Beyond How the World Defines You, a guest post by Elly Swartz
There are moments in life that stick to you like gum on the bottom of your shoe. For me it was junior high gym class when my teacher called me into the locker room. I remember being in my blue and white zip gym uniform – which had its own issues – and wondering if I was in trouble. I was a good student and rule follower. So being called out by my teacher and ushered away from my classmates made my stomach knot. I trailed her into the locker room and then into one of the bathroom stalls. Which seemed like an unusual place to have a conversation. She opened the door and there on the wall was written something horrible. Something horrible about me. My heart dropped. Why would someone do this? Why would someone say this? About me?
Not long after, I learned who did it. Two girls. Two mean girls.
I didn’t know them. Well, not until then.
After that day, they bumped my shoulder in the hallway when I walked by. They told me they were going to beat me up on our field trip.
They scared me.
Now, when I was in eighth grade, there was no internet. (Yes, I am that old!). So when I left the hallways of my school, I thankfully left their taunting behind. I also had friends. Lots of friends who had my back. I was not alone.
I was lucky.
But this time in my life has made an indelible imprint on my heart.
In Hidden Truths, Eric is bullied – physically and verbally by his nemesis Leo, and on social media by his bff’s new friend Meadow. These actions are amplified by the silence of his best friend Dani. When Eric is called a loser in the cafeteria, Dani is silent. When Meadow blames Eric for Dani’s accident in a video she posts online, Dani is silent.
It is this silence that is most painful for Eric.
When you have the opportunity to speak. The opportunity to defend. And you choose not to.
Writing these scenes hurt my heart. Writing these scenes took me back.
Gum on the shoe – remember?
“One out of every five students between the ages of 12 and 18 has experienced bullying at some point” (The Mental Health Impact of Bullying on Kids and Teens, citing the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). And “research suggests that children and youth who are bullied over time are more likely than those not bullied to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. They also are more likely to be lonely and want to avoid school.” (Effects of Bullying on Mental Health).
I want kids to see that they are so much more than the way the world defines them. They are so much more than their bully’s taunts or labels. Eric is not a loser because Leo called him one. Eric is not his ADHD, because this is something he has. Eric is a loyal friend, a curious thinker, an innovative problem solver, a kind heart, and a good person.
I want kids to feel empowered. I want them to see that they hold the power to define themselves.
In the cafeteria scene in Hidden Truths when Eric shares his plan with Dani to fix things, Dani says, “Can’t you just forget about it? Like everything else you’ve ever not done?” (174) In this moment, Dani’s defining Eric by his forgetfulness that often stems from his ADHD. She is defining him by one trait. One thing.
But as the story unfolds, Eric realizes that he has the power to define himself. He shares, “That’s the part [my teacher] never got. He never understood that I was down the rabbit hole looking at the problem from lots of different directions: upside down, inside out, and sideways…Sometimes upside down, inside out, and sideways is exactly where the answer is…I actually think this may be my superpower.” (168)
It’s not that Eric’s ADHD doesn’t cause him to forget. It does. And it’s not that his ADHD doesn’t present hurdles. It does. But it is not just that. And Eric is not just that either.
Eric embraces this when he creates a comic book character named Sideways whose superpower is the unique way he looks at and solves problems. Eric says, “… it’s about a superhero kid named Sideways. A kid with his own superpower. His real name is Mickey. He’s short with brown hair, loves lots of different stuff, is messy and smart but not great at school. What he is great at is solving problems.” (227)
Eric’s bullying stems from the way the world sees Eric. The way the world labels Eric. But Eric learns that he’s much more than the way the world defines him. He is not one thing. He is not his ADHD. He is a blend of all the traits he’s proud of and all the ones he’s working on. After all, we’re all working on something. Right?
In Hidden Truths, we also see that labels don’t just impact Eric, but Dani, too. She’s a rockstar baseball player. But when her ability to play is thwarted, she must discover who she really is without baseball. Waylan her physical therapist reminds her, “Life is not happening to you….You may not get to choose what sport you play or when you get to play it, but you get to choose who you are. And in the end, that’s what matters most.” (194)
So remember, you get to choose. Never give anyone the power to define you. You’re a writer because you write. Not because someone said your story was good enough. You’re a soccer player because you play soccer. Not because you made the team. You’re awesome because you’re you. Not because you were invited to the party.
You hold the power to tell the world exactly who you are.
So be kind to yourself, my friends.
You’re worth it.
Meet the author
Elly Swartz is the acclaimed author of six middle grade novels: Finding Perfect, Smart Cookie, Give and Take, Dear Student, Hidden Truths, and Stand By Me (coming 2025). Swartz’s books reflect her commitment to raising awareness about mental health and neurodiversity. Her debut novel, Finding Perfect, was named one of the Best Children’s Books About Mental Health by the Child Mind Institute, Dear Student was recommended by Parents Magazine, and her newest book Hidden Truths has received 2 starred reviews–one from Kirkus and one from School Library Journal.
Swartz studied psychology at Boston University and received her JD at Georgetown University School of Law. She travels the country meeting with thousands of students each year to empower their own personal narrative. Swartz resides in Massachusetts. Connect with Elly at ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz, on Instagram or Threads @ellyswartzbooks.
My site: https://ellyswartz.com/
link tree: https://linktr.ee/ellyswartz
About Hidden Truths
How far would you go to keep a promise? Told from alternating points of view, Hidden Truths is a story of changing friendships, the lies we tell, the secrets we keep, and the healing power of forgiveness.
Dani and Eric have been best friends since Dani moved next door in second grade. They bond over donuts, comic books, and camping on the Cape.
Until one summer when everything changes.
Did Eric cause the accident that leaves Dani unable to do the one thing in the world she most cares about? The question plagues him, and he will do anything to get answers about the explosion that injured her. But Dani is hurting too much to want Eric to pursue the truth—she just wants to shut him out and move on. Besides, Eric has a history of dropping things he starts. Eric knows that and is determined that this will be the one time he follows through.
But what if his pursuit brings him into direct conflict with another friend? Where does Eric’s loyalty really lie?
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 10/31/2023
Age Range: 10 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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