:39 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Jules Feiffer's The Man in the Ceiling. It's all about the frustrations of working at something you love and the question of whether effort necessarily results in success. It's funny and a little sad and resolves in a mixed but hopeful way.

Beverly Cleary's Ramona books are full of well-intentioned plans (and poorly-thought-out impulses) that just flop all over the place, with some small successes mixed in.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:43 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've just started reading Sideways Stories from Wayside School with my 6 year old. I expected them to be happy, wacky stories full of hijinks, but it's surprised me with how almost dark they are. (Caveat, I'm only about a quarter of the way into the book yet, so I don't know how it will evolve or resolve.)

The kids encounter weird, often unfair behaviors from the adults, and they just sort of scratch their heads and accept it. I asked my son whether he liked the book, and he said he thought it was silly, in a good but weird way.
posted by Liesl at 8:45 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yes, the Wayside School books are a big favorite among my kids. Also by Louis Sachar. They are more light-hearted and silly than Holes and his other novels, but definitely have an element of darkness.
posted by Mid at 8:53 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been awhile since I read it, but I think Bridge to Terabithia might be along the lines of what you're looking for.

I was also going to mention Holes, but I see that was already recommended upthread, so I'll just second it.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:22 AM on December 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander has a great description of the struggle to find something you are good at, and how it's not the same as something you love.
posted by suelac at 9:31 AM on December 2, 2016

Middle school, YA: Jacob Have I Loved.
posted by Melismata at 9:32 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is appropriate for middle school ages, and definitely involves plots where things don't turn out perfectly. The ending is very bittersweet to me.
posted by Mouse Army at 9:32 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Tenth Good thing About Barney? The ending is sort of happy, but it's pretty realistic, and even kind of environmental - a boy's cat dies, and the family agrees to hold a "funeral" where the boy wants to read a list of ten good things about his pet but he can only think of nine at first; until doing some chores in the family garden to distract himself and he and his father get into a conversation about fertilizer, and he realizes that his cat's body is going to fertilize the tree he's buried under, and he decides that is the tenth thing.

It's not every day that decomposition is treated as a source of comfort.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:51 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

The picture book One Morning in Maine seems to do this in an understated way. Sal (from the more-popular Blueberries for Sal, but a little more grown-up) has a regular morning with some good and bad parts. (Good: she gets some ice cream and loses her first tooth. Bad: her tooth falls out on the beach and can't be found; her father's boat's motor isn't working so he needs to row and make a stop at the mechanic.) As you say, no great tragedies, but a lot of little threads left unresolved. Kids notice that the tooth never reappears.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:55 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I feel like it's pretty common for a picture book to work out in a different way than the character wants things to work out, but still fine. I mean, it's positive and upbeat, but it's not what was the character originally wanted. So, for example, in Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, he doesn't get to drive the bus. But it's still a happy book and fun to read. Are you specifically looking for a down tone? In Hilda Must Be Dancing, she doesn't become a ballet dancer like she wants, but she finds a way to dance that works for her, and it's all done in a positive way, so it doesn't feel like a loss. And don't forget Charlotte's Web, and Where the Red Fern Grows, and even Stuart Little (he never does find Margalo). The Lorax doesn't have a happy ending, though there's a seed of hope (no pun intended).

I do think that picture books are for kids who are running up against their limitations every day--being 5 by definition means that you can't do a lot of things that you want to do or try to do--so they tend to depict how things CAN work out. And even when they don't work out perfectly or as planned, everything in the end is okay as it is--that's pretty uncommon. Is that the pattern you're looking to avoid?
posted by gideonfrog at 10:07 AM on December 2, 2016

Harriet the Spy.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 11:15 AM on December 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: And even when they don't work out perfectly or as planned, everything in the end is okay as it is--that's pretty uncommon. Is that the pattern you're looking to avoid?

Yes, I think? In terms of narrative structure, in I Want My Hat Back, the bear gets the hat but it's clear that's not the point so the resolution kind of fails, whereas in Waiting there's a tight conclusion, but no central character or conflict of any kind. I agree that being 5 is frustrating, and sometimes the answer to that is that things work out, but sometimes the answer really is that things don't work out.

Thanks for the recs so far and for reminding me that I loved Wayside School (and, interestingly, never once thought it was "dark").
posted by epanalepsis at 11:50 AM on December 2, 2016

Best answer: I think The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes is a good example of this. It's a lovely book that's undeservedly out of print. There are a couple of kids who really want a Christmas tree and a mother who doesn't. None of the things you expect to happen end up happening. The mother doesn't relent or ever seem to see the situation from the kids' point of view. There isn't a touching scene revealing why the mother doesn't want a Christmas tree and helping the kids to understand her point of view. In the end, the kids still really wish they had a tree and they don't have one. But they all love each other and otherwise life seems good for their family. And one of the kids manages to come up with a compromise that everyone is pretty satisfied with.

And then there's the Dr. Seuss classic I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, in which the hero, after enduring hardship after hardship in order to get to Solla Sollew, decides the final obstacle is too great, gives up, and tries something different.
posted by Redstart at 12:07 PM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Stuart Little ends on a note of ambiguous optimism: Stuart hasn't found Margalo, and has no particular reason to believe he ever will, but he also hasn't given up yet.

I also seem to remember Daniel Pinkwater being more blunt about things like boredom, frustration and failure than most other kids' writers. My favorite stuff of his (Lizard Music, Young Adults, The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death) is YA, but he wrote a lot for younger kids too.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:10 PM on December 2, 2016

The Poky Little Puppy is another book that's refreshingly ambiguous. It seems like the kind of book that's going to have a moral, but it doesn't. Some puppies repeatedly dig under the fence to explore "the wide, wide world" and the consequences are both good and bad. One of the puppies is pokier than the others and the consequences for him are both good and bad. The ending is both happy and unhappy (mostly unhappy for the poky little puppy, but he made out better than the others earlier, so it evens out.)
posted by Redstart at 1:37 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Katherine Paterson is wonderful for this -- The Great Gilly Hopkins for middle grade or Jacob Have I Loved for older readers.
posted by cider at 2:29 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

In Harriet the Spy, Harriet learns that in order to preserve essentially a working relationship with her friends at school, she has to apologize for talking smack about them in her private journal even though her friends never should have read it in the first place, and everything she said was truthful. Also, she outgrows the need for the nanny who has taken care of her and given her a lot of love over the years, and the nanny is quite firm with her about moving on and not dwelling sentimentally on a relationship that is now over.
posted by gateau at 2:54 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is the second time I'm suggesting this book on AskMe tonight, but Walk Two Moons has very little "happy every after" (though it's pretty depressing - lots of leaving/dying). In the end, the characters have learned something but nothing is "fine" at all. It's probably best for 5th-7th grade.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:55 PM on December 2, 2016

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Some characters get a "happy" ending but not all of them do and it is middle grade.
posted by soelo at 11:41 AM on December 3, 2016

Best answer: What about the Butter Battle? Will the world end in nuclear annihilation over which way we butter our bread?!?! Tell us Dr Seuss!!!

The Cat in the Hat - will the kids tell their mom what happened?!?! We'll never know!!

Ladies First from Free to Be You and Me - she gets eaten by a lion, that seems bad and/or ambiguous.

Many poems by Shel Silverstein.

Tuck Everlasting - is immortality a good thing? Probably not. But, maybe?
posted by Toddles at 9:56 PM on December 3, 2016

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes

Nthing Judy Blume (Blubber was the first book I thought of) and Beverly Cleary.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:21 PM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing Roald Dahl and adding The Twits to the list. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is also a nice YA book with something of a bittersweet ending.

The Westing Game was one of my FAVORITES when I was a kid. Lots of twists and turns and surprises.

Finally, if you're cool with including comic strips in this, the Calvin and Hobbes anthology Something Under the Bed is Drooling has a series of comics in it about a baby raccoon that never fails to ruin me utterly. C&H was surprisingly poignant and really went deep on some topics.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:22 AM on December 5, 2016

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