Travel, Growth, and Growing Up: Ally and Amanda talk about Dan Santat’s A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING
Amanda: I read Dan Santat’s A First Time For Everything, a graphic memoir about Santat traveling Europe with a school group, the other day while my own kid, who’s sixteen, was off traveling New Zealand and Australia with a school group. I marveled over the differences in Santat’s story and my son Callum’s experience. I’m roughly the same age as Santat and have remarked repeatedly to my husband that I can’t believe when I wasn’t a whole lot older than Callum (22, but looking back from this age, that’s not a lot different than 16) I traveled around England for a summer only occasionally checking in with my parents via internet cafes and using calling cards on pay phones. For Callum, he was able to call us on WhatsApp, send pictures, and check in all the time (mostly asking for pictures of the dogs).
For Santat, he wandered unknown cities often virtually alone, with extremely little supervision. The 45-year-old mom part of me was like, THIS IS SO UNSAFE! WHERE ARE THE RULES? But the bigger part of me, the part that knows exploration and experience brings growth you can’t even begin to predict, thought, AMAZING.
Ally: I was 20 the first time I traveled outside the country. I studied abroad in the UK, and it was an amazing opportunity for me. But reading Santat’s graphic memoir, I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like had I had the opportunity to go when I was 13! While I was abroad, I had a tiny little British cell phone that I could use to text my parents in an emergency and I had skype on my computer that I could pay to call their phones. Watching young Santat wandering around Europe, largely unsupervised and without communication with his parents at 13, was WILD to me. But Amanda is right that experience brings growth, and watching young Santat grow over the course of this trip was truly amazing.
Amanda: Santat’s memoir fills an important gap. Here we have a protagonist who’s 13, almost 14. This is the upper middle grade/lower YA so many of us are desperate to find. So often I’ll have 5th graders who are burning through the graphic novel section at school and loving things like Shannon Hale’s Friends series, Charise Mericle Harper’s Bad Sister, all the Raina Telgemeier books, Jennifer L. Holm’s Sunny series, the largely girl-centered Terri Libenson books, and then they ask, “Are there any about boys?” And there are, sure (Jerry Craft’s New Kid and its sequel being the most popular at my school). But there are not enough of them. And certainly not enough of them that show this kind of vulnerability. Young Santat is sensitive, anxious, and hesitant. He’s also smart, talented, funny, and willing to try new things. In short, he’s a teenager–complicated in every way, an amazing mix of all the feelings and experiences that make us who we are.
Ally: When I finished A First Time For Everything, I immediately texted Amanda and said, this book is beautiful. It’s lovely and vulnerable and almost tender. The art is gorgeous (we would expect nothing less from Caldecott winner Santat!), and the story is absolutely wonderful. I heard Santat speak a few years ago, and he mentioned in passing that he was working on this book. I was intrigued at the time, and OH, was it ever worth the wait. I think this will really appeal to middle graders who are, like young Santat, nervous about the future. I serve a relatively small community, and I have a lot of kiddos who will relate to the experience of not having left their small town or seen a lot of the world. I think this book will inspire curiosity and excitement about the world and the future in my sweet kids.
Amanda: We have a main character who has survived the slings and arrows of middle school, but is raw from its horrors–the kind of typical, daily horrors that just mark that time of life. And he’s honest about that. He just wanted to fly under the radar, be unnoticed, be invisible in middle school. And all of us who have lived through it know that the teenage years and high school can certainly be horrific in their own right, so it’s not like we’re reading and seeing all of his flashbacks and thinking, BRIGHTER DAYS ARE AHEAD, BUDDY! HIGH SCHOOL! YAY! But. But. They are. And there are people making sure young Santat gets that message. It’s sometimes overt, like a teacher chaperoning the trip taking the time to walk with Santat and tell him that high school is a fresh start, that he doesn’t need to be afraid of the unexpected, and, most importantly, that the best part of being a teenager is that you only have to do it once. But he also gets the messages in other ways, like by finally connecting with people, smoothing over some of those old wounds from middle school with conversations and apologies, and seeing that the world is much bigger than his sometimes extremely disappointing life in small-town California. Even without knowing anything that happens after this trip, the reader can be sure that Santat will be okay. He will find his people, he will embrace his interests, he will probably still have some pretty crappy things happen to him, but hey, we all do. This immensely readable memoir is a great celebration of exploration of the world and of the self.
Ally: Growing up is hard work, and I think we as grownups forget that or gloss over it or block it out. But Santat really engages with the idea that being a middle schooler is hard, deeply hard, the hardest thing these kids have done up until now. Young Santat is mired in the humiliation and desperation of what middle school has done to his psyche, and when his amazing teacher takes him aside to tell him that the best part of being a teenager is that you only have to do it once, I almost cried. This obviously stuck with Santat throughout his life. I wish someone had told me this as a kid! This really made me think that I should be more gracious and loving with my middle graders/middle schoolers. These kids, these amazing, vulnerable, talented kids, deserve our patience and care. I’m so glad that young Santat had someone to care for him and I hope that I can be that someone to one or more of the kids in the community I serve.
Amanda: Now someone get me a Fanta.
Filed under: Books
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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