Posted by: Nancy Keim Comley | September 8, 2015

What Does Happily Ever After Mean?

My sister is a librarians’ dream: an enthusiastic reader and trained teacher who delights in running multiple children’s book groups. Last week she told me about a very interesting experience with a group of 3rd graders and the ending of the book TUCK EVERLASTING.  (*spoilers below*)

Natalie Babbitt is a fantastic writer and it was a very bright group of children but at first they weren’t able to deal with the ending (Note: if you haven’t read TUCK EVERLASTING go read it now. Go on, you’ll thank me). To an adult the end is bittersweet but makes sense: Winnie didn’t drink the water, lived a natural life and died. She didn’t stop, frozen in time, unable to change.

At first, to a third grader, this makes no sense. The world is a big, scary, ever changing place. To be assured, to be able to know things will stay the same, to know you won’t die, sounds great to a child.

My sister knew she was challenging the children with the book, she wanted to encourage them to think and stretch their minds. But when they got to this point, they weren’t able to go any further. They wanted a happy ending and they didn’t understand why Winnie didn’t drink the water. After much discussion my sister said: “Okay, say she drank the water. What happens next?” The group answered: “Winnie joins them and is with Jesse.” “What happens next?” They live happily ever after. “What happens next?” It never ends – Winnie has left the wheel of life.

At the end of the book Jesse, who stayed the same mental age as when he drank the water, doesn’t understand Winnie’s choice. But his father does. The older man is proud that Winnie never left the wheel of life.

As the group progressed through the “What happens next?” questions the children’s reaction at first was bemusement mixed with annoyance (“Stop asking the same question!”). After a while the kids began to understand, as one said, “That forever is a really long time!” My sister says that during later meetings they would refer back to the ending of TUCK EVERLASTING and the idea that happily ever after isn’t always as great as you think it might be.

PS – if you want a very clear non-ramble about endings try this:

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