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Overcome with emotion, I cried for the first leg of the nine-and-a-half hour train raid from Montpelier, Vermont, to my home hub, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. To entertain and distract myself from my powerful feels, I reread the entirety of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, my-all time favorite children’s book by my all-time favorite children’s author. To revisit the book was like comfort food, nourishing me with familiar scenes and quirky characters I never forgot.
It was July 2018, and I had just finished the first residency in my MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults (WCYA) at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). My life was about to change forever, thanks to being reintroduced to children’s literature. I was ready to do the work for my program but not prepared for how deeply the experience of reading and writing kid lit would help heal my hurtful childhood.
This is my story of how being immersed in children’s literature helped overcome my own trouble as a child and gave me hope for saving the lives of today’s kids.
“Hi, My Name is Sarah, and I Write YA”
The first morning of residency, I was having breakfast and mingling with the other students. It felt a bit like day camp, but with kid lit fanatics like me. And boy, did I love kid lit, in particular young adult (YA) books. The scope of children’s and young adult literature is vast, covering everything from board books to picture books to easy readers to middle grade books to YA literature.
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And YA was my comfort zone.
I had applied to the program specifically so I could study YA and hone my craft by working with some of the leading authors of YA and hopefully someday becoming good enough to publish YA. My writing sample for the application was YA. My workshop piece was YA. The book I was working on was YA. The books I read were YA.
So when we sat around that first morning and people asked me what I write, a question I never really thought about, I said, “Hi, my name is Sarah, and I write YA.” And with that brief intro, I had branded myself.
My Kid Lit Secret
I entered my MFA program expecting that I would stick to YA. It wasn’t just my love for all things young adult literature that made me limit myself to writing and reading YA; my secret was I couldn’t face middle grade books, AKA those written for the 8- to 12-year-old crowd. How could I write for that audience when my own experience during that age span was rough?
My childhood had bright spots, but without the help of the kid lit I borrowed and renewed and renewed and renewed again from the library, I wouldn’t have been able to get through it at all. When I was a young child, I suffered abuse from a so-called “friend” and experienced the first taste of suicidal depression that would plague me into adolescence and adulthood. My social anxiety was so extreme that I had a standing agreement with my parents; they would call during sleepovers with some fake excuse for collecting me from my peers’ houses and bring me home, so I didn’t have to face a night with other kids. And my undiagnosed Asperger’s made playground dynamics tricky and frustrating.
When I was shouldering these hardships, children’s literature saved my life. I would fall into my beloved stories by Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, C.S. Lewis, and Beverly Cleary and find boundless happiness, great friendships, acceptance of quirky kids, daring adventures that always ended well, and hope — in other words, the exact opposite of my lived daily reality. But in middle grade books, anything is possible. Talking pigs and spiders. Frog and toad companionships. Golden tickets. And wonderful childhoods full of magic and delight. I read feverishly for escapism that transported me from the hell I was living through into whole other worlds.
These books saved my life.
But could I write them?
A Reckoning with the Past
Because of my fraught younger years, I convinced myself that I was ineligible to write for that age group. How could I manage to fake it, to write for that age group with necessary joy and wonder when — outside books — those emotions were not part of my history? Surely kids would suss out that I was a fraud if I ever published middle grade, right? Surely they would realize I was faking it, right?
But it became impossible to avoid middle grade. A core part of residency is attending a flurry of lectures and readings on all thing kid lit. Middle grade was just not optional. I could not hide from it forever. The more I kicked myself out of my comfort zone, the more lectures about middle grade I attended, and the more I reflected on my experience as a child.
One lecture in particular helped me peel away my shitty childhood from the possibilities and promise of returning to write and read middle grade. Towards the end of the lecture, we were asked to spend a few minutes journaling on when we first realized we wanted to be writers. I knew exactly when my writing aspirations first emerged — after reading Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Like Harriet, I had trouble with social situations. Like Harriet, I chronicled my observations in composition books. And, inspired by Harriet’s example, I shared her dream of being a writer, a magician who spun fantastical stories out of 26 letters. Harriet the Spy was so appealing to me as a child precisely because of Harriet’s challenges.
That’s when it hit me. It was thanks to books like Harriet the Spy that I first realized my wish was to one day write the kinds of books that rescued the downtrodden.
If Harriet the Spy and all my children’s literature favorites saved me when I was a child, surely I could aspire to do the same for today’s kids. Maybe my handicap — my painful childhood — was actually an asset. I knew the power of books to reach vulnerable children and offer them a balm to the hard times. Would it be possible to return the favor?
Answering the Call
I came home on the train inspired, exhilarated, and exhausted. The intensity of being sent back in time to my childhood left me with a lot to think about. I had just been put in touch with the core, formative early days of my life and the pain that lingered from that time — all of which I’d avoided thinking about and processing for years. Indeed, I was immersed in thoughts and memories, some good, some bad. It seemed like the residency and my newfound understanding of my own writer’s origins story had fundamentally shaken me. I knew then, as the train hurtled past the green mountains of New England, that I couldn’t escape my tortured childhood. Instead, during that first hour of my trip through rural Vermont, when no cell service and therefore nothing to distract me from my thoughts and feelings, I knew in order to become the writer I wanted to be, I had to face my youngest years full on, without flinching, without doubting, without backing down.
I would answer the call.
And hope that I was worthy of reaching today’s readers.
During that crucial first semester of my program, I read a dizzying amount of books from all age groups, including venturing into today’s prize-winning middle grade novels. I devoured some of the biggest books of the last decade by authors like Elizabeth Acevedo, Kekla Magoon, Thanhha Lai, and Jason Reynolds, as I tried to get up to speed with the contemporary classics of the children’s and young adult literature. I also took my first stabs at writing my own middle grade with a book about two cats that start out as enemies and become best friends. Through writing that story, I was able to model heathy friendships and attachments, the exact opposite of what I had endured as a kid, and demonstrated how to overcome problems like anxiety. I wasn’t shying away from the hardships in life; I was writing them into the story and modeling how to find hope during tough times. My middle grade story was designed to offer a light in the darkness.
There are happy children’s books for happy times. We need them.
And then there are books that kids going through hardship deserve, too.
Fluffy, upbeat, and optimistic books are necessary. We all crave escapism.
But struggling kids need to see their challenges on the page, too.
I could do that. I could try to do that.
Over the next few years of my program, I would use middle grade to begin to understand and heal my childhood. Through writing and reading middle grade, I would grapple with the past but also use my troubled beginnings as motivation for writing stories for the kids who were going through difficulties. Thanks to my immersion in middle grade, I was better able to understand the power of children’s literature to save lives. By studying middle grade so intensely, I started to heal from my childhood and reframe my early obstacles as fuel for fiction I was writing today, as if I was going back in time and telling younger, scared, troubled me that one day I would harness the bad days for good.
That, if you just hold on, there’s hope on the way.