PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Endings That Come Full Circle

Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips on how to make your picture-book endings stand out and shine.

When crafting picture books it’s important to start right away with a compelling opening that grabs young readers with action, HOOKS them in and doesn’t let go. Having piqued their curiosity and set up the problem (Who? What? Where?), the reader is ready for a journey, an adventure in story.

But what about endings? Endings that stay with you must be satisfying (resolving the Who? What? Where? questions set out in the opening), but more than this, the characters should have grown and changed as a result of the story's action.

Endings that stay with you must:

- resolve the problem, and ideally the main character should be the one to solve it.
- the main character needs to have changed meaningfully in some way
- tie up any loose ends, and ideally offer readers hope, even if the ending itself isn’t happy

Avoid: predictable outcomes, moralistic messaging or convenient solutions to your problem – these are unsatisfying.

Here’s the big tip:

Often, the most satisfying endings come full-circle to the opening.

In Laura Numeroff & Felicia Bond’s classic If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,

the story starts with a mouse asking the boy for a cookie . . .

From If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff & Felicia Bond 
This leads to him asking for a glass of milk (to go with the cookie)

From If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff & Felicia Bond
and a story where each interconnected action leads to the mouse needing another thing (he’ll look in the mirror and see his milk moustache and then need a pair of scissors to give himself a trim...) until ... he is so thirsty after all his adventures that he needs...a glass of milk and of course...
From If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff & Felicia Bond
... a cookie!

From If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff & Felicia Bond
The mouse’s adventures are cleverly interlinked and a satisfying return at the END OF THE STORY to the BEGINNING (but now, the mouse and the boy have shared a whole day of experiences and a friendship has grown), resulting in a heartwarming and satisfying ending scene.

Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, by Barb Rosenstock and John O’Brien, is a chronicle of President Thomas Jefferson’s passion for books and the story of how his historic and bountiful library formed the basis for the Library of Congress collection.


The story begins with the child.

‘Thomas Jefferson learned to read. And then he never stopped....Before he turned six, people said he’d read every book in his father’s library.’

From Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library
by Barb Rosenstock & John O’Brien
All through the story of the collector, readers discover his passion for books on all kinds of subjects and his generosity for sharing his collection with the American nation when the national library burns down. The book concludes with the present day, with the Library of Congress established, housing an impressive 35+ million books. The ENDING comes full circle to the OPENING like this:
‘...Like Thomas Jefferson, you are a reader, too. He’d like that.’

From Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library by Barb Rosenstock and John O’Brien

The book STARTS with Jefferson, the child reader, and ENDS with the child reading his biography, a reader too, like him, creating an instant and satisfying connection and making this historical story relevant to contemporary children.

Confiscated! by Suzanne Kaufman is a delightfully simple narrative of sibling rivalry – Brooks and Mikey are constantly fighting over their toys, so Mum confiscates the troublesome objects.

The story OPENS with them fighting over a red balloon...

Confiscated! by Suzanne Kaufman
which of course is confiscated!

Subsequently, since Brooks and Mikey fight over everything else, eventually everything is locked up in the cupboard. Spurred on by boredom, the children decide to build a giant tower together, to re-confiscated their red balloon. When Mum catches them in the act, they ask:

“Is it confiscated?”

Confiscated! by Suzanne Kaufman
In a fun twist and satisfying ENDING, Mum is so happy they are finally sharing, she allows them to keep the balloon (but they have to clean up the tower mess!)

Confiscated! by Suzanne Kaufman
The book STARTS and ENDS with the red balloon, but the characters have changed - they've realized that if they share, the balloon /toy will be theirs to play with.

At the START of That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brownby Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton,

the intrepid adventures of Emily Brown and her old grey rabbit Stanley are rudely interrupted with a ‘Rat-a-tat-tat! at the kitchen door’ ­– the Queen has sent her footman to demand ‘Bunnywunny’ — aka Stanley— in return for a stiff, golden teddy bear.

From That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton
As the story unfolds, the Queen sends more and more outlandish offers to convince Emily Brown to give up Stanley, but, despite her increasing frustration, she stands firm. By the end of the book, the Queen has kidnapped Stanley and put him in the royal washing machine (he turns pink!), but thankfully Emily Brown is able to rescue him and impart some very important knowledge to the Queen – she must play with her new golden teddy, love it and take it on adventures and then, she too will have a special toy of her OWN.

The book’s ENDING features a spread very similar to the OPENING: once again Emily Brown and Stanley are off on an adventure, when they are interrupted with a ‘Rat-a-tat-tat! at the kitchen door’.

From That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton
But, this time, it’s simply the Queen sending a thank-you note – a lesson has been learned and Emily Brown is a heroine.

In Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson, the book starts and ends in the owls’ nest.

As the story unfolds, the three owlets struggle to reconcile their anxiety as they wake up one night and Mum is GONE! Has she gone out hunting? Will she come back? Bill misses his mummy!

From Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
By the END of the book, the owlets are reunited with Mum, who is unfazed:

‘What’s all the fuss? You knew I’d come back.’

From Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson
The illustrator cleverly shows their affectionate bond, by zooming in on the happy reunion, but the composition evokes the opening scene.

The OPENING in And Tango Makes Threeby Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole,

moves from the general (big) to the specific – New York City, to a big park called Central Park, to the zoo, to the animals that live there...

From And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole
... to the families of animals, to the penguin enclosure, to a story about two special male penguins at the zoo, who fall in love and nurture a baby penguin and become a family. The illustration depicts these scenes in daytime.

From And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole
At the END of the book, it’s nighttime, the three penguins are snuggled together in their nest. Now, the author goes from the specific to the general (big): the three penguins snuggled together, like all the other penguins, like all the other animals in the zoo, like all the other families in the big city around them.

From And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell and Henry Cole
The book STARTS and ENDS with families, hooking in the reader with an emotional hook – about the importance of family.

Here are two examples of how bookending idea also works in concept books:

In One Thing, by Lauren ChildMum says Charlie and Lola can choose one thing each from the shops as a treat,

On the way to the shops, Lola explores the concept of numbers and counting, and even tries to negotiate more than one thing when they get to the shop (‘How about NO things?’ Mum says.)

From One Thing by Lauren Child
After some deliberation, Lola chooses one thing— a pack of twelve stickers — which she sticks on everything on the way home, so that by the time she gets there, she has NONE. The book ENDS back at the BEGINNING, with Charlie kindly giving one thing to Lola (one of his stickers).

From One Thing by Lauren Child
Through the trajectory of the story, young readers will have had the opportunity to explore the concept of one thing (and multiple things) and, by the END of the story, recognize the gift of having one thing.

The Family Book, by Todd Parr, OPENS with ‘Some families...’

‘Some families are big. Some families are small.’

From The Family Book by Todd Parr
Lots of other examples of different kids of families follow and the concepts are presented in a rhythmical read-aloud that BUILDS TO AN ENDING that encompasses ‘All families’:

‘All families can help each other be STRONG!’

From The Family Book by Todd Parr
‘There are lots of different ways to be a family. Your family is special no matter what kind it is.’

The cumulative examples in Todd Parr's book have built to an ending that is more than the sum of its parts.

Making your ENDING come full circle to the OPENING will give your story greater depth and be the difference between a reader turning the final page and thinking ‘So what?’ to one coming back for more of that delicious taste. Don't be the picture-book dinner without dessert!

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their stories. www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com

She is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons

Picture credits: Animals Baking: by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay

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