Unhappily Ever After: Good Children’s Books That Deal With Tough Subjects

“…and they all lived happily ever after.”

That’s how children’s books are supposed to end right? The family of bears learns a valuable lesson or the little monkey finds a way to correct an earlier error.

That’s what is supposed to happen in children’s books.

Well, not always.

While some people believe that a happy ending is the only way to conclude a book aimed at a young reader, the recent successes of children’s books with more somber endings is bucking that trend.

Sometimes, in order to show historical accuracy, a happy ending is not appropriate.

Song of the Bell

Look at Kathy-Jo Wargin’s The Edmund Fitzgerald: Song of the Bell, which was illustrated by Gijsbert van Frankenhuyzen. The book tells the story of the famous Great Lakes freighter, which met its end in November of 1975 in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. While the shipwreck claimed the lives of all 29 men aboard, the book doesn’t focus on this fact. Rather, it focuses on how their lives were honored when the ships bell was raised many years later.

It’s not a happy story, but it’s what happened. On top of that, it’s wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated.






One Candle

Eve Bunting’s One Candle is another book that has elements of tragedy that are steeped in history. The book, illustrated by K. Wendy Popp, tells the story of a Jewish family celebrating a traditional Hanukkah, but with the family’s grandmother telling a story of how she and her sister spent one Hanukkah in a Nazi prison camp during the Holocaust. It’s tough subject matter to digest, but the book still manages to show how important tradition can be for families.






Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, by Maria Kalman, tells the true story of a decommissioned fireboat, that in its heyday, was one of the greatest most reliable boats of its time. And when a big fire struck New York city, the John J. Harvey was brought back into action to battle the blaze. What caused the massive fire? Two planes crashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The illustrations, also done by Kalman, are vivid and bold, helping to tell a story that is difficult, but important to tell.





Parents shouldn’t be scared off by children’s books that broach tough subjects. They may not always be happy, but sometimes, books like this can help parents start important discussions about some of the darker points of history. Of course parents need to be mindful of their children, as they know them best and know what they can handle. But reality isn’t always unicorns and butterflies, sometimes it sad and grim. But good author can soften those rough edges and prove that just because a book has elements of sadness to it, doesn’t mean it can’t be brilliant.