Lessons from picture books: Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

1024 576 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

I talked way back about whether middle grade horror novels should always have a happy ending, and actually that post applies to all genres, not just horror. In it, I suggested that middle grade books don’t need to have completely upbeat resolutions where everything is tied up in a happy-ever-after bow (although this is the most common approach) but they should at least be hopeful. Even if the monster returns on the last page, readers can cope with it if they know the protagonist did manage to defeat that monster once, and so they probably can again. If the ending is ambiguous, the reader can hold on to the hope that things will work out in the hero’s favour if their character arc has shown that they’ve grown and learned the skills they need to overcome the conflict. That isn’t to say that books should be left open and unresolved: readers need closure! But sometimes there are some threads left loose after the central conflict is wrapped up, and occasionally the monster comes back for one last scare.

What’s this got to do with picture books, I hear you cry! Well sometimes, even though they’re aimed at a completely different age group, picture books contain perfect, concise little examples of storytelling techniques that we can apply to middle grade and YA. Luckily, I get through a heck of a lot of picture books at home: my husband and I read Caeden three books a night at bedtime plus we go to the library at least once a week (we currently have about 60 books on loan 😬) so I often come across lovely demonstrations of writing craft and get super excited mid-story.

This week, it was Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet. In this adorable story, a cake gets invited to a party and wants to buy the perfect hat to wear. He settles on a fetching number covered in candles that makes him look uncannily like a birthday cake, and when he turns up at the party that’s exactly what he gets mistaken for. Luckily, just as the candles are blown out, the other party food rescues Cake and gets him out of there. All’s well that ends well – phew!

But on the last page, things take a turn: Piñata is knocking on the door of the party! The reader panics: is Piñata about to be smashed to smithereens? But luckily, just in the background, we see the party food – an ice cream, a lollipop and a slice of pizza – hiding in the bushes. The reader knows Piñata is going to be alright. The party food rescued Cake last time, and they’re going to do the same this time. No food left behind! I thought this was just such a lovely, simple example of the ‘hopeful ending’ idea and, sometimes, it’s examples like this that stick with us. So next time you’re wondering if you can get away with a bleak finale where everybody dies, think of Cake and Piñata.

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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes