What is family? Are tweens experiencing family in the same way they always have? How do books influence how tweens think about their families? All three questions are important when we think of tweens, but I want to address the third question for both books we read last week, with the caveat that I am not a tween and have not been one for some time.
This is What I Did by Ann Dee Ellis is a heartbreaking, earnest book about a very traditional family. Logan lives with both parents, who were high school sweethearts and are definitely “sex fiends” because his mother is pregnant again. He has what appears to be a stable family. And yet, something is wrong. His parents have just moved the whole family because of the incident he witnessed, which is a very caring thing to do–even if it doesn’t seem to help the troubled Logan. This book tells tweens, loud and clear, that adults don’t always get things right. Zyler’s father certainly doesn’t, and Logan’s parents seem to see what they want to see, over and over again. As an adult, this is heartbreaking but not a revelation. For tweens who have caring parents who are making the right decisions, this may be new information. I think that the tween years are when you start to figure out larger truths about the world and the idea that even those people who mean well do not always know what to do is incredibly important. I think Ellis’ story gives tweens and teens room to come to this conclusion on their own, which is admirable. As for tweens who may have already experienced something like Logan has, this is also a story for them. Seeing their story in fiction, from another perspective, with less of a feeling of personal involvement (although Logan’s voice compels the reader to feel involved to some extent) could help them understand that they are love despite the problems in their lives. This is What I Did has so many layers for tweens, it feels like a must-read or a possible book for English class.
The Graveyard Book gives tweens another example of family as being the people who do their best to stand by you and keep you safe. Maybe the ghosts shortchanged Bod by keeping him in the graveyard for all that time, but they just wanted him to be alive. What they don’t understand is that part of being alive is enjoying the company of other people who are alive, too. I think this can be classified as a cultural difference. By the end, not only have they figured out that they have to let go of Bod, but that he has learned enough to make his own way in the world. Part of me wants to ignore the part where he has to really say goodbye to the graveyard, to never return home, because that part broke my heart and, though it may have echoed the end of The Jungle Book, it felt wrong. But it’s a part of the book, and I think it will make an impression on tween readers as it did on me. So once again, we have the tweens that have not experienced anything like Bod, who live with loving families of breathing people. For them, this is an indication that there are other people out there who may have lost their families but are loved and raised well just the same. They see the world, they might feel lucky to have their own loving family around them. Of course, they might also feel stifled and wish they had ghosts to raise them rather than boring old parents, which is probably a normal feeling for tweens.
For kids who may have experienced loss like Bod’s, this book is hopeful. I think it says “Trust me, even if you’re reared by a bunch of ghosts and all you have to wear is grey sheet, you can turn out okay.” I also wonder if adopted children might feel a kinship with Bod. I’m sure it depends on how early on they were adopted but I think this is where the ending gets me. Does this book say that once you’re grown, the people who cared for you will literally just disappear? Especially for foster children, who I’m sure have this worry (which unfortunately is often true, depending on the foster family). I have enough faith in tweens that I think they can separate their lives from fiction so I’m not saying tweens shouldn’t read this book, or that it will somehow harm them if they do.
Overall, I think that there are two powerful ideas in this book that readers will take away, whether they mean to or not. First, people band together to help others in need. I love that idea. The second is that everyone grows up and growing up means leaving something behind. This is a fine idea, and it is the truth, at least as I’ve experienced growing up. But in this case, what Bod leaves behind is his family and his home. Perhaps that drives home the idea in a dramatic way and this is necessary, especially for tweens to really understand what Gaiman is trying to say.
Regardless, the ending of The Graveyard Book is really what separates Bod’s family from Logan’s family. Which is good for tween readers, as it broaden their view of what family is, helping them tackle the challenge of growing up in their particular family. I may not like the ending of The Graveyard Book, but it is memorable and inspires discussion and that is a powerful thing.