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Vulnerability and Friendship

L. Bruce Coffey Jr.

C.S. Lewis once said, “To love is to be vulnerable.”

How can it be that friendship can provide so much warmth and joy – and so much worry and pain?

We’ve got over 150 titles on our recommended reading list at Read to Them. And friendship could be a theme in virtually every one, because friendship, itself, is so dynamic. Friendship is affirming. Friendship is about establishing commonality and shared interests. Friendship is about who you like to laugh with – and who it’s fun to talk or walk or write or hike or water ski with. Friendship is about finding people who will be there for you when you need them.

Friendship is also about finding people who will stand up to you, challenge you, and even disappoint you. You can only be disappointed when you come to care – when you value a friendship and rely on it and maybe even depend on it – emotionally. That’s what happens to characters in the three great titles we’d like to take a look at together.

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“Toys Go Out” Illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky

Emily Jenkins’s Toys Go Out (first of a snazzy little trilogy) is about three toys who are friends. Or are they? The little girl who owns them says they are her best friends. But the toys seem thrown together arbitrarily. Jenkins has wisely drawn distinct characters who are alternately prickly, confident, vulnerable, and curious. They come to learn about the world, life, and each other through their mishaps and adventures. In one special chapter, Lumphy, the stuffed buffalo, ends up in the basement and meets Frank, the terrifying washing machine…who turns out to be welcoming and comforting, quick with a song to ease Lumphy’s worries. (“Dance that buffalo shuffle with me!”) As lovely as that is, it’s not the sort of friendship we’re interested in. That’s too easy.

We learn a subtler lesson about friendship when the Little Girl is going on an outing to the beach and decides to take only Plastic, the little red ball, along on the trip. This is Plastic’s big moment to shine as she is often overshadowed by StingRay, who can be cocky and supercilious and a bit of a blowhard. While Plastic is away, StingRay is distressed that she has been passed over for the trip, a blow to her faltering self-esteem. She ought to be a worthy beach companion, what with all of her knowledge of sea creatures like “jellyfish made of grape and raspberry jelly” and “garbage-eating sharks.” She assumes and asserts she is a “floater” who can “float as well as Plastic, any day.” But, in truth she is a sinker, a crushing revelation she discovers in the bathtub. At the bottom of the tub, StingRay has an epiphany. She realizes that as a dry-clean only StingRay she has missed her friend Plastic. When Plastic returns, StingRay admits, “It was very un-bouncy around here without you.” Jenkins expertly shows young readers that sometimes that bravado that can be oh so annoying is actually hiding a different truth. And sometimes letting it go makes you vulnerable, ready to be a true friend.

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In Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw, Jackson’s family is facing some tough times and Jackson really needs a friend. It looks like his family is going to be homeless again…and then the mysterious Crenshaw appears. Crenshaw isn’t the everything-you-want-him-to-be pal from central casting – there to say and do the right thing every time. He is a giant imaginary cat who does buck up Jackson’s spirits, buthe is also mysterious and gnomic. Is he real? Will he always be there? Jackson could try to pretend he doesn’t see the odd skateboarding cat – or need him – but the reader can tell the boy does need this quirky new friend. Eventually Crenshaw spells it out for him: “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.”

Is this true for imaginary friends – or all friends? Is Katherine Applegate sharing a larger truth about all friendships? Is Jackson only using Crenshaw like a favorite picture book? It doesn’t seem that way. It sure seems like Jackson wants to understand the whole imaginary friend thing better, but not look too tenaciously for fear of ruining the effect. Is that friendship, too?

YH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7Eventually Jackson learns to grow from an actual human peer – the daring Marisol. She is the kind of friend who is willing to challenge Jackson to be someone he’s not. Yet. Jackson prefers the routine, the familiar, the dependable. (His family has been homeless – he craves what is sure.) But Marisol says, “I like not knowing everything. It makes life more interesting.” She is challenging Jackson to be more daring, too – to be willing to explore life with her, unsure of what will happen next. Well, that’s what friends are for – right?

In Christopher Paul Curtis’s beloved Bud, Not Buddy, we see vulnerability as an essential part of friendship, this time in a more conventional human realm – no talking toys or magical cats here. As a child who has visited and been returned from several orphanages, he has learned not to trust adults – at all. It’s Curtis’s special magic that we can learn this truth and laugh at the same time. One of Bud’s running motifs is his Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. For example…

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When an Adult Tells You They Need Your Help with a Problem Get Ready to Be Tricked – Most Times This Means They Just Want You to Go Fetch Something for Them.

Bud has a couple of friends from the orphanage.  And he does meet the estimable Deza Malone (worthy of her own sequel) along the way.  So how is it that Christopher Paul Curtis manages to concoct a winning children’s book where Bud spends nearly all hisYH5BAEAAAAALAAAAAABAAEAAAIBRAA7 time in the company of adults – especially the musicians in what turns out to be his grandfather’s jazz band? It’s because Curtis has subtle, sophisticated friendship fare to show us – and teach us – readers all.

Bud may purport to live by Rule #118…

You Have to Give Adults Something That They Think They Can Use to Hurt You by Taking It Away. That Way They Might Not Take Something Away That You Really Do Want. Unless They’re Crazy or Real Stupid They Won’t Take Everything Because if They Did They Wouldn’t Have Anything to Hold Over Your Head to Hurt You with Later.

But the truth is, over the course of the novel Bud learns something else entirely. His grandfather, Herman E. Calloway, may be forbidding and stern and distant, and Miss Thomas may act motherly in ways he sorely craves, but it’s the other members of the band who each find their way to get to know Bud – and to let Bud get to know them. It happens without Bud’s really realizing. (And Curtis is smart enough not to tell us; he lets us see it and come to recognize it just like Bud.)

Bud feels welcomed and included when he gets to eat with the band: “I didn’t notice before how funny Mr. Jimmy was. The stories he was telling about traveling around the country with Herman E. Calloway had us all laughing so much that even the nosy people at all the tables near ours quit eating and were busting their guts and throwing their two cents into the stories.”

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When Bud realizes he’s been included…he breaks down and sobs. Miss Thomas and the band comfort him, but not for long. And once the shell is cracked, he is truly welcomed. They give him a recorder (and eventually a full blooded sax). Even better, they give him a nickname. A nice admirable nickname? No, a teasing nickname: Sleepy (because he sleeps ’til noon the first night) and Bone (because he’s so skinny), thus: Sleepy LaBone. It’s a process, and a name, that communicates a central truth of friendship – if you’re with us, you’ve got to be able to give it, and take it. And, Bud, you can take it.

All of this – the laughing and the crying and the teasing and the mutual admiration – are perfect examples of the special yin/yang of true friendship. You have to expose yourself, to risk trust and embarrassment and love, to develop the true connection of friendship. And for Bud, it’s with a confounded bunch of adults!

I think Madeline L’Engle figured it all out when she concluded, “To grow up is to accept vulnerability.”

Why do we read children’s books? Why do we share all these happy, sad, joyful, painful, lesson-filled stories with the children we love? To help them learn and grow. To help them grow up, not too fast, but grow up all the same. We can’t sugarcoat it for them. The best stories don’t shy from risk or vulnerability or pain. That’s what earns credibility with kids. We want to broaden and enrich their experience to help them grow up well, so we show them both sides of friendship – the salt and the sweet, the joyful and the painful.

Welcome to the rest of your life. What should we read next?

 

Bruce Coffey is Read to Them’s Director of Programs

 

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