Guest post by author Sally Pla
One sunny day last spring, all deep blue sky and tweeting birds, I was happily walking to my son’s graduation picnic. I was falling behind my group, so I started jogging down the little hill. I pulled out my phone, to check the time, and thus distracted, stumbled into an eight-inch-deep hole in the sidewalk. My foot stuck in it, while the rest of me kept flying forward. I twisted, and heard a sickening crack in my knee.
I next remember being sprawled on the grass, quietly going into shock. Many in the passing crowd immediately stopped to help. A strange lady massaged my shoulders and whispered: “Belly breaths, slowly. Deep, slow, breaths.” I can still recall the strength in her fingers, how she clasped my shoulders as if to fix them in place and reassure me I was still there, that I still existed. Pain and shock can give you that weird, out-of-body sort of feeling.
There, on that beautiful day in a college town in upstate New York, three thousand miles from my home, sprawled in my party dress on the grass meridian of a crumbling sidewalk, in the middle of a swelling crowd, with a swelling leg, I watched… ants. I waited for an ambulance, and serenely observed ants, crawling all over my pretty dress. Dozens of them. Big black ones, coming up out of the grass. I watched them in a zen-like trance, so I didn’t have to think about anything else. I watched them while strangers milled about, murmuring, concerned.
And I thought about that Billy Collins poem. Life can turn so quickly, from picnic to ants.
It happens. It’s also the heart and start of all good storytelling. That’s what we need stories for—to teach us the trick of how to go from picnic to ants.
Life takes a turn, and we’re forced to survive an adversity. Luke’s farm life is destroyed; he must join the Rebel Alliance. Odysseus the warrior realizes his greatest battle is going to be the way back home. Orphan Pip’s mysterious benefactor sets him off on perilous new challenges. Percy Jackson’s world and identity changes thunderously. Charlotte Doyle’s easy sea voyage turns mutinous.
In The Someday Birds, Charlie’s father is injured, and far away, and Charlie must give up every comfort to travel across the country to him. And Charlie hates travel. (So do I. Don’t even ask me about my broken-legged flight back home to California!)
Anyhow: The story is in the survival. The story teaches the survival.
Sometimes, for some of our young readers, the story is the survival.
What did my fractured-in-four-places leg story teach me, about survival?
All those months of immobility gave me pretty much nothing else to do except to finish my second middle-grade novel. It’s about a fearful young comics-trivia fanatic who enters a giant treasure hunt in an attempt to win back his best friend. Like The Someday Birds, at its heart, it’s a survival story about an outsider who overcomes personal fears.
It also gave me a new understanding of what it’s like to live with mobility challenges. It’s interesting to observe how, when your wheelchair approaches, some folks look you in the eye and smile, while others drift away. Some people hold the doors for you. Others don’t.
But don’t get me wrong. Most people hold the door. By far, in this wild world, most people smile, and they hold the door.
That day on the grass, with the ants, a parade of humanity was flowing past me on the sidewalk. Literally hundreds, after a giant graduation ceremony. And I tell you, most every face registered concern and caring. People stopped to offer all kinds of assistance.
Hands I did not recognize brushed the ants off me. Handed me water bottles. Massaged my shoulders. Wrapped me in a blanket.
And that’s the other key to good stories. To what they need to do for us. Yes, they need to teach us how to go from picnic to ants, but they also need to reveal to us that we all share a common human caring. It’s instinctive in us, just as it was instinctive in the faces of all those strangers. They felt for me. They winced with me. We connected.
We are in horribly divisive times right now. But we still have so much humanity in common. And united together is the only way we make it through. I’ve started to walk on my own again, now, and that’s the crutch I’m hanging onto, right there—belief that our innate kinship and humanity will always kick in, when things really turn bad.
And we can access and enhance this, through the kinds of stories we tell children. The kinds of books we are able to offer them. The hope we are able to offer them, as life takes a turn, and they need to see all the creative ways there are to survive in this world. To get up, and keep walking.
Sally J. Pla is the author of The Someday Birds (HarperCollins 2017), a Junior Library Guild Selection and starred Publishers Weekly review. Kirkus called it “hopeful, authentic, and oddly endearing. Booklist called it “a delight from beginning to end.” A second middle grade novel, John Lockdown Is In the Building, as well as a children’s picture book, will publish in 2018. Sally lives near lots of lemon trees in Southern California, where she’s hard at work on the next story.