The Unexpected Ending: Picture Books That Stick the Landing in Weird, Wild Ways
So, uh . . . so I’ve got this picture book out right now. Yup. Really like it too. And since I’m fairly crrrrrrap when it comes to self-promotion, I’ll note that the only reason I’m bringing it up is because when you read children’s books for a living, you respect them. But when you write picture books? You don’t just respect the form. You obsess over it. Particularly when it comes to the way in which it concludes.
Ending anything in art is difficult. Whether we’re talking about movies or novels or television series, sticking the landing (as it were) takes a certain level of finesse. You could say the same for music too, except that music has the option of cheating and fading out. Wouldn’t it be glorious if you could do that when you write a book? Instead of trying to reach a satisfying conclusion, you just let the words get smaller and smaller on the page until they’re almost not there. Instead, we’re required to wrap everything up all neat and tidy with a little bow. That’s fine for a chapter book, but when what you’re talking about is a picture book, there’s a focus on the ending that you won’t necessarily find in other forms of literature.
Today, I’d like to pay homage to some 2019 picture books that not only know how to end, but do so in an entirely unexpected manner. You think you know what to expect from a book? Trust me when I say you’ll never see where these books are headed . . .
Chapter Two Is Missing! by Josh Lieb, ill. Kevin Cornell
Lieb’s back. Boy, I haven’t read a book of his since he penned I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President. And after the last election that book seems a lot less funny than it used to. No evil geniuses in his latest picture book, though. Well . . . maybe one. But you may not be able to figure out who it is until the end. This is one of those books that I give points to because the author is taking a great big swing with the material. Not sure if it pulls together as a whole, but it has its eyes on the sky, and I salute its spirit.
The Circus Comes to the Village by Yutaka Kobayashi
You would think I’d have learned my lesson with Yutaka Kobayashi. After all, I read The Most Beautiful Village in the World years ago. Beautiful book. Devastating ending. I guess I either forgot or thought that the author would go in a different direction with this follow-up. NOPE! The ending in this book may be even more gutting than in the first. I think you’ll need to see it firsthand for yourself to understand why.
Everybody Says Meow by Constance Lombardo
I’m stretching the tensile strength of the term “unexpected ending” with this book, I’ll admit. Maybe I just want to include it because I discovered it the other day and was utterly enamored of its readaloud storytime potential. Still, it does have a gently surprising ending. Hey, man. Any book where I get to surprise listeners with a “ROAR!” has my instant love.
Herring Hotel by Didier Lévy, ill. Serge Bloch
I will walk far distances in downright unpleasant weather to see the newest book from Bloch. This title reads like a Wes Anderson film, which makes sense since tonally it has as much in common with Grand Budapest Hotel as it does The Royal Tenenbaums. The ending is as unexpected as it is sweet. Consider it a rather lovely paean to always being kind, even in the face of another person’s reality.
Hungry Jim by Laurel Snyder, ill. Chuck Groenink
Reviewers cannot help but invoke Sendak when talking about this book. You’d think they never encountered a story where a protagonist got eaten before! Here we begin to hem and haw a little bit over what I’m counting as the “ending” of a book that’s so surprising. True, sometimes it’s a reveal during a climax that catches you unawares. Even so, with so much predictability in our picture books these days, you must respect the ones who don’t follow the norm.
The Last Leopard by Cao Wenxuan, ill. Rong Li, translated by Courtney Chow, Marlo Garnsworthy and Na Zhou
The ending of this book would pair nicely with the ending of Kobayashi’s. This is one of the loneliest stories of the year. A leopard searches in vain for another of its kind, only finding others that are in the same boat. When the end comes, it brings a kind of bittersweet acceptance. Proof positive that picture book imports dance to the beat of their own drum.
Lenny the Lobster Can’t Stay for Dinner by Finn Buckley with Michael Buckley, ill. Catherine Meurisse
What could be a more surprising ending than a Choose Your Own Adventure one? Allow Lenny to choose wisely or lead him down into the valley of the shadow of death. The ending is entirely up to you.
Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast by Sophie Gilmore
Again, perhaps it is the climax of this book that’s surprising, rather than the exact ending. I really and truly didn’t see where this book was headed, though.
My Cat Looks Like My Dad by Thao Lam
As I read through this book I would have initially told you that the most surprising thing about it was the dad’s clothing. Oh. My. Gosh. This man should be a fashion icon. His sweaters defy logic, sense, and practically the laws of physics. They are wearable wonders, they are. But then we got to the honest-to-goodness, straight up twist ending, and I forgot all about the dad. Legit weird and wonderful.
Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez
Awww. This book reminded me so much of Patricia McKissack’s classic collection of liar’s tales called Porch Lies from way back in 2006. Not that you’ll know that going in. This is one of those rare books where the twist has a surprising amount of humor and heart to it. And, might I mention, that’s just a killer cover.
Small in the City by Sydney Smith
Perhaps the greatest ending of a picture book this year. Yep. I said it. No regrets. It’s amazing.
Snack Attack! by Terry Border
Ah! Not many do what Border’s book is attempting here. Plenty of picture books have twist endings, but Border takes a page out of the horror movie playlist and hands the reader a false sense of security before yanking the rug out from underneath. Yeah, I wouldn’t hand this book to any little littles you know, but if you know a kid with a slightly twisted sense of humor, this one’s for them.
Spencer’s New Pet by Jessie Sima
A co-worker of mine had the infinite pleasure of reading this book to a group of fellow workers in the library and let me tell you, you have not HEARD such gasps before. When that twist ending gets revealed, it totally throws you off. This marks a nice change in direction for Sima. I’ve always liked her style, but I like her risk taking even more. Let’s hope for more of the same in the future.
Truman by Jean Reidy, ill. Lucy Ruth Cummins
A contender for the most charming book of the year. Look at that widdle guy! I would argue that this book ends on an unexpected note, partly because you are under the impression that it will follow in the footsteps of similar stories that have come before. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Truman’s epic journey near the story’s conclusion appears to be all of 9 feet, max, and it is interrupted when the object of his affection returns home from school before he even makes it to the front door. There is nothing I do not like about this book.
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