A friend was asking the other day for books in which no bad things happen, because sometimes you want your reading to be all upbeat. But yet, there aren’t many books where nothing bad happens. Myself, when I want comfort reading, I’ll settle for “everything all right at the end” which leaves me a much wider field. Nothing bad at all is really hard. I mean, you have to have plot, which means conflict, or at least things happening, and once you have obstacles to defeat there’s almost certain to be something bad.
Keep reading, because I do actually think of some.
Children’s books, suggests one friend.
Ha ha, no. Apart from the fact that some of the scariest things I’ve ever read have been children’s books—Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams and William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig for example—I realised some time ago that I am never going to be able to read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy without crying. I mean I am never going to be grown up enough to get over it, there is no mature state in which I am still me where I will be able to read Ole Golly’s letter without bawling. Gary Schmidt, a children’s writer I discovered recently, is absolutely wonderful, but terrible, terrible things happen in his books, and it’s not even reliably all right at the end. He’s the person who made me think you have to earn your unhappy endings just as much as your happy ones. And William Alexander—again, terrific writer, terrible things happen.
There are some children’s books that almost qualify. One of my comfort reads is Arthur Ransome. He wrote a long series of books about kids messing about in sailboats on lakes in England in the 1930s, and nothing actually bad happens—except there’s a fog on the hills once, and there’s the time when the boat sinks in Swallowdale and John is so humiliated, and there is the scary bit where they get swept out to sea in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. (And it’s the 1930s, so their father in the Navy is going to be in WWII, and every adult in the books is complicit in appeasement and there are terrible things happening in Germany already…) But just on the surface, thinking about that little sailboat sinking, it makes me think you have to have bad things to overcome or you have no story.
So how about picture books for tiny kids?
Nope. In Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? the Little Bear can’t go to sleep and the Big Bear consequently can’t settle down and read his book, and all this is because Little Bear is afraid of the dark. Being scared of the dark is a bad thing, even if it gets happily fixed by the end of the story. In Penny Dale’s The Elephant Tree the elephant gets sadder and sadder on his quest to find his tree, until the children make a tree for him and make him happy. Don’t even think about Dr. Seuss and the terrible anxiety of having your house turned upside down by the Cat in the Hat or being forced to eat icky things by Sam-I-Am. (I don’t believe he actually liked them. I used to lie like that all the time when forced to eat things as a kid.) Then there’s Raymond Briggs The Snowman, which confronts you with mortality and the death of friends, thank you very much no. When I think of the picture books that are actually fun to read, they all have conflict and bad things. They certainly come into my category of “all OK in the end,” but they definitely have bad things.
Incidentally, apart from the fact they’d be very boring stories, I think kids need those bad things to learn from, and sometimes those awful moments are the most vivid and memorable—there’s a moment in Susan Cooper’s The Grey King which will be with me always, and it’s a bad moment.
But there are some stories that qualify, I think.
Romance. Pretty much all genre romance is “everything is OK at the end” but bad things happen in the meantime. But some Georgette Heyer has plots that work because bad things seem about to happen and are averted—this is different from everything being all right in the end, the bad things never occur, they are no more than threats that pass over safely. Cotillion does this. Two people are separately rescued by the heroine from iffy situations that could potentially become terrible, but they don’t. I think this counts. (It’s funny too.) That makes me think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in which the worst thing that happens is somebody exaggerates and somebody else has to go home alone on a stagecoach…that’s really not very bad. Right up there with the bear who can’t go to sleep.
Then there’s “Good King Wenceslas.” Somebody notices an injustice and sets out to redress it and succeeds. (OK, the page gets cold, but that also gets instantly fixed.) Zenna Henderson’s “Love Every Third Stir” is a version of this, though what the story is about is discovering the magic. I’m sure there are also old clunky SF versions of this. I want to say Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise. But I think there are others: person invents thing, everything is solved. Mostly more sophisticated versions of this are “it creates new problems.”
Utopia—somebody visits utopia and it really is. So More’s Utopia and Bacon, and Callenbach’s Ecotopia and other early naive utopias of this nature. Which makes me think about Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge but the way that book works without being naive is to have the actual story be sad—the softball team loses, the boy doesn’t get the girl, the old man dies in a storm. The worst thing that happens is gentle regret, but that’s bad too. But check out older utopias.
And now, my one actual real solid in-genre example of a book where nothing bad happens!
Phyllis Ann Karr’s At Amberleaf Fair is about a far future where people have evolved to be nicer, and there’s a fair, and a woodcarver who can make toys come to life, and there is sex and love and nothing bad happens and everything is all right. It’s gentle and delightful and I genuinely really like this odd sweet little book, and unless I’m forgetting something I don’t think anything bad happens at all.
If you have any suggestions please add them in comments—there’s at least one person actively looking for them.
Originally published in March 2020.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two collections of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections, a short story collection and thirteen novels, including the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Among Others. Her fourteenth novel, Lent, was published by Tor in May 2019. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal. She plans to live to be 99 and write a book every year.