When I was eight-years-old our neighbor’s house caught fire. Three people didn’t make it out of the house, one of whom was a childhood friend. For weeks after, I’d walk out our front door every morning to go to school, not wanting to look up at the burned-out house. I stared at the ground instead, but the smell of smoke that lingered was always a reminder that there was no turning away or hiding from what had happened.
During this time, I don’t remember crying. My reactions to the accident manifested throughout day-to-day life. I was afraid if I left our house, it wouldn’t be there when I got back. I was afraid something would happen to my mom and dad. I didn’t want to go to school, and I’d tell my teacher I felt sick so my mom would come pick me up. I hated spending the night over friend’s and family’s houses. This lasted six to twelve months after the fire, during which my oldest brother also joined the Navy, the first one in our family to leave home.
If someone were to ask me what was the single most important event that had the greatest impact on my life, I’d have to say the fire and the months after. Losing people, saying goodbye or never getting a chance are themes that underline my writing. Loss is a lens through which I’ve looked at the world. So naturally the stories and characters I write are stories of characters dealing with some sort of loss. In EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS, December struggles to accept the truth of her past, a past that includes a mom who chose to abandon her. In THE SPACE BETWEEN LOST AND FOUND, Cassie struggles to find a way to live the best life she can with her mom, knowing it’s inevitable she will lose her. Both December and Cassie are proactive about their loss. They find ways—December with her passion for birds and Cassie through her passion for art and math—to navigate their way through loss.
Being a teacher, I’ve had students who’ve dealt with losing parents, losing grandparents, and it’s important they have mirrors representing their experiences, mostly to help them know they’re not alone. With loss comes the learning of letting go and moving on. Finding a balance of remembering the life before the loss and moving forward can be tricky for adults, let alone children. Stories about loss—“sad stories”--are reminders of how fragile but resilient we are. These stories reflect the everyday sorrow and joy of our lives, the heartache and struggle involved in making our way through the chaos.
I don’t know how long it took before I stopped fearing that every time I left my house or felt secure enough to spend the night over a friend’s house, but it did eventually happen. However, I had parents who were there for me and helped me through this time with love and patience. I know not all children have that so it’s also important to remind adult readers that sometimes they—whether they’re teachers, mentors, friends, aunts, uncles, sisters, or brothers—can be the person who’s there to walk through the chaos with the child.
There are some lines about loss in Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods” that I think sum up well the importance of “sad” books in children’s literature: “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
I hope my books can be a companion to readers who have experienced loss, or a catalyst in inspiring discussions that lead to deeper connections between teachers and students, parents and children. Any form of art that shines light on our day-to-day vulnerabilities and how we can find a balance between these difficult moments and our resilience is an opportunity for all of us to widen our compassion and our empathy toward each other.
Sandy Stark-McGinnis is a middle grade author. Her upcoming novel The Space Between Lost and Found will release April 28, 2020. Her debut middle grade, Extraordinary Birds,
was a Kids Indie Next List pick.
Follow Sandy here!
Want to guest blog or be interviewed? Got a cover reveal or book coming out?
Get in touch today!