The summer my sons were nine, ten, and twelve, my husband Fred got the Griswold Family Vacation bug—you know, like in those old National Lampoon movies with Chevy Chase. He wanted us to go on a classic, calamitous, old-fashioned, family road-trip. All five of us in our old minivan, hitting the open road of adventure, Yellowstone to Washington, D.C.
“It’ll be great!” he said, waving brochures around. “And educational, too!”
Me, I wasn’t convinced.
In fact, I was nervous as heck, highly anxious about how a trip would affect my autistic middle son. He was such a homebody! He needed his routines so much! A picky eater, he subsisted mainly on chicken nuggets, applesauce, and frozen peas served in separate dishes, and I felt like the whole fragile fabrication of my peaceful existence depended upon providing these routines. How was I going to provide them on the road?
And my boy had major freak-out meltdowns if his big blue blanket so much as touched the floor. On the road, how was I going to wash his blanket? How would he handle a thousand miles of rolling change and disruption to his routine? And he also had sensory processing disorder—everything felt too loud, too tight, too hard, too bright.
“He can’t handle it,” I fretted.
“YOU can’t handle it,” my husband said. “It’ll be fine. All you have to do is get in and go.”
A hundred miles into the trip, there was already carsickness, puking, and tears. All coming from me. As for the boys, they had pillow fights, kicking fights, and endless ridiculous squabbles. “Don’t make me reach back there, you maniacs!” my husband would say, fishing for a part of someone to grab in his vice-like grip, and they would shriek with laughter, scrambling their legs away.
The big blue blanket touched the floor. There were unacceptable, gag-worthy food items that led to public tantrums. I fought with my husband. It rained. The boys refused to write in the perfectly lovely journals I’d bought! Imagine! And I had a minor nervous breakdown one afternoon, sobbing on a bench outside a nice restaurant we’d basically gotten kicked out of.
Parts of this trip were hell.
Other parts were not.
The boys saw bison in Yellowstone, bald eagles on the Mississippi. They rode horseback in Jackson Hole, peered down cracks in the earth in the Badlands. They developed a rating system for the grossness of public bathrooms. We had arm-wrestling contests that left us laughing. I spent some nice quiet moments in the motel with my middle son, when the sensory stuff got too much. The boys learned to read maps, and struck their own pacts for backseat peace.
Ultimately, it worked out, more or less. Towards the end, while grabbing dinner somewhere, my middle son made an interesting observation. “You know what?” he announced. “I figure I can pretty much survive anything, now—as long as I can order the chicken nuggets.”
We laughed, because it was a pretty unique life philosophy. “Dude, you should write a travel guide,” my oldest said. “Of every place where you ate chicken nuggets on this trip.”
A travel guide! I tucked away that idea in my brain, just in case I ever got brave, and tried to write about some of this myself.
Autism. Anxiety. Life. Family. Fear. Chicken nuggets.
It took me ten years until I felt ready to start. Before I understood what I had to say. I knew I wanted to write about discovering your resilience—a neuro-diverse travel log, of sorts, on “how to survive pretty much anything,” as my son put it. At first, I called it Chicken Nuggets Across America. Eventually, the story grew, took flight, and became The Someday Birds.
My middle son, now a young man, wrote me this, when I told him I was stressing (in typical mom fashion) about writing this article:
“Every trial-by-fire stressful road-trip moment, Mom, every bout of anxiety – it pushes you further towards knowing who you are, and who others are. It’s a force that does more than just “temper” you or make you more resilient. It does other stuff that you can probably write about profoundly enough if you tried. I don’t know, whatever.”
The thing is, there are other boys. And girls. Other young people out there, right now, who are like him—I feel it! Kids who may prefer their soothing routines. Who haven’t confronted their fears, who don’t yet know what they’re capable of, whether because of neurological differences, or personality differences. I wanted to write, still want to write, about needing to push past personal fear. About the joy of learning you can become more at ease. Life is hard, but there are amazing people, kind people. And there is the joy of self-acceptance.
In the end, our family road trip did what I dreaded it would, back when I was full of worry, and my husband was all National Lampoon gung-ho. It busted open the comfy prison we’d both chosen to live inside, both my son, and I. It pushed us past our fears.
That’s what stories can do, too. Stories, like road-trips, are travel opportunities. They take us on mental journeys that shake us out of our routines, out of those comfy prisons. They show us new ways of experiencing this wide, weird, wonderful world.
All we have to do is get in and go.
(This post originally appeared on the HarperCollins Facebook site HERE.)
If you are as entranced by these beautiful little buzzy birds as I am — and as Charlie is, in THE SOMEDAY BIRDS — then check out this wonderful organization: THE HUMMINGBIRD SOCIETY! Just the name makes me happy for some reason.
(Travels with Two Charlies first appeared on Kid Lit Frenzy — you can read it in its original form HERE.)
As a child, I was a really anxious kid—basically terrified of everything outside my front door. But when I was twelve, I stumbled across a fascinating road-trip story at the local library. I pulled it at random off the shelf, because there was a dog on the cover, and I loved dogs above all things on earth. Also, I thought I vaguely recognized the author’s name. It was John Steinbeck.
In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck and his standard poodle, the eponymous Charley, take off in Rocinante, the old camper-truck he named after Don Quixote’s valiant steed. The goal was to wander, have an adventure. And to take stock of America in the summer of 1960.
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
I loved the book. I’d never read anything like it. Travels with Charley was the first “adult” book I’d ever finished, and I remember feeling so proud.
The thoughtfulness of the writing pulled me in. The descriptions of nature–of autumn leaves bursting with sun-soaked color in New England, of flat, undulating fields of the Midwest – struck a cord in me and filled me with wonder. I had never been much beyond my home state.
And his wise old observer’s eyes noted the ugliness, too—the newly unfurling seeds of environmental damage. “American cities,” he wrote, “are like badger holes, ringed with trash–all of them–surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered in rubbish.”
He mentioned the loss of regional accents, which he supposed was due to the breakdown of individualism into a collective, media-influenced way of speaking and thinking. He foresaw the media-driven dangers of groupthink. Or of Mobthink.
It’s interesting, flipping back through this book today, imagining the child’s brain that first read it. What had I made out of those passages?
What I most remember, at twelve, were the portraits of people Steinbeck met along the way. There were some horrific caricatures—a description of a lady of sallow cheek who, when she entered a room, turned the very air to grey. I felt that way about some of my junior high school teachers!
But mainly, the people he met were kind.
As a socially awkward child who viewed interactions with others, especially strangers, as downright terrifying, it struck me powerfully to read about traveling alone and vulnerable, across an entire stretch of continent, and surviving. Sharing diner coffee with innumerable new folks. Striking up all those conversations! And surviving…
His journey demystified, for me, the fearful realm of What Lay Beyond, both geographically, in America, and emotionally, in adulthood. At twelve, I was on the cusp. And scared. I read this book, and a light flickered, out there in the Beyond, past my home and school and my small, fearful, circumscribed life. A tiny flicker of a light. Who knows? Maybe, in my future, there really is some navigable terrain out there. Maybe someday, I’d be ready for a journey, too.
But for the moment, as a twelve-year-old, I got to go along, safely.
Because of a book.
My main character in The Someday Birds is named Charlie, as a private nod to the influence Steinbeck’s book had on me as a middle-grader. My Charlie also travels the country, coast to coast, as an act of bravery, He, also, travels with a dog, and has difficult adventures. He makes observations about nature, and people, that remind us about being human, and being kind, and relating to each other.
My Charlie learns, all too well, in Steinbeck’s words, that “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” He learns that travel can be hard, as life can be hard.
But the people along the way? For the most part, they are kind.
This post of mine can be found in original format on Middle Grade Mafia HERE..
One sunny day last spring, all deep blue sky and tweeting birds, I was happily walking to my son’s graduation picnic. I was falling behind my group, so I started jogging down the little hill. I pulled out my phone, to check the time, and thus distracted, stumbled into an eight-inch-deep hole in the sidewalk. My foot stuck in it, while the rest of me kept flying forward. I twisted, and heard a sickening crack in my knee.
I next remember being sprawled on the grass, quietly going into shock. Many in the passing crowd immediately stopped to help. A strange lady massaged my shoulders and whispered: “Belly breaths, slowly. Deep, slow, breaths.” I can still recall the strength in her fingers, how she clasped my shoulders as if to fix them in place and reassure me I was still there, that I still existed. Pain and shock can give you that weird, out-of-body sort of feeling.
There, on that beautiful day in a college town in upstate New York, three thousand miles from my home, sprawled in my party dress on the grass meridian of a crumbling sidewalk, in the middle of a swelling crowd, with a swelling leg, I watched… ants. I waited for an ambulance, and serenely observed ants, crawling all over my pretty dress. Dozens of them. Big black ones, coming up out of the grass. I watched them in a zen-like trance, so I didn’t have to think about anything else. I watched them while strangers milled about, murmuring, concerned.
And I thought about that Billy Collins poem. Life can turn so quickly, from picnic to ants.
It happens. It’s also the heart and start of all good storytelling. That’s what we need stories for—to teach us the trick of how to go from picnic to ants.
Life takes a turn, and we’re forced to survive an adversity. Luke’s farm life is destroyed; he must join the Rebel Alliance. Odysseus the warrior realizes his greatest battle is going to be the way back home. Orphan Pip’s mysterious benefactor sets him off on perilous new challenges. Percy Jackson’s world and identity changes thunderously. Charlotte Doyle’s easy sea voyage turns mutinous.
In The Someday Birds, Charlie’s father is injured, and far away, and Charlie must give up every comfort to travel across the country to him. And Charlie hates travel. (So do I. Don’t even ask me about my broken-legged flight back home to California!)
Anyhow: The story is in the survival. The story teaches the survival.
Sometimes, for some of our young readers, the story is the survival.
What did my fractured-in-four-places leg story teach me, about survival?
All those months of immobility gave me pretty much nothing else to do except to finish my second middle-grade novel. It’s about a fearful young comics-trivia fanatic who enters a giant treasure hunt in an attempt to win back his best friend. Like The Someday Birds, at its heart, it’s a survival story about an outsider who overcomes personal fears.
It also gave me a new understanding of what it’s like to live with mobility challenges. It’s interesting to observe how, when your wheelchair approaches, some folks look you in the eye and smile, while others drift away. Some people hold the doors for you. Others don’t.
But don’t get me wrong. Most people hold the door. By far, in this wild world, most people smile, and they hold the door.
That day on the grass, with the ants, a parade of humanity was flowing past me on the sidewalk. Literally hundreds, after a giant graduation ceremony. And I tell you, most every face registered concern and caring. People stopped to offer all kinds of assistance.
Hands I did not recognize brushed the ants off me. Handed me water bottles. Massaged my shoulders. Wrapped me in a blanket.
And that’s the other key to good stories. To what they need to do for us. Yes, they need to teach us how to go from picnic to ants, but they also need to reveal to us that we all share a common human caring. It’s instinctive in us, just as it was instinctive in the faces of all those strangers. They felt for me. They winced with me. We connected.
We are in horribly divisive times right now. But we still have so much humanity in common. And united together is the only way we make it through. I’ve started to walk on my own again, now, and that’s the crutch I’m hanging onto, right there—belief that our innate kinship and humanity will always kick in, when things really turn bad.
And we can access and enhance this, through the kinds of stories we tell children. The kinds of books we are able to offer them. The hope we are able to offer them, as life takes a turn, and they need to see all the creative ways there are to survive in this world. To get up, and keep walking.
HERE is an article I recently wrote for Disability in Kidlit. It starts:
I am with my teenage sons in the grocery store. The cashier has a thick Eastern European accent. “So much rain, today!” she says. I smile and start to respond.
My son’s foot nudges me. “Mom!” he whispers. “Watch your voice!”
That’s because I have this annoying problem I call “parrot-ear.” When in conversation with a new person, I unconsciously adopt their vocal patterns, their accent. I know. It’s strange. I don’t mean to do it. The last thing I want to be is disrespectful. It’s just that I’m a bit socially anxious, so in order to get social interactions right, I concentrate extremely hard. Too hard.
I bring this up because I think it translates into how hard we authors quest for authentic voice in our fictional characters. We often struggle, on the page, to “hear…” CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE
This beast. He truly is my best friend. And he — along with I — was recently interviewed on the Campaign for the American Reader’s blog, “Coffee with a Canine.” It was very amusing and we were both honored to participate. Here is a link to the interview: COFFEE WITH A CANINE
This is an illustration by John James Audubon of the Carolina Parakeet, an extinct bird of the American South. A friendly chirpy bird, it was plentiful, until its habit of destroying fields of fruit and corn made it a target of the farmers’ guns. It succumbed to extinction by the early 1900s.
The Carolina Parakeet is very important in The Someday Birds. Charlie’s dad used to imagine he saw this colorful squawker in the North Carolina farm fields of his youth — but of course, it was only a fantasy. As Charlie says, facts are facts, and you can’t see a bird that’s been extinct for more than 100 years.
Or… can you….
This is a 100+ year old Carolina Parakeet, preserved and on display in a glass case on the third floor at San Diego’s Natural History Museum. I saw it today by sheer chance, while visiting that fabulous museum for the first time.
I saw it, and my heart jumped. I saw it, and felt the way Charlie must have felt, at a particular part of the story.
The Carolina Parakeet is a symbol of revival and hope in my book. But I never thought I would ever see one in person.
Silly me. I should know: Hope is the thing with feathers.
On Mon Jan 16, I’ll be signing copies of THE SOMEDAY BIRDS at theNAT, San Diego’s Natural History Museum. For more details about that event, click here: Family Day at the NAT
I was so thrilled and proud to read Publishers Weekly’s starred review, this week:
“…Through Charlie’s perspective (it’s implied, though not stated outright, that he has OCD and is on the autism spectrum), readers encounter many natural wonders (including several birds, shown in postcardlike images from McLaughlin), meet fascinating characters, and learn about the connection between the children’s chaperone and their father. Offering a mixture of suspense, mystery, tragedy and humor, Pla’s story captures both the literal and figurative meanings of journey.”