Long ago I remember being delighted when someone at a teaching history conference spoke about tolerating ambiguity, the idea that as we develop we learn to do this more and more. This speaker noted that learning to do history was learning to tolerate ambiguity, to manage to live with no one answer, to appreciate that there were multiple reasons (some conflicting) for behaviors and actions in the past. I was reminded of this recently when participating in a conversation about a forthcoming book with an ambiguous ending.
Now endings are hard — real ones and those in books. I can think of some authors who write such wonderful books that I forgive them their mediocre endings. Let me give you one well-known example — Lewis Carroll. If you haven’t noticed already, the title of this blog is a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, one of my all-time favorite books. And what you may not know is that the ending of that fabulous book is dreadful. Not only does it turn out that Alice’s adventures were all a dream, but then the author dithers on in the most dreadful and sentimental way. I have long learned to simply ignore this and love the rest. After all, at least it is clear and complete. There is no question about what happens to Alice at the end of her adventures (she gets out with her head intact and goes off for tea:).
Now my 4th graders are fine with the ending of Alice’s Adventures because the whole thing is pretty plotless and the fun is in the individual episodes and craziness. But they tend not to be so satisfied with the ending of Stuart Little. If you don’t know it (spoiler alert;), the book ends with Stuart heading off to look for his friend Margalo. That he hasn’t found her by the end, stuns many children, frustrates them, and sometimes enrages them. I’ve had kids often write their own endings. In my experience, the kids who are fine with the ending are those that are reading at a more advanced level, kids who are thinking beyond their peers, who can tolerate that open ending.
And what about series? The book that provoked this line of thought for me is Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman, coming this March. It has a very intriguing plot toying with the line between real and fantasy and the ending leaves questions hanging. Now I read it thinking it was a stand-alone book, but subsequently learned it is the first in a trilogy. And that makes me look at it differently. And I’m guessing child readers will too. Would they be satisfied completely with the ending if they thought that was it? Myself, I’m glad to know that there will be more as there are some mighty tantalizing threads left dangling — one quite major. Also, the audience for this book is older, kids on the cusp of adolescence — are they at a different developmental point than 9 year-olds reading Stuart Little? That is, do they tolerate ambiguous endings differently than younger kids?
So here I am left with a few questions:
- Is our ability to tolerate ambiguity in endings developmental or personal? That is, do we learn to tolerate as we get older or is it something more about personal taste?
- Do we respond differently to a particular book’s ambiguous ending if we know it is the first in a series? How about child readers?
- Do younger children tolerate open endings more than older? Or vice versa?