Jessica Wakefield, Paula Danziger, and me

If you were lucky, someone likely came along at some point in your life and set you straight–leaving in their wake a person who might have otherwise traveled a different path. A less interesting path. Or maybe just a less inspired one. And if you were especially lucky, this person came along when you were young. Or perhaps it wcatasn’t a person but a moment, or an event, or a book.

I was spectacularly lucky in this way. I got both a person and a book. In tenth grade it was a teacher who I’m certain has no idea he caused the ripple whose effects are felt all these years and miles later. This was a man who would be so into talking about Great Expectations that he’d get lost somewhere along the way and take a big drag off the chalk he had just used to write DICKENS in giant, reverent letters on the blackboard.

He is the same teacher who taught us about Alan Ginsburg and the Beat generation, the same one who encouraged rap in the classroom, and who had us write about modern-day saints. My group chose Madonna. We thought we were being defiant and brave and ironic.  And then one day he asked us to write something inspired by The Grapes of Wrath and something got all fired up inside of me. Out came an essay about the Dust Bowl, complete with a sweltering coffee shop and a migrant love affair. I can still remember the ambience I was trying so hard to replicate—it wasn’t in the manner of Steinbeck at all really. It was in the manner of made-for-tv movies and Nanci Griffith songs. And it probably wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that teacher to make a point of telling me I was a writer.

Until that moment, I did not know this. I knew I was something–an observer of people, of the aesthetics of the insides of things, high school hallways and stairwells and lockers–something, yes, but not a writer. Those were the days when I begrudged Fitzgerald for Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon. And 15 was for me an age that inflicted a daily amnesia on my teenage brain for things in my very recent past.  Things like swing sets and roller skates. And also books, special ones like Sweet Valley High: Power Play and also, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, which as is turns out is The Book.

 

I know now that my tenth grade prep-school self had long since forgotten reading about Marcy Lewis and the excuses she used to get out of gym class. Gone were the incensed feelings I felt when they fired Ms. Finney because she wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. Same for the disturbed chills I had gotten when Marcy’s father called her fat, told her she was a nuisance, told her to play by the rules.  And lost—buried somewhere with my friendship pins and Tretorns–was the memory of Marcy falling in love with herself through writing, learning from this teacher who wouldn’t salute the flag, to salute herself. To pay attention, to write it down, to tell her story. Because she mattered. But I remember now.

I write because of Ms. Finney and my tenth grade English teacher and because of Paula Danziger and because both pre-fifteen and now well post-fifteen, I have been changed by things people write about in books—early on it was The Trumpet of the Swan and the 2nd grade teacher who read it chapter by chapter, day after day, until the end came and I wanted to rest my head inside my folded arms on my desk and cry. I think in college it might have been Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and recently it was Edward P. Jones’s The Known World. These books are filled with stories and characters and ambience and history and pain and joy and they are filled with the kind of reckoning that comes with resilience and moving forward through life.

So, I picked up The Cat Ate My Gymsuit recently again because I often tell people that the reason I write books for kids is because no books have ever spoken to me quite like the books of my childhood and my adolescence. And it’s true. I carry The Cat Ate My Gymsuit around with me the way others carry around Catcher in the Rye. Mine might not be as high-brow, but it’s mine. And I salute it.

The same way I salute my teacher for taking the five minutes it takes to change a child’s life, and I salute Paula Danziger for holding up a mirror for me, so I could see that I was more of a Marcy Lewis than a Jessica Wakefield anyway. And I salute all the books that hold up, that stay with us, and those that will stay with our children, lighting their way with the sparks that ignite change, and sending them—on fire!—into the world.

The Books I Remember Best…My pure nostalgia reading list (having nothing to do with the wonderful world of present-day books like this year’s Newbery winner, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, which will surely stay with and change lives again and again.):

Lyle, Lyle Crocodile by Bernard Waber

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Millicent Maybe by Ellen Weiss (I was just so happy that someone else had trouble making decisions!)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary

Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger

It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Have the day you have!

Sometimes, in the course of my day, I step on the tiny little pieces of whatever my five-year-old has collected from the universe of tiny little pieces and then methodically arranged across his floor–turning his bedroom into a rigged, land-mine experience for us and our bare feet.

I can’t freak out, though. I have to move on.

But throw enough tiny little things in front of my 7 year old, and you will watch a storm blow up inside her and explode all over the place—pushing those tiny little pieces out of the way with giant globs of misery. The fallout of this is mine to manage and manage I do.  These days are the terrible ones, the horrible ones, the no-good very bad ones.

Yes, I know, I stole that. From the pages of the timeless Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, which brings Alexander’s bad day to life with its muddy reds and blues, its scritchy-scratchy pen and ink drawings, its ambience of misery. Ah, how we laugh and groan with sympathy when we read this book—the gum! no toy in the cereal box! sneakers without color! There is so much injustice in Alexander’s day that the book reads like one big foot stomp.

I just recently noticed, though, that absent from the narrative of this book is the voice of Alexander’s mother. There is no one trying to calm him down, bribe him back into good humor with the sneakers of his dreams. No one calling around to other shoe stores to see if maybe, possibly they could get the sneakers with the stripes—hoping the perfect new kicks might draw her third child back from the dark side.  I’m not even sure the mother knows just how bad Alexander’s day is because, honestly, she has three sons and a day to get through.

Which brings me to a lesson I recently learned from a movie trailer. I haven’t seen the movie The Odd Life of Timothy Green, but this one brilliant line really stays with me. When Timothy is walking into school his father shouts after to him to have a good day. Jennifer Garner’s character quickly tells him that he’s putting too much pressure on their home-grown child, so he quickly shouts a correction: “Have the day you have!”

What a wonderful way to take the pressure off! What relief! Somehow, I think we have given the message to our children that their days are all supposed to be winners, and therefore they stomp and they slam when their day turns into a real loser. And how did we get here anyway? To this place where our children get so easily frustrated by the small obstacles we all have to move through to get to the end of a lousy day?

I think I know. I think it is our fault. We are, after all, a parenting generation of pleasers—trying to manage our kids’ moods, trying to make them happy with the meals they want, the shows they want, the play dates they want. So much so, that they can’t make sense of it when things get in the way of their happiness.

And some days we just plain step on things, get gum in our hair, and things don’t work out just so at school, and they don’t have the right shoes at the shoe store, and yes, all of these tiny pieces get in the way of having that good day they were hoping for. Which brings me back to Alexander.

At the end of the book, we find out that his mom tells him everyone has bad days, even in Australia. What good work she did, telling him that this is just the day he was dealt. Because I think this is what we are supposed to do—let them have the day they have, instead of supporting and managing and trying—trying so hard that their well-outfitted feet hardly ever land on those prickly pieces in the first place, keeping them protected and fragile, even when they stomp.

So the next time I’m at a shoe store and they are out of the sneaker of my kids’ dreams, I’m going to try out some Judith Viorst, get them the pair of sneakers they NEED, and move on with the day. And when we get home, maybe they will retreat to their rooms and sulk a little, and then yes! they might just snap out of it and maybe they will make good of their bad day—and hopefully, if I have done right by them, they will make something big and meaningful out of all the tiny little pieces.

Reading list for a lousy day (for everyone):

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz

When Sophie Gets Angry, Really, Really Angry by Molly Bang

Mouse Was Mad by Linda Urban, illustrated by Henry Cole

Taking a Bath with My Dog and Other Things That Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

A Good Day by Kevin Henkes

Mrs. Biddlebox by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

For middle-graders:

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary (tin-can stilts alert!)

Judy Moody was in a Mood by Megan McDonald

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney