Being Selfish or Being Yourself: Navigating Family Life, a guest post by Christina Uss
Being part of a family is hard. There, I said it.
My books are about characters finding a place to belong where they can be exactly, wholly, unabashedly themselves. Introverts are allowed to be mostly silent and alone whenever they want. Anxious kids who hate piano lessons get to stop taking piano lessons. People who love art get to make big art. People who dream of solving traffic puzzles get to solve Los Angeles. My new middle-grade novel, A FEW BICYCLES MORE, is about a girl discovering her ready-made already-in-progress family and her urgent questions on how selfish it is to want to be herself around them.
You know how we writers are supposed to throw our characters into uncomfortable situations, have them struggle and fail? Oy, this can be a challenge for me. My character Bicycle, she’s a good friend of mine from my first novel, THE ADVENTURES OF A GIRL CALLED BICYCLE. She and I found oodles of terrific ways for her to be wholly herself in that book. She rode her bike 4,000 miles and refused to let anything stop her. When I set out to write this sequel, I was a bit horrified at what I was doing to this sweet, independent soul: taking her away from her found family, where she fit in like a spoke in a well-trued wheel, and sticking her in with a bunch of kind people who not only don’t know how to ride bikes, but would forbid her from riding ever again.
Bicycle—I know you forgive me. But I’m still sorry I did this to you! What a difficult place to be, trying to fit in with people who clearly love you and then deny you access to the thing that feels as important to you as breathing! Why did I do this?
Because there’s always a piece of me in every story I write.
All of us, at some point or another, have a hard time fitting in with our families. All of us have tried to pretend, hide, or even change parts of ourselves we think our families wish were different. I know this firsthand, not so much from my family of origin (my parents let me live my sensitive, introverted bookish life with little judgement), but from the family I made by getting married and having twins.
I had no idea that when I started raising kids, I’d feel compelled to pretend, hide, and change parts of myself for them. I’d literally hide in a closet when I needed to cry from sleep deprivation, pretend I was using the bathroom instead of eating a piece of pizza I couldn’t bear to share, change frustration into patience through some alchemy I’ll never be able to duplicate. I found it pretty impossible to stand up for my own needs in any coherent way. I never identified the line between being myself and being selfish. The thing that saved me? My twins becoming teens. I practiced accepting them for who they are so hard, I’ve started to do it for myself as well. My exact, whole self is in evidence every day. (Whew.)
I just knew when I started to write this book that Bicycle was going to hide in closets or bathrooms and do things in secret to balance her needs with her family’s. And I knew it wasn’t going to take long for her true self to burst forth in a way no one could ignore. Now, A FEW BICYCLES MORE is not a gut-wrenching book of infinite heartbreak. It’s a fun adventure filled with talking bicycles, a furious goose, and astonishing quantities of waffles and apple pie. But it’s filled over and over again with this question: How much are you allowed to be yourself when your family needs you to be someone else? I hope Bicycle’s story will resonate with readers who are hiding some part of themselves to get along, which I suspect might be every person ever.
This is my message to my readers: when they find navigating family life tricky, they’ll find empathy from me. This is also my message to young patrons visiting the library where I work.
In addition to being an author, I’m lucky to be a youth services library assistant. My department lets me run rampant doing the things I enjoy most: organizing book clubs, answering readers’ advisory questions, telling patrons they can check out fifty items on one card, and leading tweens and teens in writing workshops. (I do have one teen who accepts my enthusiastic readers’ advisory recommendations without question, and yes, we’ve hit the fifty-item limit on her card a few times.)
The trick, as you know is getting teens to come into the library to ask for anything. In my community, they’re stressed and depressed, they’re overbooked, and they’re navigating independence and family belonging. When they make it though our doors or join us online for our writing workshop, I do my best to share with them the vibe of All Words Welcome Here.
We use the Amherst Writers and Artists Method, which emphasizes focusing our comments on the strengths of each participant’s writing (https://amherstwriters.org, or peruse Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others to learn more). I’d like to think some of the writers I sit with each month think of this group as a found family, a place where encouragement is the coin of the realm and unqualified acceptance is a given. It’s certainly a place where the writing prompt may be “being selfish versus being yourself” or “She didn’t know how her family was going to react to this, but she just had to do it.”
Being part of a family is hard. But being part of a library community never should be. One Saturday a month at 10 am in the upstairs meeting room, come as you are and write exactly, wholly, unabashedly what you want to write—I’ll be here doing the same.
Meet the author
Christina Uss is the author of four quirky middle-grade novels, including The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle and its new sequel A Few Bicycles More (Holiday House/Margaret Ferguson Books.) When she’s not writing or eating popcorn, she’s riding her new electric bike to her job as a library assistant in Massachusetts. Connect with her at www.christinauss.com, or on Instagram and Twitter @christinauss.
About A Few Bicycles More
In the sequel to the popular Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle, our hero reunites with her long-lost family and attempts a daring vehicular rescue.
A Few Bicycles More is the exciting sequel to Christina Uss’s Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle. Bicycle has been back from her cross-country adventure with her robot-like bike, named Fortune, for just a month when it starts malfunctioning, insisting that they pedal away from their home in Washington D.C. to Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Once there, they discover a scrapyard where bicycles are being crushed and recycled—and it appears they are too late to save them.
Bicycle and Fortune head to a convenience store so Bicycle can drown her sorrows with a chocolate bar. Much to her astonishment, she meets her long-lost family there. Bicycle learns that they have been looking for her since she disappeared as a toddler and that she is a quintuplet. She is happy to go live with them except for one thing: her family doesn’t share her passion for cycling. In fact, her sisters have never even ridden a bike.
Then Fortune acts up again, leading Bicycle back to the scrapyard where she discovers that there are four bicycles left and they were all made by the same inventor who created her Fortune. Four seems too coincidental to ignore—the perfect number to bring her sisters up to speed. She sets a plan in motion to rescue the bikes, a plan that if it works will help her fit into her family and still stay true to cycling self.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 11/22/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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