Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing with a Middle Grade Voice - Holidays

I’m getting ready to attend yet another Thanksgiving pageant at a kiddo’s school, and the memories of them over the years sparked the idea for this post. I thought it would be interesting to take one important aspect of a middle-grader’s life, holidays, and think about how writers go back in time to capture those moments.

I don’t remember ever participating in a Thanksgiving pageant myself, which is probably a good thing, because I didn’t have the kind of mother who could easily whip up a pilgrim costume. The time spent thinking about costumes seems to be a huge part of the anticipation of these events. Only a few of the children with worry personalities stress over the lack of perfection in a costume. Middle graders’ imaginations allow them to look at a child with a few feathers stuck on a brown shirt and see a turkey.

As an adult, I most love the part where each child has to say what he or she is thankful for. The more thoughtful ones always mention a mother, father or a grandparent, and that’s something so important I try to remember when I’m writing. Even though we come up with convoluted ways to get caregivers out of the picture in middle grade stories, their presence still is such a huge part of a middle grader’s existence and thoughts. When it comes to brothers and sisters, though, most don’t mention them. That always surprised me until we brought a second child to our own home and sibling rivalry hit us in the face. There’s no doubt siblings are of major importance, but the relationships even at that age are complicated and certainly not always smooth.

If siblings don’t get much mention, pets do. Has there ever been a middle grader who thinks they have enough pets, or who isn’t interested in them even if they don’t have one? My daughter knows the names and histories of all her friends’ pets but can’t remember the names of the elderly neighbors who have lived near us since she was a baby.

The kids who don’t spend much time contemplating life and relationships mention food. Pumpkin pie gets high marks, but I’m always astounded at how many kids are thankful for mashed potatoes. Most middle graders don’t have a complicated relationship with food. There’s no concern about cholesterol or calories. It’s either good or bad, or totally inedible and would probably make a person gag.

How the kids present themselves during the pageant is middle grade in a microcosm. Most aren’t yet self-conscious about appearing before their peers in handmade turkey costumes or pilgrim bonnets. They are so happy to have attention focused on them, even for brief moments, that they willingly sing silly songs and make gobble noises. For most, attention is not something to be avoided, as will become the case later on. There are always a few of the extreme shy ones who find it torture to stand up and talk. I agonize with those children as they wring their hands waiting for their turn and then mumble out sentences no one can hear. I think everyone in the audience holds their breaths hoping the child won’t cry. That memory, of trying hard not to cry, has to be one every adult shares, even if they weren’t the crying type.

I find when I’m writing about holidays from a kid point of view I have to strip away all the memories of disastrous family gatherings I remember as an adult. As a child, I didn’t catch every detail of the tensions between various relatives who didn’t like each other. I was unhappy if my parents were unhappy or snappy, but I never realized two of my aunts only spoke to each other on holidays.

I remember holidays as being a strange mix of boredom and freedom, where the adults were too occupied with discussing the health problems of distant relatives to bother making sure the kids were doing anything useful. I also remember how I schemed to avoid being served gravy, something I thought a disgusting invention, but one the rest of my relatives seemed to regard as some elixir of the gods. Then there was always the attempt to see how much whipped cream I could put on my pumpkin pie before someone noticed and disapproved. I guess if someone has asked me back then, I would have said I was thankful for mashed potatoes too.

So what do you remember about Thanksgiving as a child?  ETA: I shouldn't have just asked about Thanksgiving, because I don't want to limit comments to American or Canadian memories. Jump in for any holiday that involves a family gathering and a large amount of food!

~Dee Garretson


  1. Sibling rivalry and pets? That sums up the main concern of the MG. I'd add things imaginary and personal to them and their friends.
    I had no idea of Thanksgiving - UK res - but I remember thinking Thanksgiving, and the shows, must be as exciting as Scout in a ham suit from To Kill a Mockingbird! (That was the most exotic image - no tea-towel shepherd there.)

  2. How could I have forgotten about Scout's ham costume? Thank you for bringing that up. You're right, that's certainly a very vivid image!

  3. I will always remember standing in my Grandmother's kitchen (which smelled of her old lady house mixed with the aunt's perfume...all floating on a sea of roast turkey aroma) waiting for the first bite of turkey. My dad or my uncle would lift the lid of the huge electric roaster and pluck off a nibble for each kid...Ahhhh Heaven!

  4. Great post, and I'm so glad I never had to participate in a pageant.

    I remember thinking of holidays with excitement and dread. Special food and pretty decorations - yay. But also extreme boredom because I had no family members my age to keep me company. Plus, I was the only girl cousin. Good thing I'm unsociable by nature. ;-)

  5. Karen,
    Your comment brought back memories of my grandmother's house and the roaster that was dragged out twice a year. I can't imagine having to deal with one of those today. And Ink, that weird holiday boredom really sticks with me too. Not that I was that occupied other times, but maybe it was the enforced socializing, no books allowed.

  6. I don't recall much in the way of rituals around Thanksgiving here. We'd have the usual turkeys and horns of plenty to color in school, but Remembrance Day was a far bigger deal.

    Family holidays revolved around food and time with my cousins. My family of origin was intact and happy in those days, so I don't recall squabbling at all. Of course, I might have just been clueless and too busy stuffing my gob with raising or pumpkin pie to notice. :)

  7. I'm still thankful for mashed potatoes :)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!