Saturday, July 24, 2010

Comfort in familiarity

Yesterday was a "getting the car fixed in New Jersey" day. Gus had nothing to read (finished Anne Ursu's Siren Song in two days), the hood of the car needed a new part, and so we were both understandably panicked. I'd been thinking about giving Gus some teen fiction, though he's not yet 11. This, because he's suddenly in that in-between age where he can enjoy a picture book or an Eyewitness book (about Knights in this case)as well as a juicy novel--fantasy or realistic. From my shelf I plucked a young adult novel called "Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film about The Grapes of Wrath" by Steven Goldman. I had edited the book at Bloomsbury just before I left, and loved it so much. It's a terrifically funny book about a boy named Mitchell, whose best friend, David, realizes he's gay--and despite everything they discover together about life and themselves, they remain close. And, of course, they have a typically disastrous prom--involving horrible yellow stains on white tuxedo pants. You guessed it.

Gus had devoured it by the end of the day when the car was fixed ($1300), and I loved asking him what part he was reading every hour or so--so I could reminisce about what a charming book it had been for me to work on. Thinking about it, I realize "Two Parties" was a great book for boys who are beginning to see the fun and humor about more grown-up issues, but who also feel the fears that come with becoming teens.

I learned at Hamline last week--thanks to Chris Campbell's critical thesis--that for boys, fear plays an enormous role in growing into a teen. Sure, 'tween and teenage boys may be curious about girls, socializing, and their own changing bodies, but honestly! The big problem is more about being seen naked in the boys' locker room (Thanks for the image, Chris!) and not feeling humiliated about a squeaking voice, the way you smell, or being over or under-weight. I think Judy Blume had it right when she said: Then Again, Maybe I Won't. These days when I ask Gus if he's excited about something, his answer is usually: "Not specifically." I chuckle, but I realize how indifferent he feels. And why? Because the things an eleven year old wants are the not the things we parents think are "good" for them. Ever. He wants to play video games, talk about whatever matters to him, be sarcastic, read great books, and basically never HAVE to do anything he doesn't want to do. I imagine there are many other things he does want to do, but those probably aren't the things you tell your mom! This topic has become a big theme for me lately as I try an navigate this new phase along with my growing-up son.

Tonight I walked into his room to find him reading yet another book. "I know, I've read it sixteen times," he said as he showed me the cover of Otherwise Known as Shelia the Great. See what I mean? I always feel caught between two worlds, and now he's feeling it, too. It always goes back to Judy Blume, doesn't it!

Now I must go begin revise fifty pages from the novel I am trying (very slowly) to write, but I invite you, my friends, to suggest any great books or films for boys of this age. It's a question that's been stumping everyone in my MFA program. I will say this: Now that I realize that there are big fears and apprehensions that accompany the new-found curiosity and need for exploration, at least I can turn to books such as Fat Kid Rules the World and others, where kids Gus's age are facing the feelings that come with this nerve-racking time in a child's life: he knows he is really starting to grow up for good, and there's nothing he can do to make it go faster or to stop it from happening.