The Wonder Report: June 17, 2022
Reading About Hard Things
Two weeks ago I told you how my life feels a little like a Kate DiCamillo book lately. Well, this week is no exception. Our youngest son leaves for Marine Corps bootcamp on Monday, and though I occasionally look him in the eye and say, “Please don’t go,” I know this is his dream, and he’s ready. We’ll be so sad and extremely proud and life will come to a complete standstill and it will also continue on … all at the same time.
Part of the beauty of reading books with these kinds of up and down plot lines is that they provide us with dress rehearsals for when our own lives are a mixed bag of good and bad, happy and sad. Kate DiCamillo’s books happen to be especially good at this—it’s the secret sauce of her brilliant story-telling—which is at least 73 percent why I chose her books for our summer reading this year.
This week, we’re going to talk particularly about why we should read sad stories, even when life is already pretty sad all on its own. And particularly, we’ll talk about why we should encourage children to read sad stories, despite our otherwise desperate need to protect them from all of life’s sorrow.
So grab your tissues, and let’s get started.
1. Sad Stories Say So Much
I remember the first time I cried over a book, only I didn’t even know it was a book at the time. My brother and I were watching an animated movie of Charlotte’s Web. It was the 1973 version that ran on network television as a Saturday evening special. I didn’t cry when the farmer threatened to take Wilbur to the market early in the story because I knew things were going to turn out in the end. But when the end drew near, and it seemed like Charlotte was actually going to die, there were real tears.
Even in my young heart, somehow I hoped the sadness was just part of the magic of television. Real life wasn’t like that, right? Things would turn out in the end?
The second time I cried over a book, I was in the fourth grade. Mrs. Collins read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to us each day before the buses came. If you haven’t read the book, I think you should, so I’m not going to tell you exactly why I cried. And I’ll just say right here: I wasn’t the only one wiping tears from my cheeks. Even some of the boys suddenly found their “allergies” acting up as Mrs. Collins read. Especially when the worst thing that could happen in the story did, and we were helpless to do anything about it but just listen. Something in our young hearts shifted that day.
What if life doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to?
I read every biography in our school library about famous scientists, government leaders, and athletes who overcame great obstacles to find fame and success. While they’re stories were aspirational, it was Judy Blume’s coming of age novels about the challenges of growing up and Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time trilogy about a family’s quest to find their missing father that helped me navigate my parents’ divorce and later the death of my grandma.
In eighth grade, when our teacher assigned Watership Down, I couldn’t imagine what I’d learn from a story about rabbits. But by the end, I saw my own life playing out in the inner workings of the warren. Maybe for the first time, I began to understand the cost of belonging and the challenges of doing what I thought was right. Of course middle school was filled with those same difficulties. Somehow, reading the story made living it so much easier.
“What was it that made you read and reread that book?” DiCamillo asked her. “Did you think that if you read it again, things would turn out differently, better? That Charlotte wouldn’t die?”
But her friend wasn’t nearly so naive. Instead, she said she “kept reading it not because I wanted it to turn out differently or thought that it would turn out differently, but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently. I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew that it was going to be okay somehow. I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then when I read it again, it was all so beautiful. And I found out that I could bear it. That was what the story told me. That was what I needed to hear. That I could bear it somehow.”
Happy clappy stories where everything always turns out in the end haven’t appealed to me since Mrs. Collins invited us to get to know two puppies named Little Ann and Old Dan back in fourth grade. At the same time, I don’t like sad stories that are sad just for the drama of it all. I especially don’t like reading stories where the worst thing that could happen always does every time. Because life’s not like that, either.
Rather, the stories I like best make me feel a lot like I have lately right here in my own life: so sad and extremely proud and like life will come to a complete standstill and like it will also continue on … all at the same time. Because when I see that the people in the story are “going to be okay somehow,” then I realize I might, too.
I wonder … when was the first time you cried over a book? How do you feel about sad stories? What have you learned from a sad story that’s helped prepare you for real life?
2. Reading Kate DiCamillo: The Tiger Rising
We’re reading 25 of Kate DiCamillo’s beloved children’s books this summer. Want to read along with us? You can find the schedule here.
The Tiger Rising comes dangerously close to being a book about the worst things always happening. Both Rob Horton, whom we meet in the first sentence, and Sistine Bailey, the friend Rob doesn’t know he needs, have deeply sad lives with very little happiness. And yet the very fact that they find each other … and that Rob shares the secret (and burden) of finding a tiger in the woods …. gives us just the hope we need to keep reading. Regardless of what happens, at least they’ll have each other.
FROM THE PUBLISHER:
Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger—a real-life, very large tiger—pacing back and forth in a cage. What's more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things—like memories, and heartache, and tigers—can't be locked up forever.
If you haven’t read the book, you’ll want to skip this section, just in case these questions are spoilers (I can never tell).
1.) What is the significance of Rob finding the tiger in the woods?
2.) The Tiger Rising is another book about a missing parent … in this case, Rob’s mom has died. What adults step into Rob’s life to fill a small part of that absence?
3.) How does the story change once Rob is hired to care for the tiger? Did you expect that to happen?
4.) Why was it so important to Sistine to set the tiger free?
5.) Why does Sistine think Willie May is a prophetess? Do you think she is?
6.) Do you have a special skill, like Rob’s whittling, that was passed down from someone you loved? Does practicing that skill help you remember them?
FOR NEXT WEEK
If you’re reading along, next week, we’ll be talking about Louisiana’s Way Home*.
3. Love Your Place: 10 Minutes from Home — Whitestown Farmers Market
It’s not quite 10 minutes away—in fact, it’s just across the street from my house—but this week for our Love Your Place challenge, I visited the Whitestown Farmers Market.
This farmers market was one of the many things that made moving to this neighborhood appealing to us. It’s a place where neighbors can gather during summer evenings to buy local food and handcrafted items. There was a local musician singing and playing the guitar, and in the background, I could hear kids playing on the playground and the splash pad of the park where the market is held.
It’s been a stressful few weeks here, so I bought treats—hot fudge sundae cookies and peanut butter and jelly caramel corn—rather than things we needed. But after we tried them, we realized maybe we needed them more than we realized.
I can’t wait to come week after week to get to know other vendors and maybe even make some knew friends.
Join me each week for Love Your Place: 0 to 60, where we’ll seek out new parks, museums, restaurants, trails, and more in ever growing radiuses from our homes. Starting with week 1, we’ll find something in our own block to appreciate. In week 2, we’ll find someplace within 5 minutes of our house. In week 3, we’ll venture out 10 minutes. Week 4, 15 minutes, etc. By the last week of August, we’ll venture out 60 minutes. For next week, try exploring up to 15 minutes from home.
Each week, I’ll share my 0 to 60 find here and over on Instagram using the hashtag #loveyourplace0to60. If you’d like to share yours, tag your posts too so I can easily find them. Or you can tell me about them them in the comments each week.
4. Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl
I told you about the first book that ever made me cry, and now I want to tell you about the last book that did.
Several people recommended Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations to me shortly after Mom died, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a few weeks ago. When I did finally start the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it.
It’s a series of very short essays, recollections, and vignettes (some are only a paragraph and even the longest are just a couple of pages) about her backyard, her family, and the natural world. But while the initial essays felt a little random and disjointed, as I kept reading, I began to see the thread that connected them. Renkl was writing about sadness, but it was as if her life was too painful to just tell it straight. Instead, she wove a tapestry of loss that came into focus only after she spent the majority of the book telling readers how her life fit together. Once one piece fell, so did her sense of self.
I finished the book last night as tears rolled down my cheeks. It was painful, and it was beautiful. Like Kate DiCamillo’s friend from that Time essay, I’ll probably read Late Migrations again and again to remind myself that it’s “going to be okay somehow.”
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report. Thanks again for joining me. It’s a privilege to share this space with you and to enter into these conversations together.
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Until next time,