In Praise of Untidy Endings

By Amy Fitzgerald, Editorial Director, Carolrhoda

One question I consider when I’m deciding whether I want to publish a book is “Does it have a satisfying resolution?” Satisfying can have many different meanings, but in general I want readers to walk away from a book feeling that they had a complete experience—that they weren’t left hanging or cheated out of the climactic moments they anticipated.

But there’s a difference between loose ends—narrative threads or character relationships that should’ve been resolved but weren’t—and open-endedness. I welcome open-endedness in young adult novels. Will that teenage couple stay together for the rest of their lives? Probably not! Will these best friends never have another fight? Come on. Is a societal evil or a personal nemesis or a personal demon vanquished forever? Doubtful.

A YA novel offers a snapshot of a young person’s life at a time of immense change and growth. The protagonist shouldn’t be done growing at the end of the book. With any luck, we don’t stop changing our minds, making and learning from mistakes, and expanding our worldview by the age of twenty. I don’t expect a YA novel to bring its characters to a state of perfect self-actualization by its final page. I hope to leave them in a different place than I found them—perhaps a little wiser, perhaps happier or sadder or a poignant mix of both, and further along the lifelong journey of becoming themselves.

I don’t even expect every single plot point to be neatly tied up, at least in realistic fiction; real life rarely provides us with tidy endpoints. A dash of “Well, I don’t know how that will turn out” shows a certain respect for teen readers. They can handle uncertainty. They can handle the inevitability of change.

That’s something I love about Jennie Liu’s new YA novel Like Spilled Water. Set in China, it follows nineteen-year-old Na as she tries to understand her brother’s sudden death and weighs her family obligations against her personal dreams. Readers meet Na at a turning point, the moment when she begins to reevaluate long-held assumptions, not at some magical moment when she has everything figured out. (Readers are also invited to examine some of their own assumptions, like our very American obsession with individual ambition, contrasting with the Chinese cultural emphasis on the collective good and duty to family.)

The novel ends with several of Na’s relationships in a state of flux and with her future still unclear. But it also ends with her making some crucial choices. She’s a stronger, more sensitive, fuller version of herself than she was at the beginning of the novel. She’ll keep evolving, as will the readers who’ve joined her for this stage of her journey.

Praise for Like Spilled Water

★”[A] powerful tale of a brave young woman who dares to question when others simply accept.”—starred, Booklist

“[F]ilters detailed depictions of filial piety, funeral rites, grief, romantic relationships, and parental support through a modern teenager’s perspective. . . . Will lead readers through a quiet revolution.”—Kirkus Reviews

More Behind the Scenes!

Leave a Reply