It’s tough to be a kid.

First, I’d like to apologize for not posting last week.  It’s a busy time of the year.  But I’m back!

Over the past week, a number of situations and stories have brought to my attention, with unusual force, the difficulties that face many children.  Some of these difficulties are brought about or compounded by social ills like poverty and abuse; others are just part of childhood.  Yet we adults tend to romanticize childhood retrospectively, talking about it as a carefree time when all we had to worry about was winning at baseball or video games.  Millennials talk about “adulting” as if life just recently became hard, forgetting or denying that being a kid can be just as tough.

That was all very abstract, so let me quickly run through the situations and stories that I mentioned.

  • I went to see It, which shows children being empowered by genuine friendship but also portrays harsh bullying and parental abuse that are just as frightening as the elemental force of evil that comes out of the sewer embodied as a creepy clown.
  • I am about to start training to become a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  This means I’ll be assigned to observe and report on behalf of children involved in court cases due to their guardians’ abuse or neglect.  Just from filling out the paperwork and reading the manual, I know this work is going to break my heart sometimes.
  • But this is the example that stopped me in my tracks.  I recently reread Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in preparation to discuss it with my children’s lit class.  Like all of Dahl’s novels, this one is zany, exuberant, and the utter opposite of realism—except for one passage in chapter 10, “The Family Begins to Starve.”  This bears quoting: “And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, [Charlie Bucket] began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength.  In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.  He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow.  Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully, to prevent exhaustion.”  Here, in the middle of this wacky, colorful story about Oompa-Loompas and marvelous candy, is a textbook description of a child who can barely function because of hunger.  I told my students, mostly future teachers, to pay attention—they might see a boy just like this in their classes one day.

And even for children who aren’t abused, bullied, or starving, everything feels more intense in childhood: fear, jealousy, shame.  The good feelings are more intense too, sure.  But be careful when you make rosy generalizations about childhood.  Don’t let yourself forget that it isn’t easy.

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calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!

middle brother syndrome in British fantasy literature

Every once in a while on this blog, I like to write about Edmund Pevensie (here is an example) because he is one of my favorite fictional characters, even though he spends most of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a selfish brat.  (Selfish brats are easy to identify with, at least for me.)  In one post, I paired him with Percy Weasley because they both suffer from the same condition: both are middle children who feel they’ll never live up to their older siblings’ perfection and who need to assert their superiority to their younger siblings, so they end up betraying their family (in Edmund’s case) or at least betraying their values (in Percy’s case).  And both are, prodigal son-like, restored to their families, but not before suffering humiliation and loss.

Just the other day, I realized there’s another character in British fantasy literature who fits in with these two.  I’m teaching Peter Pan in children’s lit this week, so I’ve been immersing myself in the story and its context for the past few days: watching the Disney cartoon and Finding Neverland, reading a biography of J. M. Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys called The Real Peter Pan, and even bringing my flying Peter Funko Pop to my office, where he’s currently about to take off from a stack of books (including a volume of Barrie’s representative plays) on my desk.  And now I have just one question for you: Can we give a little love to poor overlooked John Darling?

John is, unlike Edmund and Percy, an exact middle child, the second of three.  And though he seems, unlike them, to have a good relationship with his siblings, I always sense a subtle bitterness toward Wendy for her obsession with Peter Pan (John’s natural rival in age and leadership ability—notice how annoyed John gets when Wendy won’t let him sit in Peter’s chair) and a bit of jealousy of Michael for being everybody’s cute little favorite.  And there is that moment where John comes perilously close to signing up for a life of crime with Captain Hook; it’s only when he finds out he’d have to forswear loyalty to the King that he refuses.  Note that he doesn’t seem, in that moment, to care about abandoning his family—just about being a bad British citizen.  Doesn’t that sound like Percy?  John has that same self-importance—and, related to that, desperation to be seen as grown up—that we see in our other two examples.  The detail Barrie includes of John “seizing his Sunday hat” before flying out the nursery window is brilliant—it confirms our impression of him as a stolid, middle-aged, middle-class banker in a ten-year-old’s body.  (The Disney movie really plays this up, giving John a fussy little umbrella and a prodigious vocabulary.)  And that’s why my heart melts when I’m reminded that he is still a boy, a tired and homesick boy who is ultimately very glad to go home.

One reason I love all these characters is that everyone else seems to either forget about them or hate them.  I’ve never been a middle child or anyone’s brother, but I know what it’s like to wish to be taken seriously, so I feel for these boys, selfish and self-important as they may be.  Can you think of anyone else who might fit into this category?