September 21, 2017

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“Letting the Heart Lead the Way”: Ruth Behar on Writing for Middle Graders

Set in her 1960s hometown of Queens, NY, Ruth Behar’s debut middle grade novel, Lucky Broken Girl (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks., Apr. 2017), is based loosely on the author’s own childhood as a Jewish Cuban immigrant. After sustaining a broken leg in a terrible car crash, 10-year-old Ruthie is confined to bed for nearly a year. She keenly observes those around her, collecting their stories, beliefs, and inspirations, as she explores her own growing understanding of her cultural roots, friendships, and spirituality.

What kind of reader were you as a middle grade student? Did you read “Nancy Drew” the way Ruthie does?

As a middle grade student I was very drawn to mysteries. Just as in Lucky Broken Girl, I read lots of “Nancy Drew” books. I loved Nancy Drew’s self-confidence and how smart she was. I also read “Sherlock Holmes” stories and later discovered the tales of Edgar Allan Poe and enjoyed how they sent chills up my spine. The “Madeline” series by Ludwig Bemelmans were also a favorite of mine. The stories took place in Paris, which was intriguing to me because my friend, Dinah, was from Brussels and identified strongly with French culture. Other books I remember reading and loving from that time are Charlotte’s Web and Treasure Island.

You’ve written a wide variety of things for adult audiences, from poetry to anthropological essays. What drew you to writing for middle graders?

That time in my life between the ages of nine and 10 years old, when I spent a year in a body cast, is very vivid in my memories. So perhaps I was destined to write a middle grade book, but I didn’t know it until I sat down to write. The voice of a girl that age seemed to come naturally to me. It welled up from a deep place. I realized I’d been carrying the story for much too long when it started spilling out on the page. The mix of innocence and sassiness, vulnerability, and strength in Ruthie’s voice was a pleasant surprise after years of writing for adults. There was something so liberating about letting go of adult assumptions and presumptions. I had once said that anthropology that doesn’t break your heart isn’t worth doing. Writing a middle grade book, I was free to explore a wide-open accordion of emotions, letting the heart lead the way.

How did you stay in touch with your younger self? Did you keep a journal of your experiences?

I never lost touch with my younger self. A lot of fears and fantasies from that time followed me into adulthood. I didn’t keep a journal during the year I was bedridden; how I wish I had. But soon after that time, I did begin to keep a diary. I had a little red diary that locked with a key. My mother broke it open to read what I was writing, which was very upsetting. I wrote quite a lot when I was in high school. I kept composition notebooks in which I wrote about my hopes and sorrows, as well as notes about the books I was reading.

In Lucky Broken Girl, Ruthie gets a fantastic pair of white go-go boots. I wanted a pair so badly as a kid, but never got them. Why do you think that certain articles of clothing can be so important to readers at this age?

I know, we all wanted go-go boots! They were so popular in the 1960s. They became a key symbol of women’s desires to be independent. For young girls, like me at the time, go-go boots made you feel sophisticated and grown-up and fashionable. I think for readers at this age, who are in that limbo between no longer being children and not yet becoming teens, an article of clothing can be a way to claim a sense of empowerment and belonging in a culture.

In your book, Danielle is not a great friend to Ruthie. Friendships are so critical at this age, and frequently change. What would be your advice to a young person navigating relationship problems?

Actually, I disagree. I think Danielle is a wonderful friend to Ruthie. It is true that she runs away from Ruthie at the moment she’s confined to her bed, which is very painful to Ruthie, but this is because Danielle can’t bear to see Ruthie in her immobile state. As soon as Ruthie is on her feet again, Danielle is devoted to helping her heal and is extremely loyal and compassionate. Friendships are always in flux and require a lot of trust and continual give-and-take. I tried to show in the relationship between Ruthie and Danielle that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge, or misjudge, your friends. If a friend lets you down, it doesn’t mean they won’t be there for you at another time. Ruthie was angry with Danielle and thought they were no longer friends, but once she understood Danielle’s discomfort she realized her anger was pointless. Everyone gives as best they can. My advice to a young person would be this: when you notice a friend’s faults, think about the ways you have sometimes not been there when a friend needed you and try to remedy the situation by reaching out.

Author Ruth Behar. CC by 2.0

What do you think educators should keep in mind when working with new immigrant families and children?

Immigrant parents and children are juggling different languages and cultures and moving between memories of places left behind and challenging new realities in an unfamiliar context. Educators must do all they can to understand the difficulties of being betwixt and between. They need to serve as a bridge, showing respect for the traditions the immigrants have brought from the home country and opening the door to American culture and all the complexities of living in a diverse country where people of many ethnicities, religions, and social backgrounds seek to coexist peacefully. And educators need to be especially aware of all the burdens placed on immigrant children, who not only become translators for their parents but often have to step into the adult role before they’re ready, not giving them enough time to fully enjoy childhood and develop their sense of play and imagination.

You’ve written a lot about the concepts of home and displacement, which are extremely relevant issues today. Has this given you any insight into how adults can help children through these adjustments?

Adults can help children adjust to the process of settling into a new home by maintaining the heritage of the place left behind—through language, food, music—while also supporting children as they adapt to a different place. I think it is very important to pass on the stories about the search for home, to teach children about the journeys of those who came before, so they feel there’s a foundation under their feet, to give them strength as they move into unknowable futures. In Lucky Broken Girl, we see Ruthie’s grandmother, her Baba, sharing the story of her journey from Poland to Cuba and from Cuba to the United States; this gives Ruthie not only a sense of pride in her heritage but a sense of hope that she too will be able to find her way. I also believe that in the era in which we live today, children who come from families that are privileged to have found a safe haven should be taught about the plight of refugees and immigrants, so they can feel compassion for all those who have lost their homes and need to begin anew.

You’ve said that your family was not happy when you started going back to Cuba, and you’ve written a lot about your relationship with your homeland. How has your relationship with Cuba changed over time?

When I started traveling to Cuba 25 years ago, it was painful for my parents. Like many Cuban Americans of their generation who left the island in the early 1960s, they felt they had sacrificed so much to give me a better life in the United States. It was a slap in the face to them that I wanted to return to the place they’d left under tremendous duress. The interesting thing is I was drawn to Cuba because they had talked about this abandoned island constantly while I was growing up. I inherited their nostalgia. With the passing of the years, and as they came to appreciate the scholarly and creative work that grew out of my trips to Cuba, they have become more understanding of my desire to want to have a spiritual and cultural connection with my homeland. More recently, with the restoration of ties between the United States and Cuba, my visits to the island no longer seem so unusual. Many people want to get a glimpse of Cuba these days. Suddenly my expertise about the island is much in demand. Yet my parents have never been back to their homeland, not even for a peek, choosing to hold on to their memories rather than see how things have changed. There is something so sad to me about this. I know there is a core of Cuban culture, an unshakeable warmth and humor that my parents would cherish if they went back, even having left the island over 50 years ago.

Your son was raised in the United States. Were there any surprising differences or similarities in your experiences growing up?

My son, Gabriel, was born and raised in Ann Arbor, MI, a university town, quite a distance geographically and culturally from my immigrant neighborhood in Queens, NY. I heard Spanish from my parents and extended family every day and listened to stories of Cuba every day. No one could help me with my schoolwork since they didn’t know enough English. I had to figure things out for myself. Gabriel heard about Cuba from me, and I spoke Spanish to him, but it wasn’t the same as having the family and the community all around constantly, though we did visit New York often to see my parents, as well as Miami, to see more family, and I did take Gabriel to Cuba several times so he could learn about our Cuban heritage. Reading books to Gabriel when he was young and discussing what he was learning in school, as he grew older, were experiences I treasured and didn’t have with my parents because they were struggling so hard to make a living as immigrants. I grew up with a sense of myself as a foreigner, not sure where I belonged. Gabriel is aware of his immigrant roots but feels confident about his American identity. Curiously, he went to study film at New York University and chose to settle in New York. He’s now living in the city I had to leave at the age of 18 to pursue my dreams. There’s a certain poetic justice to how he’s closing the circle, being in the place where I once began a new life as an immigrant child.

Do you have any more middle grade novels in the works?

Yes! I am working on a new middle grade novel. The story takes place in Cuba at the start of the Revolution, between 1959–1961, and the protagonist is a tomboyish Jewish girl who supports the rebels and is heartbroken when her parents send her out of Cuba. It is loosely based on the life story of one of my cousins. She was among the 400 Jewish Cuban children whisked out of Cuba through Operation Peter Pan. This was a program that brought 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children, most of them Catholic, to the United States at a moment of concern that the youth of Cuba were being indoctrinated into communism. In my novel I’ll explore how a feisty 12-year-old girl finds her way alone in a new country, holding on to revolutionary ideals while embracing her newfound American independence.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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