Guidebook to Middle School (Monday): Author Karen Rivers Guest Post
Editorial note: A few months ago, I featured Karen’s The Girl in the Well is Me on MSM. It was one of my favorite titles I read last year, and it is finally available for the rest of you to read and enjoy! We invited Karen to guest post today on her own middle school experiences and provide a peek behind the curtain at what inspired the main character of her book, Kammie.
Maybe there’s a Guidebook to middle school that everyone has except for me. I imagine a leather embossed cover, clear instructions, and secret advice. But when I reached under my pillow for it at twelve, all I ever felt were smooth, cool sheets. An empty space.
When I was eleven, my dad had a heart attack. I was lying on the floor in our rumpus room where the yellow tiles always remained cool, no matter how hot the day, playing a video game on the broken TV set that I had to turn on using pliers, each time getting a shock that would nearly jolt me off my feet.
I remember my mum coming into the room and saying, “Something has happened to your dad.” That moment is trapped forever in time as a Moment When Everything Changed, encased in the half-light from the glowing screen.
My dad survived but everything changed. My parents stopped being immortal. I had new reasons to be afraid. In the kitchen, in low voices, late at night, it was decided that for financial reasons, I would change to schools.
A new school. A whole new set of kids. A new start.
On the first day of my new school, sixth grade, a boy asked me to borrow a pencil. I’d never been to school with boys before. What was he really asking me? Unable to decide how to react, I froze and blushed. I was wearing the wrong clothes, had the wrong haircut, and was painfully aware of my crooked teeth and glasses in a way I’d never been before. The moment stretched between us, impossibly long. Finally he said, “What’s your problem? You weirdo.” He walked away.
I didn’t talk to anyone else for the rest of the day. I couldn’t figure out how to make air go into and out of my lungs properly.
I’d never felt this way before: unpopular, disliked, and misunderstood. I walked home on shaking legs. I’d been given a chance to invent myself, and I’d done it all wrong. I missed my chance: I could have acted confident. I could have feathered my hair away from my face. I could have worn jeans. I could have smiled. But it was too late. I’d already established who I was: “You weirdo.”
Every time I start writing a new middle-grade novel, I get to have a new first day of middle school, a new first impression to make. Some of my characters are more savvy than others—more or less like me, more or less like who I wished I’d been. Some of them understand (or think they understand) how to play the game. When Kammie, the protagonist of The Girl in the Well Is Me is moved from her suburban school in New Jersey to a small town in Texas after circumstances alter her family forever, she understands that she has been given an opportunity to be whoever she chooses to be. Someone new. Someone different.
I think maybe Kammie did get the Guidebook. She may not have understood what it said, but she tried, and I love her for it. She was a delight to write, and I’m so pleased that she exists within the covers of this book, bravely figuring out who she can choose to be, who she is, and how being true to herself is the bravest act of all.
Karen Rivers has written novels for adult, middle-grade, and young adult audiences. Her books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usually be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny, old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, two birds, and two fish.
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About Robin Willis
After working in middle school libraries for over 20 years, Robin Willis now works in a public library system in Maryland.
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