Moving Through Uncertainty (A Book Club Post)
March 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
It feels unfathomable that only a single week has passed since I was in my daughter’s Montessori classroom for book club with the third graders. It feels more like a lifetime, so frequently and relentlessly has the rug been pulled out from beneath our Normalcy since then. With schools shuttered and social distancing mandated, we’re all scrambling to find some semblance of routine, to cling to optimism about our loved ones and our community, to keep from sinking into the couch and staying there for good.
Last Thursday concluded seven weeks of discussing Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw (Ages 9-12), our second pick of the year (click here for my Instagram post on our first book), and we celebrated the way we do: with a party. Only this time the popcorn was complemented with purple jelly beans: a favorite of the oversized, outspoken, outlandish cat named Crenshaw, once Jackson’s imaginary friend, who unexpectedly (and awkwardly) reappears during his fifth-grade year.
When I chose the book, I could not have known how apt it would turn out to be for the ordeal we’re now living through. I had chosen it for three reasons. Firstly, Applegate’s short chapters and direct sentences are accessible to a variety of readers, while the nuance, maturity, and visual acuity she packs into her words create rich fodder for discussion. Secondly, if reading fiction is linked to building empathy, Crenshaw represents a rare opportunity in middle-grade fiction to step into the shoes of someone living in poverty—and to discover he isn’t that different from us. Thirdly, the humor in this story, employed to balance out the sadness, is infectious: it’s unexpected; it’s absurd; it’s cinematic. (A giant cat who enjoys making bubble beards in the bath? Yes, please.) The light in the kids’ eyes as they begged to read aloud favorite passages each week only confirmed this.
But it turns out the most powerful reason to read Crenshaw—and why you may want to read it at home right now—may be its theme of uncertainty. How do we keep going when the world stops making sense?
Jackson’s family has fallen on hard times…again. The last time his musician parents couldn’t make rent, they sold all their possessions and lived in their car for months. According to his perpetually cheerful father, they weren’t homeless, only “car camping.” But watching his dad beg for money on the street corner, or crouching down to keep his school friends from seeing him through the car window, didn’t feel like camping. That was the first time the perplexing, surf-boarding cat named Crenshaw came into Jackson’s life, wedging himself into the backseat between Jackson, his baby sister, and their dog, even though no one but Jackson could feel him.
Now, Jackson can read the familiar signs, and he suspects his family may soon be homeless once more. He hears the whispered arguments between his parents, sees the increasingly empty cupboards, and watches as his parents once again drag their few household possessions outside for a yard sale. It’s highly unsettling—all the more because the imaginary friend he thought he’d outgrown is inexplicably back, taking up residence in his bathtub and making a mess. What is happening to Jackson’s family? What is happening to Jackson?
One of the things my book club kids were fascinated by is how different Crenshaw is from Jackson. Jackson likes facts. He has always wanted to be an animal scientist, preferring animal trivia to imaginary play from a young age. Jackson doesn’t have the slightest tolerance for magic, insisting everything must have a “reasonable explanation.” So, how could Jackson have conjured up such a messy, obstinate, outlandish imaginary friend—one who not only doesn’t conform to the animal he’s supposed to be, but whose appearances are as unpredictable as his personality? If anything, Crenshaw seems more like something Jackson’s little sister would dream up, straight out of the pages of her favorite book, Lyle the Crocodile.
So, what purpose does this crazy alter-ego cat serve for Jackson? This is the question I posed to the kids each week, and their answers kept evolving. According to Crenshaw, he’s there because “Jackson summoned him,” even though Jackson has no recollection of doing any such thing. Additionally, Crenshaw claims he’ll only go away once he persuades Jackson to “tell the truth to the one who matters most.” But what’s the truth? And from whom is he keeping it? It turns out the secrets in Jackson’s life are mounting faster than he can keep track: his parents refuse to tell him what’s going on, and he refuses to tell them why that matters; Jackson himself refuses to disclose his family’s financial troubles to his best friend; and, perhaps most concerning, Jackson refuses to admit to himself just how afraid he is.
As the story progresses and his family’s financial situation worsens, pushing Jackson to contemplate things like stealing and running away, Jackson begins to face the complexity of his emotional life, to tease apart his feelings. He takes note of the physical sensation mounting inside his body: “I felt twisted inside. Like a knotted-up rope.” And he begins to identify what about his current reality is troubling him most. Sure, he’s angry about losing his stuff and feeling different from his friends. But:
What bothered me most, though, was that I couldn’t fix anything. I couldn’t control anything. It was like driving a bumper car without a steering wheel. I kept getting slammed, and I just had to sit there and hold on tight.
I asked the third graders if they could put a name to what Jackson was describing. They said concern, confusion, fear, feeling out of control. I said all of these were right. And that all of these added up to something called “anxiety.” This wasn’t quite the same as the nervousness we feel when we stand up and present in front of people. This pervasive anxiety follows Jackson everywhere, nearly suffocating him. One girl said, “It’s like he’s having to be an adult too soon, and he’s not ready.”
As the chronic stress of poverty threatens to consume Jackson, resilience enters in the form of Crenshaw, with his comic relief and cryptic wisdom. Crenshaw may feel like a foreign intruder to Jackson, but he’s actually an extension of what lives inside him. At Crenshaw’s urging, Jackson begins to confide in Marisol, his best friend. He begins to tell his parents about the anger and disappointment he feels towards them. Neither Marisol nor his parents can change the facts for Jackson, but they can help him shoulder the emotional burden. The more he shares, the lighter he feels. And the more Crenshaw hangs around, the more Jackson begins to appreciate that life is full of things which can’t be explained or controlled. Some of those things are even a little bit magical, some of them even enjoyable.
At our last book club gathering, the threat of school closures was looming. The kids had questions. Some of them wanted to know if they would get the virus. One of them didn’t know what the virus was. All of them wanted to know how long schools would be closed and whether or not they’d be able to go on their spring break trips. I didn’t have the answers. None of us do. But I was able to keep circling back to Katherine Applegate. “Why do you think she wrote this story?” I asked. “What do you think she was trying to tell us?”
Hands shot up. “I think she was trying to show us that we can be OK even when we can’t control what’s happening,” one girl said.
“I thought Jackson’s life was going to get better at the end,” another said, “but it didn’t. Except he did realize that his parents love him and so does Marisol and so does Crenshaw.”
“I think the story shows us that there’s always something to laugh about,” a boy said.
Amidst all the uncertainty in the world right now, our kids need something to believe in. Maybe it’s love or beauty or humor. Maybe it’s a tiny bit of magic. Maybe it’s the helpers who are there if we look for them (like Mr. Rodgers always reminded us). Before we ended our last (in-person) book club for awhile, the kids and I munched on purple jelly beans and read aloud Jackson’s closing thoughts:
The article I read about imaginary friends said they often appear during times of stress. It said kids outgrow imaginary friends as their interest mature.
But Crenshaw told me something else.
He said imaginary friends never leave. He said they’re on call. Just waiting, in case they’re needed.
I said that sounded like a lot of waiting around, and he said he didn’t mind. It was his job.
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