I come from a dysfunctional family.
For most of my adult life, when I remembered being a kid, I fell back on a comforting fiction: I’d had an idyllic childhood. Growing up was storybook perfect—we lived in a beautiful suburban community; our house was surrounded by forest and cornfields. We four siblings and our neighborhood buddies spent hours of unrestricted, unparented outdoor freedom on bicycles and on foot, exploring. We took road trips with our parents, celebrated holidays and birthdays with extended family, visited grandparents, aunts, cousins. We were well fed. Went to first-rate schools.
But my selective memory was a smokescreen for a painful family problem that had no name: my dad was an alcoholic.
The only thing we kids knew at the time was that we were scared of my dad. His car door slamming in the driveway each night meant we were in for hours of shouting, swearing, and nitpicking--at us kids and my mom--until he finally went to bed. We all had different ways of dealing: we barricaded ourselves in our rooms, or crept downstairs to try to appease him. Sometimes we shouted back. But my dad’s “bad moods” were a constant. We knew he drank. And we felt guilty, embarrassed, furious, broken hearted, worried, and helpless about it. It wasn’t until we reached our late teens or early twenties that we fully grasped his classic alcoholic behavior or saw it as abusive.
My debut middle grade novel, THE TRUE HISTORY OF LYNDIE B HAWKINS is about a twelve-year-old girl trying to honestly figure out her world—her town, her country, but most importantly, her family. Her dad is a Vietnam vet suffering PTSD. The novel is set in the mid ‘80s, before we really had a thorough understanding of PTSD, what it was or how to treat it. Lyndie’s family doesn’t have a way to name what’s wrong with her dad, and they cope by trying to keep his problem a secret, just like we did in my family, even when he disappears for days, mishandles a gun, and guzzles whiskey on the sly.
That’s a lot of confusing, scary behavior for a kid to deal with, but Lyndie’s situation is made much worse because nobody in the family—not her strict grandma nor her mother nor her grandfather nor her dad—will face the problem honestly or answer her questions directly.
Lyndie Hawkins is a truth seeker—she’s desperate to know. As Lyndie starts to dig for the truth about her family and her history, she finds all kinds of support in unexpected places. The pastor-principal of her school has lots to teach her about anger management. Her history teacher introduces her to historical figures like Sojourner Truth who model persistence and unflagging faith in a better world. Her local librarian gives her tools to research what she needs to understand, empathize with, and support her complicated friends and family. And her new best friend, D.B., in spite of a miserable childhood, is an optimist to the bone.
I was a voracious reader as a kid. I wish I’d even once encountered a complicated, emotionally broken fictional adult like my own father. It might have given me a name for his alcoholism, even given me the courage to ask a sympathetic adult for help. It might have eased my guilt and sadness. Or eventually helped me heal.
A compassionate and well told tale is a time-honored way to help suffering, confused, and frightened kids understand their experience. Life is messy. Oh, so messy! It’s full of challenges they’ll have to rise to over and over. Kids gain strength and courage when they immerse themselves in the lives of fictional children who face recognizable obstacles, who don’t give up, kids who gradually, over the course of a novel or picture book, learn to live with loss, grief, instability, addiction, and mental illness. These books are sad in places, even scary in places—of course they are. But in the end, these fictional characters are beginning to build the knowledge and resilience they need to grow into rich and meaningful lives filled with joy.
Isn’t that our best hope for young readers?
GIVEAWAY: Gail has graciously offered to give away a copy of The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins to one lucky reader. In order to enter, (1) please post a comment below. (Perhaps share about your own reading or teaching experiences with hard truths.) Then (2) follow @novelmindkidlit and @GailShepherd on Twitter. Winner will be chosen at random at the end of the week. Thanks and good luck!
Gail Shepherd’s debut middle grade novel, The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins, published in March 2019 from Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin. Gail received her creative M.A. from the University of Florida in poetry. She has spent her life writing in lots of genres: comic serial magazine stories, food writing, crime reporting, coverage of local politics, book and movie reviews, essays and poems. More recently, she worked extensively in the K-12 education industry, supporting teachers and schools. She’s a fourth generation Floridian on her mother’s side, and she lives in South Florida now with her little family, her dogs Charlie and Cookie, and an awful lot of mosquitos. You can visit Gail online at GailShepherdauthor.com.