Friday, October 18, 2013

these brief and wondrous years


I have been thinking a great deal lately about the difference between a Young Adult book and a Middle Grade book.

This is primarily because I currently have a 12 year old who is branching out and forward in what he wants to read, and what he can tolerate in terms of reading level and content. Twelve is the beginning of the recommended age for YA books.  And we also have a nine year old reader who lands right smack in the middle of the stated middle grade reader age range. And sits there so happily.

Over the summer Julia, said nine year old reader, read a great deal, and the books she loved most included L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time series, Stead's When You Reach Me, Urban's the Center of Everything, and Palacio's Wonder.

Julia has devoured every Linda Urban book we have found, after loving, hugging, and tucking the Center of Everything under her pillow. And then reading it again.  She has now read three of Urban's books in a row, getting to know a sensitive and charmingly quirky child, having an internal struggle, and then a crisis, and then having the family rally, circle the wagons, and coming out changed, thoughtful, a bit different, but well supported.  I think Julia has been immersing herself in Urban's worlds, wrapping them around herself like a trusty old sweater.

Or like fuzzing her lovey, ZZ, each night for a few moments, soothing herself, before she falls asleep.  I have heard her say a few times as we pack her up for sleepovers that she doesn't need her lovey, she could leave him behind, but she will just throw him in just in case.  Her comfort, her safe place, as she looks out at the bigger world.

Upon entering her first day of school this year, Julia struggled a bit as it came time for me to go, and for her to stay and spend the day with her new group of peers and a new teacher. A bit later into the morning, Julia's teacher placed Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper into Julia's hands as she reached for her comfort book, A Wrinkle in Time.

Try this, her teacher said. And thus created a solid footing in Julia's world.  And in ours as well.

Julia came home not wanting or needing to talk about those first few moments of hesitation and worry as school began, about what had seemed so important when I had last seen her. And instead wanted to talk about her new book, and the girl in it who could not speak. I put on my mommy hat and listened, swallowing my immediate connection between Julia's shyness and another child's inability to communicate. She couldn't remember the book's title that first day, but she could remember the picture on the cover. A goldfish. Rules? I asked. No, she said, something about her brain, her head...

With the exception of having to be the child of two humiliating parents who alternate between singing loudly and then lecturing on the importance of kindness in the front seat of the car while she is strapped and captured in the back seat, Julia has a pretty good life. Safe, no trauma, happy. Yes, I am aware that we are troubling her in ways that we do not realize, in ways that at some point a professional with letters after her name in the years to come will list for us.  But if we consider real trauma and hardship of the major stressor kind of harm, we are doing OK.

Which brings me to this essay, one I read a while back by Jeanne Birdsall, the author of our family's first hugely successful summer read aloud a few years ago: The Penderwicks series. If one believed that in order to imagine, dream of, and create such a loving clumsy forgiving and ah shucks kind of family, the author needed to have lived such a life of goodness, one would believe that Jeanne Birdsall lived a very charmed life.

Apparently, not so.
Bad things were done to me when I was small. Lacking adequate physical defenses, I escaped into my imagination, where I could be all-powerful and the scariest monster was the witch in my closet. Imagination expands when exercised; mine grew strong and wily, 
and a pleasure to me, too, when the bad things were in abeyance.
Jeanne Birdsall, Middle Grade Saved My Life, for the Horn Book Magazine 

I encourage you to read the whole article, linked here. It is wonderful, and makes one think about the author as a person, her child self and her grownup author self, and why she writes what she writes.
Not all children are treated as badly as I was, and for that we can be grateful. But all children have to work out the role of creativity, fantasy, and learning in their lives, often at the same age I was when books saved me — nine to twelve, the years for reading middle grade books. This is when children are moving toward an identity apart from their families but haven’t yet submerged themselves in peer groups. For these brief and wondrous years, they are individuals open to and ripe for the very best we can give them, including those books written just for them, books that invite them into the world outside their families, their schoolrooms, their own lives.
Jeanne Birdsall, Middle Grade Saved My Life, for the Horn Book Magazine

It's a challenge, a dance, knowing when to be a gatekeeper for your children and when standing in their path keeps them from developing independence, self actualization, and self confidence.  But, I do have the sense, given my middle grade reader's young and open mind, that there are certain subjects to which she has not yet been exposed and for which she is not yet feeling ready.

When Julia was about to finish The Center of Everything, I began searching my children's book lists and websites for a next book for her, delighted with her enthusiasm for that story and wanting to have another resting on her nightstand, at attention, and waiting for when Julia was ready to move from Urban's world into another.  

I found Counting by Sevens, by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  Since Julia had taken The Center of Everything out from under her pillow and begun reading it from the beginning again, I had time to get started on it myself, sneaking it off her nightstand each night after she fell asleep, to read.  It is a wonderful book.  Of kindness and strength during difficult struggles, and of finding connections with other people and of these connections inspiring greatness in individuals.  I loved it.  But, it is a story of a terrible loss.  And this loss, quite accurately, pervades the book, and pervades every moment of the chid's experience.

When Julia finally read it, I warned her that there was going to be something in it that was difficult.  She came to me one night, having just gotten to the part, eyes full of shiny tears and said, it just happened.  And stood there, saying nothing more, the book in her hand hanging down by her knees.  We talked and snuggled for a bit that night.  And she tried to return to the book for several nights after that.  And she did get further into the book.  But one night she came to me again and said.  It's just so sad.  Do I need to keep reading it?

And there is something about this story.  True to its realistic fiction category, the child's sadness and isolation goes on and on.  I struggled with it.  As Julia struggled to shore herself up and head off to school after her summer of family togetherness, I was missing them, missing her, too.  And the idea of a child losing her parents during all this?  That was hard to bear.  And given the book's realism, there is no magical undoing of the loss she experiences.  Only recovery.  And recovery, says the child psychologist, is slow.  Chapters and chapters and almost the whole book, slow.  It is, in fact, stewing in the juices of its sadness.  

And so, as a reader, Julia asserted, with me reminding her that she had this right, to not to.  To not read something, or to abandon a book, forever, or for a while.

Since that night, she has read Rules and Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord.  And true to Julia, she's sticking with her comfort zone, sticking with the same author, hoping for the comfort of the same storyteller.

This past weekend, I was again reading a book I was going to leave on Julia's nightstand as a possible next read, as I did with Counting By Sevens.   I had found another highly acclaimed title, One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, and I read it close to her in our heap of sleeping bags at camp.  Also, a wonderful book.  I devoured it in two nights and, as I still do about my former foster care patients, I have thought of this book's main character for the past week often, missing her a bit, wondering how she is doing.

But, again, this child experiences violence, violence that has not yet come into Julia's world, though Hunt's is a careful presentation of it, embedded in a protective hug of caring others and resilience of the child supported by loving adults.  But still.

I have moved on to Because of Mr. Terupt, by Rob Buyea.  I know something bad is coming...it is predicted several times, but I think Julia might be able to tolerate whatever it is a bit more.  I have told Julia about the story of both potential next books.  She plans to read Terupt next.

It is something to trust in children, in their protective lens, in their ability to look away and to only take in what they can handle or understand.  To assert their right to be here, in this middle grade mind of child and growing, looking outward, seeing a bigger world, but still wanting to see it from the comfort and safety of family.  And, even when allowed the freedom and a bit of guidance, to stay there, in that place, for a bit longer.  Because there is really no rush to move on when there is so much wonder to observe and experience in this stage.  

Later that night, the night that Julia came to me after it happened in Counting by Sevens, I went into her room, seeing from the glow out her door that her reading light was still on.  Counting by Sevens had been banished back to my nightstand.  Julia was fast asleep, and under her arm was her worn and tattered copy, my childhood copy, of A Wrinkle in Time.  

I took the book out from under her arm, pulled up the covers, tucked back the part of the quilt that was covering her lovey ZZ's nose so he could breathe, fuzzed his head, and kissed Julia's head.  Set L'Engle on top of a stack of middle grade books on her nightstand.  And turned out the light.

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