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The Intimacy of Understanding 

Gretchen Kelley
At the Lamp-Post

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“I see you.” 

A simple phrase, loaded with meaning. It can be used in the literal sense: “Your image has now entered my eye through the cornea and my pupil has adjusted it, and my lens has focused it, and now I can see that you are angry because the dishes are still in the sink.” Or figurative: “I understand you. I get who you are. What makes you tick. I see what makes you You.” 

Our need to understand and our desire to be understood are vital themes in children’s literature. When children read, they immerse themselves in the story and take on the role of a book’s character, creating opportunities to interact vicariously with that character’s world and those who are part of it. In this role-playing process, a child’s imagination can run alongside reality, giving them a chance to see different characters from different points of view, a classic case of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Through each character’s thoughts, words, and actions, the reader can develop new insight that informs his or her own character and values. This kind of experience can alter a child’s behavior, mindset, even value structure. It can change how they see another person, or culture, or way of life. It can change how they see themselves. Reading a wide array of good literature allows our children to better understand the world in which we live and adjust how they see their own relationship to it. 

This month, At the Lamp-Post delves deeper into Understanding, focusing on three books on our list: Restart by Gordon Korman, A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Though very different at first glance, all three titles help us explore how understanding someone – really seeing them – allows us to better understand ourselves, understand others, and understand our world. Dive deeper with me, will you? 

 Understanding Ourselves: “What was so wrong about the old me that now I have to be somebody else?” 

In the aptly titled Restart, Chase Ambrose has a chance to restart his life. After a nasty fall, the middle school star quarterback develops amnesia and has to figure out who he is without any recollection of who he was. How can someone move forward in understanding themselves when they have no clue who they’ve been? 

YH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7Much of Chase’s story unfolds through the accounts of others. We read chapters from kids who knew Chase before his accident, and we start to get a picture of who he was and why his transformation is so hard for some of them to accept. Brendan Espinoza, a kid who has always steered clear of Chase, can’t believe what he’s seeing: “I thought it was just a rumor… but what other explanation could there be for why he’s sitting here with me instead of with his football friends? And acting like a human being, no less?” Chase may not remember who he was. But others do, and this new Chase is as big a mystery to him as it is to everyone else. 

Chase’s struggle to understand himself is sometimes hard to witness, as it encourages us to reflect on our own behaviors and actions. Gordon Korman gives us a character in Chase through whom readers will see pieces of themselves, even if at first they don’t want to. We may not be the school bully or the town football hero, but Chase’s struggles are ones each of us have experienced. Who hasn’t looked in a mirror and thought, “A stranger stares back at me”? Who hasn’t felt like Chase when he realizes, “I’ll never be able to get away from myself”? Our own journey to self-discovery may not involve a fall on our head and a bout of amnesia, but the need to understand who we were, who we are, and who we are willing to work hard to become is pretty universal. As Chase’s principal reminds him, “This is an awful thing that’s happened to you, but it’s also presenting you with a rare opportunity. You have the chance to rebuild yourself from the ground up, to make a completely fresh start. Don’t squander it!” This advice should resonate with readers long after Restart is tucked back on the shelf. 

 Understanding Others: “If I want to know something about a person, I ask.” 

Younger readers have a chance to experience a different kind of understanding when they are introduced to A Boy Called Bat. Unlike Chase, Bat seems to know himself quite well. From the opening page we learn that Bat doesn’t like “to eat leftovers, or cheese that had to be sliced, or any of the yogurt flavors in the fridge.” Bat hates when people rumple his hair, break the rules by bouncing balls in the school hallway, or try to make him look them in the eyes. Bat likes his teacher’s bright orange tennis shoes and animal facts and Babycakes (the class rabbit). He seems like a guy who understands himself. 

But, as Elana K. Arnold so delicately shows us, even though Bat knows the things that make him tick, he doesn’t know what makes others tick. In one tender scene, Bat is braiding his sister’s hair and comes to his own revelation: “Getting along with people was hard for Bat. Figuring out what they meant when they said something, or when they made certain faces at him… People were complicated. But braiding was easy.” He – like Chase – must go through the hard part of figuring out how to interact with those around him. Is it by learning more about himself? Or putting in the tedious work of learning about others? These are heavy questions disguised in a sweet story that subtly encourages us to ask the same things of ourselves. 

YH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7When Bat’s new friend, Israel, wants to hold the baby skunk that Bat has been raising and loving and caring for, Bat is nervous and unsure – feelings most of us have experienced, and certainly don’t like. He tries to take a social cue from his mom and look into Israel’s eyes to see if he can “see something … that would let him know it would be okay to trust Israel.” But Bat realizes that “all he saw were eyes.” So he tries a different tactic. He looks at Israel’s hands. He sees how they are “cupped together to form a safe little nest.” He notices how Israel has “overlapped his palms so that there was no way Thor could slip between them.” By seeing these physical cues, Bat sees Israel’s intent to keep Thor safe. And he realizes that this is how he, Bat, can understand that Israel is trustworthy. Eyes weren’t going to do it for him. Cupped nest hands were. 

What a moment to reflect and celebrate how we each need to see different things in order to understand what someone is trying to tell us. Through Bat’s experiences, we learn that we are not all created the same. What works for him may not work for me. And that’s okay. As long as we get to the end goal – to understand each other. And be understood. 

 Understanding Our World: “We all have disabilities. What’s yours?” 

Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind is a perfect example of how children’s literature can help us understand our world through characters who don’t always look like us. From the first pages when eleven-year-old Melody tells us, “I can’t talk. I can’t walk. I can’t feed myself or take myself to the bathroom,” we see that this character is different. But she quickly shows us how similar she is, too. 

“Big bummer,” she concludes. (You think?) 

All through Out of My Mind, Draper gives Melody a voice that makes readers not only like her, sympathize with her and root for her, but also wish for a relationship with her… one that might last beyond the final pages. (If you feel that way, Sharon Draper has just published a sequel: Out of My Heart.) Melody’s a great listener, the smartest person on the quiz team, loves Coke, and hates jazz. She wants to hang at the mall and gossip with friends. She’s “got snaps,” as her teammate Conner points out after she tells Claire (the girl who likes to make fun of her) that, “TV makes lots of people look funny. Maybe even you.” Melody has the snark and yearnings of any tween girl. Do we forget she has cerebral palsy, drools a lot, and lives her life in a wheelchair? Often, yes. 

“Fifth grade is probably pretty rocky for lots of kids. Homework. Never being quite sure if you’re cool enough. Clothes. Parents. Wanting to play with toys and wanting to be grown up all at the same time. Underarm odor.” 

Draper has generously sprinkled these observations throughout Out of My Mind. Like A Boy Called Bat, the story is not about a girl who is different. It’s about a kid learning to understand her differences and how to move through the world with them. Just as Bat must learn to read people’s social cues, Melody has to learn to be patient with people and understand how to help them understand her. 

“One day I pointed to music and bad and stinky, then I started laughing. Rose didn’t get it at first. So I pointed to the words again, then pointed to Mrs. Lovelace, who was playing some kind of jazz music on the CD player… Rose finally figured it out and said, ‘Oh! You don’t like jazz? Me either!’ We both laughed so hard, Mrs. Lovelace had to put her finger to her lips to tell us to hush. Never in my life have I had a teacher tell me to be quiet because I was talking to somebody  in class!” YH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7Scenes like these allow us to see parts of ourselves in Melody and to start to understand where our own challenges may be. Melody gives us an opportunity to not just learn what it’s like to navigate life with a disability, but how to live our best life no matter what. Her voice may be that of a girl who has never played hopscotch, danced, gone to a sleepover, or sang in the choir, but it is also that of a girl who gets annoyed at her parents, loves warm chocolate chip cookies, and knows when she’s being left out. Melody reflects parts of all of us and ponders the same questions that Bat, Chase, and the rest of us do. Who am I? Where do I fit in? What is my place in the world? And though she never claims to have the answers, she does come to understand this: “Maybe I’m not so different from everyone else after all.” 

Readers like to see themselves in each book’s characters. But something glorious happens when we see ourselves in a character who seems different from us at first glance. When a character on the cover doesn’t look like me but begins to feel like me as I read, not only do I learn something valuable about them, but also myself. Whether we have a similar sense of humor or divorced parents or we both like hot sauce – I begin to identify with that person. At some point it dawns on me that I am relating to a girl in a wheelchair, or a boy with autism, or the school bully. That is the understanding these types of books show us. 

Good kidlit can have a significant impact on a child’s mind because it allows them to use the full power of their imaginations to incorporate the experiences of characters from books. “I see you” no longer just assumes my cornea, pupil and lens are doing a good job focusing. It means something deeper, more heartfelt, more cerebral. It means, “I get you.” Whether we are reading about a kid trying to figure out who he was and who he is now, a young boy struggling to understand people so they will understand him, or a girl learning how to show the world she is so much more than her wheelchair, each of these characters give us the chance to use our hearts and not just our eyes – and thus see the world a little more clearly. 

 

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