Once you start looking for something, you see it everywhere. That’s how it has been for me and books about being the new kid. I wrote about Catching a Storyfish a while ago, and since then I have been compiling a list of all the books I have come across on this topic. Just counting the 2016 pub dates, there are The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen, Wish by Barbara O’Connor, and Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin in addition to Catching a Storyfish. Has this always been a popular theme in middle grade or is it just that I am looking for it now? Either way, I suppose, I am happy to have found these books.
I particularly liked the way that Counting Thyme explored the idea that “home is more than just a place” because when you moved as often as my family did, this was a lesson you learned quite young. In the book, though, this is Thyme’s first move, and it comes with some serious complications: her little brother is sick and they have moved across the country so that he can receive some experimental cancer treatment. This isn’t an easy situation for anyone. It hasn’t been easy for anyone in Thyme’s family for a while. She says about the move,
“When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes.”
So that’s how Thyme found herself starting middle school again and having to explain to everyone at her new school that her name is “Thyme with an H-Y” while they look at her like a creature from another planet. She doesn’t tell them that her little brother is sick because she doesn’t want to be “cancer boy’s sister.” If she has to be in New York City, she at least wants to be her own person while she’s there.
Counting Thyme is just what I love about middle grade fiction. It’s sweet and heartfelt. There are serious themes, but it isn’t overwhelming. In the end, I was happy to have gotten to know Thyme and her family as they made their way in a new city in a difficult situation.
Check out the trailer for more:
I started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.
Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”
“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock. My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.” I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”
Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”
Read more about Catching a Storyfish:
- Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
- School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”
Moving isn’t easy. I should know. I moved twelve times before I was twelves years old. I considered myself quite the expert. I knew how to pack boxes and say goodbye, and I knew what to expect on the first day at a new school. I can tell with certainty that it was never easy. I never wanted to move. I never wanted to leave friends or belongings behind. I never had a choice.
There were many times when I felt like Callie in Yard Sale or Peter in Lenny & Lucy, and I don’t remember having books like this back then. I had to find my own way.
I’ll be honest, books like these still affect me deeply. They tell a story that I can feel in my bones: moving can feel like more than you can bear, but you will bear it. You’ll lean on your family or you’ll find some other way to cope. But you will be okay.
If my childhood taught me nothing else, it is that you will begin to feel at home anywhere if you try.
My most recent moves have been by choice. They’ve been less about emotional upheaval, and more about the usual physical upheaval of packing and unpacking. This last move was only a half a block from old to new, so the disruption of life and routine was minimal. Still, in any move, it takes conscious effort to feel at home in the new space, to create new habits, and to find the comfortable feeling that makes us happy to be there.
I am happy that books like Yard Sale and Lenny & Lucy exist. I hope they are shared widely with a wide variety of readers. I think they will resonate with anyone saying goodbye, settling in, or trying to adjust to a new set of circumstances. They certainly did for me.
What makes a house a home? (Or an apartment a home, in this case, I suppose.) My daughter is nearing the end of her first year of Unitarian-Universalist religious education, and that has been the focus of the program for her age group: Creating a home.
Note: If there’s ever a good time to move, it’s when your child is immersed in a weekly lesson in creating a home. That was a happy coincidence for us. Each week she would spend her Sunday mornings immersed in the idea that we can be intentional about our homes, that our homes are safe spaces we journey from and return to every day. I realized as I listened to her talk about what home meant to her that moving would be easy if we were intentional about it.
We have spent the last couple of months creating a home in a new apartment in a new neighborhood. There are still items in boxes or in not-quite permanent locations, and there isn’t much on the walls yet. But it’s feeling more and more like home every day.
What has made this place a home for me:
- Finding a nearby Little Free Library to adopt as ours. It’s far enough away to be a mini-adventure and close enough to be convenient. We’ll make regular stops there now that it’s nice outside.
- We met our neighbors. It turns out we are surrounded by six year old girls. My six year old is delighted.
- We adopted a cat and named her Disco.
Last weekend, my daughter and I cuddled in a comfy chair to watch Cosmos, and Disco joined us, purring. That’s home.