Sunday, March 16, 2014

Life Lessons and Sanitary Napkins

I'm going to get a little personal here. It's okay. We're all friends.

Last week I stopped at the health food store for some things. I picked up bananas, a few avocados, and a package of frozen berries. I knew I needed some sanitary napkins, but I couldn’t find them, and figured the store didn’t sell them. I’d have to make a separate trip to the pharmacy.

My 11-year-old daughter and I went to the back of the very long line. As we’re standing there, I spot the sanitary napkins, next to the toilet paper, at the very tippy top of a shelf near the register.

“Oh, there are the pads,” I say to my daughter. “Way up there.”

“Didn’t you say you needed those,” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer. “But they’re way up high. I don’t think I can reach them. We’ll just stop at the pharmacy.”

“Try to reach them. Or just ask someone,” she says.

I look around. The only people nearby are:

1) The teenage boy working the cash register
2) The very short woman behind the deli counter
3) The elderly couple looking at the veggie burgers in the freezer

I am not a shy person. But for some reason, I just can’t picture myself asking any of these people to get the sanitary napkins down from the top shelf for me.

“I don’t want to ask anyone,” I say to my daughter. “We’ll stop at the pharmacy.”

And then she gives me a look that I’ve never seen on her face before… But it’s a look I have given her many times.

It’s the "You’ve got to be kidding me” look. You know the one. Head cocked. Eyebrows raised.  Arms crossed.

“What?” I ask. “It’s embarrassing.”

“I can’t believe you’re going to let that stop you from getting something you want,” she says.

And then I look down at myself to be sure we haven’t switched bodies.

We haven’t.

I freeze. My mind goes absolutely blank for a second, and then this thought flashes across my brain like a news flash: THIS IS A LIFE LESSON FOR YOUR DAUGHTER!

If I don’t get what I need, then I’m teaching her some very bad things:

1) Don’t ask for what you want.
2) It’s better to go out of your way than be embarrassed.
3) You should care what other people think of you.


I look at her. Her head is still cocked, her eyebrows still raised, her arms still crossed.

I look at the sanitary napkins.

I look back at her.

“I’ll be right back,” I say. “Hold our place in line.”

And as she’s watching me, I march over the the shelf with the sanitary napkins, stand on my tiptoes, and amazingly enough, I can just reach. I grab a pack, and head back to join my daughter in line. I’m smiling like an idiot.

“See, you did it,” she says to me.

“This is a good lesson,” I tell her. “It’s important to go for what you want, even if it’s embarrassing.”

She rolls her eyes.

And even though it was just a box of sanitary napkins, I hope she translates the experience to everything she does in her life. And I hope I do, too.

I remember how scary it was to share my first manuscript with my critique group, to dive into a big pile of revisions, to send that first query letter to an agent. But if I hadn’t done those things, I would never have gotten what I needed… and I need to write.

So the next time you let embarrassment stop you from getting something you need, remember the sanitary napkins.

And then reach way up high, and go get 'em.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Finding Your Middle-Grade Voice

I find middle graders fascinating.

Perhaps this is why I volunteer to chaperone (stalk) my kids' field trips, why I jump at the chance to drive (stalk) my kids and their friends to the movies, and why I often help out (stalk) in my kids' classrooms.

Middle school is a time of great discovery… and great dichotomy. Kids are learning how to fit in as part of a group, while also trying desperately to stand out. Your daughter refuses to acknowledge your existence when she’s with her friends, yet clings to you when you’re snuggling at bedtime. Your son can’t remember to throw his dirty socks in the wash, yet he has no problem bathing in his favorite cologne. They get nostalgic for when they were “little,” yet they can’t wait to grow up.

Yes, middle school is quite possibly the most emotionally and physically confusing time in our lives. Which makes it such rich grounds for writers to grow something meaningful.

My favorite middle-grade novels subtly acknowledge the chaos and confusion happening in the brains and bodies of its characters. When I write middle-grade, I dig deep into the archives of my own mind and remember what that time period felt like. Admittedly, I cringe a lot during these exercises. A lot. I picture an insecure, frizzy-haired girl with braces and glasses who just moved to a new town, where, remarkably, all the kids have smooth hair, straight teeth, and perfect eyesight.

As most main characters do in middle grade novels, I grew up during my middle-school years. I discovered conditioner. I got contact lenses. The braces came off. Slowly, I gained confidence, thanks in part to my parents, as well as a few select teachers who were convinced I just needed a little push to find my way in the world… or at least to find my way through middle school.

Of course, it’s been lots (and lots and lots) of years since I’ve been in middle school. The clothes are different (I still miss leg warmers), the music is different (Rick Springfield still rocks), and even the method of communication is different (notes folded into mini paper footballs are still more fun than texts).

But the basics haven’t changed. Kids today, just like kids back in the day, are still trying to find out where they fit in, who their true friends are, and what makes them special.

Today’s kids still experience the sweaty-palmed excitement of a first crush, the thank-god-I’m-not-alone comfort of a BFF, and the heart-pounding thrill of making the soccer team. They also know the blow of your crush not like-liking you back, the punch-in-the-gut pain of being dissed by your friends, and the stomach-sinking feeling of seeing a bad grade on a test.

Those issues are what will resonate with middle-schoolers, regardless of if their school pictures have them in bell bottoms or skinny jeans. It’s a universal truth throughout the ages… the middle school years are just weird.

But, just like 80’s fashion, there is beauty in that weirdness. And if we, as writers, can recall those mostly-weird-but-sometimes-wonderful feelings, we will create an authentic voice. We will speak for the middle-graders who, sometimes, are still too confused to speak for themselves.