In the end, we get to fully know exactly one person only: ourselves. And that’s only if we work hard at it. – Mags from Paulie Fink
A few years ago, I wrote a book titled Superheroes Don’t Eat Veggie Burgers that was published by Macmillan. It’s a story of a boy named Charlie Burger, who has just started middle school. Charlie isn’t too sure about sixth grade and is just hoping to fly under the radar. He’s not a big fan of change, but it already seems like everyone expects him to. From his mom to his soccer coach, the people in Charlie’s life want him to be someone different than who he is.
When I started writing Superheroes, my son had just started sixth grade. Unlike his older sister – who seemed to breeze through all the fun and even frustrating moments that come with middle school – my son struggled. He wanted to read Harry Potter during lunch, not talk to girls like his best friend begged him to. He wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons at recess, not shoot hoops like the other guys (something he’d never been very good at anyway.)
He wanted to keep being the kid he had always been. But everyone around him tried to convince him otherwise. So, he eventually went along with it. And for a while, he lost who he was.
My character, Charlie Burger, was based on my son. Like many writers, I ferreted facts from my real life to include in my fiction. As I watched both boys struggle to figure out who they were, I began to realize something…
School shouldn’t be a place where we have to recreate ourselves. School should be a place where we learn to grow into who we already are.
This month, we have chosen three books from our list that have stories that center around school and the changes it brings in different characters. Throughout each book, a kid must wrestle with who they are when they show up to school, who they want to be while they are there, and – ultimately – how their school environment helps them rediscover who they have been all along.
Join me at the Lamp-Post as we dive into these three titles – Because of the Rabbit, by Cynthia Lord; Save Me a Seat, by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan; and The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin.
When they got to know me better, it’d be easier to tell them the truth. For now, it seemed more important to fit in. – Emma
Because of the Rabbit begins with Emma, a fifth-grade girl who is having some pretty mixed-up emotions about starting “real” school, having been homeschooled her whole life. As she so perfectly explains, “Excited is way ahead, but Scared is coming on strong.”
Excited, because she’s finally going to make a best friend and be “half of an and” with someone else.
Scared, because she isn’t sure who she’s going to have to be to make that “and” possible.
Scared jumps ahead of Excited almost immediately. School is more confusing than Emma thought it would be, but the idea of making a best friend means Emma is ready to try anything…even if it means not telling everyone the truth.
Telling the truth takes center stage in this book. When Emma’s teacher asks everyone to play a game called “Two Truths and a Lie,” Emma quickly decides on her Truths: once she had a beaver in her barn, and once she hatched frogs in her bathroom. (The great parts about being a homeschooled, game warden’s kid!)
Her Lie? She likes pickles.
But Emma quickly realizes that her Truths and her Lie may not fit in the way she wants them to when it’s her turn to share, and some of her classmates already have a not-so-great reaction to the frog hatching incident. “Frogs in the bathroom is disgusting,” Iris said.
Emma doesn’t want to be disgusting. So she has to think fast:
I hesitated. It was just a game, a small thing, and really, what would it matter? I’d be with these kids every day for a whole school year. I needed to get off to a good start. I didn’t want them to think I was weird or, worse, disgusting.
So, Emma changes her story and thus begins changing who she is.
Throughout Because of the Rabbit, we also watch as Emma learns to care for Lapi, her rescued rabbit, and learns to be a friend to Jack, the boy she gets paired with and who most definitely does not fit in. Jack speaks out of turn and has an obsession with animals. But it’s that obsession that brings the two together and makes Emma feel untethered as she tries to figure out if the person other people want her to be is more important than the person she actually is.
But it’s through the “Two Truths and a Lie” school project that Emma anchors herself again and allows the real Emma to surface, even when it means giving up the idea of a certain kind of best friend to recognize the actual one she has found in Jack. And, ultimately, recognize herself.
I knew what I had to do. Even if it was hard or embarrassing or people got mad at me, I had to tell the truth about everything.
Because of the Rabbit is surely about a rabbit, and a super cute one at that. Lapi helps Emma discover that she has a true friend in Jack and rediscover parts of herself that she thought she needed to hide, or maybe even shed, to fit in at her new school. Cynthia Lord aptly titles one of her last chapters, “Rabbits have a blind spot in front of their nose. It’s the only place they can’t see.”
Perhaps we all have that blind spot about ourselves until a new situation, like a new school, allows us to see things differently.
Quitting is not an option. – Ravi
There is more to me than meets the eye. – Joe
Save Me a Seat is also a story that involves a kid who is starting at a new school for the first time and is also looking for that special friend. But instead of having a sweet rabbit to ground him at the end of each school day, Ravi has to deal with a family that thinks they are plenty grounded, and don’t get why Ravi isn’t immediately fitting in.
There was no way I could tell them that I had been laughed at, disrespected, tripped, ridiculed, and forced to eat my lunch in the resource room with the very person who had tripped me. Amma would have been heartbroken. So I faked a stomachache and went to bed early.
Ravi has just moved to America from India with his parents and grandparents. In Bangalore, he knew exactly who he was, but in New Jersey, he’s not so sure. The only other Indian kid in class wants nothing to do with him, and – in fact – decides to make him the class laughingstock, something that fills Ravi with more self-doubt than ever before.
I look in the mirror and don’t even recognize my own face. No one has ever humiliated me like this before. I thought Dillon Samreen wanted to be my friend.
Everything has changed. I am no longer the person I was before.
Save Me a Seat is also narrated by Joe. He is the boy who has always lived in this small town and who already knows who he is: the kid who has to wear earplugs to drown out sounds and who is used to being the weird one.
Joe just wants to fly under the radar. Ravi wants to stand out and be noticed.
Ravi and Joe seem like an unlikely pair. But when Dillon Samreen, the school bully, takes his bullying too far, both boys are given an opportunity to dig deep inside themselves and discover something they’ve both been trying to ignore – their empathy for someone else instead of their fear for themselves. After a special blue M&M, a jar full of leeches, and a “big wet stain” across the front of Dillon Samreen’s pants (believe me, he deserved it!), both boys stop thinking about what’s best for them and go out on a limb for each other.
Joe sums it up best when he realizes that the world is going to be full of Dillon Samreens, but it’s possible “for a couple of zebras to outsmart a crocodile.”
Both Ravi and Joe have always known how to outsmart lots of things. They just needed a catalyst – a nasty school bully – to help them rediscover it.
…what if everything we know about everyone is incomplete? – Caitlyn
It just so happened that on this occasion I was telling the truth. – Paulie
Though Caitlyn Breen is the main narrator throughout The Next Great Paulie Fink, there is also another voice, heard through all the emails, text streams, and interviews that make up this book – the specter of Paulie Fink, the legendary kid who mysteriously disappears from the Mitchell School right as Caitlyn shows up. Paulie leaves so many stories behind that no one knows which ones are true.
There are only eleven students in the entire seventh-grade class, and Caitlyn feels like a total outsider. The school is in middle-of-nowhere Vermont and is different from anything she’s experienced before. As Caitlyn makes clear, she doesn’t like different. In fact, she likes it when everything is in its place because that’s how she knows she “has a place.”
She knew her place at her old school. Because there, she’d learned the rules:
You take a jar of jumbled-up change, dump it all into the machine, and within about twenty seconds all the dimes are neatly stacked, and all the nickels, and all the pennies and quarters, too. That’s what middle school feels like: a giant sorting machine.
Now she’s at this school and everyone’s trying to figure out which type of coin Caitlyn is…Caitlyn herself included.
Caitlyn doesn’t like it at the Mitchell School. There are tons of weird traditions (none that she gets), The Good Day Bell (that she’s never going to ring), a pen full of goats (yes goats!), and a group of seventh graders who all seem united, even though they are a jar of jumbled-up change. But at this school, jumbled-up change somehow seems to work.
Caitlyn can’t figure out how to jumble herself in. So, she decides she’s going to take the advice of Gabby, one of her new classmates, and “fake it till you make it.”
As the story develops, so too does Caitlyn’s discomfort about who she is, who she is trying to be, and the girl she was before. When her classmates elect her to lead a reality-show-style competition in order to find the school’s “next great Paulie Fink,” Caitlyn interviews them in an attempt to better understand this kid she’s never met – a kid who seems to be part goofball, part troublemaker, and part creative genius. At one point, Caitlyn asks her teacher, Miss Magruder, if Paulie was as great as everyone says he was. Miss Magruder (who goes by Mags), responds by recounting a story about the ancient Greeks, the civilization she likes to use often in her teachings at the Mitchell School.
Mags reminds Caitlyn of how the ancient Greeks advanced the notion of democracy, while they also denied much of their population the right to vote. She goes on to emphasize they were opposed to outsiders, fought brutal wars, and even made many of their own people slaves.
When Caitlyn points out that they sound like a bunch of hypocrites, Mags says yes, they probably were. But – that was just one answer to who they were.
“The thing is,” Mags adds, “we get a choice. We can choose which aspects of our world we want to keep, and which to leave in the dustbin of history.”
Caitlyn learns a lot about the Mitchell School, her classmates, Paulie Fink, and even goats. She learns how her own discomfort can become less important to her than the needs of a tiny kindergartener – the “Mini” she gets assigned to named Kiera. And what she then learns about herself is what is most surprising to her.
I know that everyone has a cave of their own, and that walking out of it, into the light, is one of the scariest things there is.
There is a wonderful line in the afterword of the 35th edition of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (another Read to Them favorite!) that is written by the author, E.L. Konigsburg, and goes like this: “…the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.”
My son didn’t run away from sixth grade…he eventually found the other kids who also wanted to role-play during recess and he started the first Dungeons & Dragons club at his middle school. My character, Charlie Burger, stopped flying under the radar and rediscovered the superpowers he had within himself all along when he dealt with his own middle school’s version of Dillon Samreen.
And Emma, Ravi, Joe, Caitlyn, and even Paulie? They all rediscover what they’ve had inside themselves as well…that thing that Mags calls kleos.
Kleos …the Greek word for being worthy. For being renown. For being worth remembering.
Books like Because of the Rabbit, Save Me a Seat and The Next Great Paulie Fink give us school settings where characters go on their own journey, and rediscover what has been inside of them all along.
All students, all children, wonder about the same question: “What is my kleos?”
Perhaps you are still wondering, too.