Loving Your Quirks by Erin Soderberg
Growing up, I longed to be less weird. I spent much of my youth obsessing over how different I was from all of my friends: taller, stranger, less coordinated, always-saying-the-wrong-thing-at-the-wrong-time-ier. For years, I thought I was the only kid who felt this way. I just assumed everyone else had figured it out, that they had been given a secret key that let them into a world where they fit in.
It took me a long time—too long—to realize just how wrong I was. To discover that there is no secret to fitting in…in fact, there is no such thing as fitting in, not really. We all have days, weeks, years when it seems we’re just not the right shape or size or (insert other worries here) to squeeze into the life we’ve been given.
When I visit schools to talk about writing and books, I often ask: “Have any of you ever had a time when you felt like you didn’t quite fit in?” I watch kids look around nervously for a second, then the hands go up. Eventually, every hand—including mine—goes up (unless it’s a room full of fifth graders…they almost never admit to being different). I see the relief on kids’ faces when they see the other hands and realize they’re not alone. Everyone feels a little quirky now and then. We’ve all felt like we’re miles away from what others perceive to be “normal”—and knowing you’re not the only one who has experienced that feeling makes it better somehow.
A few years ago, my own babies (now eight, eight, and nine) started to grapple with the concept of fitting in. I watched them begin to worry about how other people in the world saw them, and I realized I was entering a new era of parenting. My job was shifting: from changing their diapers to changing their attitudes, from keeping them safe to keeping them strong.
One late-September day, my just-turned-four-year-old twins and I went to get my Kindergartener at the bus stop. The little ones were in the middle of a game of pretend, so my son made his way to the bus stop wearing a pale pink, lace-trimmed, flouncy dress (as a boy with two sisters often does). He had worn this dress—or others like it—outside the house many times before without a care in the world. But that day, something changed. It was an instantaneous shift. As we approached the bus stop, he slowed and then stopped. I looked back and saw him cowering inside a bush, trying to hide from all the bigger kids scrambling off the bus.
“What’s up?” I asked, urging him out of the branches. “You okay?”
Tears welled up in his eyes. He scowled at me. “I look stupid.”
“You look great,” I promised. (He really does look lovely in pink—see photo evidence!)
“I hate this dress.” He stomped off, ran home, and changed—certain the bigger boys jumping off the bus were laughing about the little boy in his sister’s dress (for the record, they weren’t). He never wore a dress outside the house again. This was the first time he realized how icky it felt when people laughed at him.
From the day they were born, I’ve tried to help my kids understand that there will be times in life when people will make fun of what you’re doing, tease you for how you look or act, or laugh about things you say (and not because you tell great knock-knock jokes). I hope I’ve done a good job of convincing them that if we’re strong and believe we are exceptional no matter what—and call for support from family, teachers, friends, church, etc.—it might be a little easier to handle any teasing thrown our way. If we believe our differences make us unique in a good way, that’s a great first step in tackling the yuckiness of feeling like an outsider. I’m sure every parent has a slightly different message. Mine might be wrong, but I can only tell them what I know from my own experience.
The same holds true for my writing: I write stories that reflect the life and feelings I know, and hope that my (often lighthearted and humorous) way of dealing with tough stuff on the page can be a comfort to someone else who is going through a similar situation. I don’t write books with a goal of imparting a message—I just want them to be fun!—but I do write books that I hope will resonate. I write stories that I hope reflect kids’ own experiences and fears and worries and dreams.
It was shortly after the pink dress incident that I started writing The Quirks, my middle-grade series about a family of magical misfits. The Quirks are a delightfully strange family who have spent years moving from town to town, desperately trying to hide the magic powers that make it hard for them to feel like they “fit in.” When the series opens, the family believes their Quirks are a problem. They try to squash and hide their magic, hoping they can trick people into thinking they’re “normal,” just like everyone else in town. But over time, they begin to realize that their differences can be a good thing. The most exhilarating thing for me was writing the last line of the four book series, when the Quirks—led by a brave ten-year-old girl—finally decide it’s time to peel away all of their masks and disguises, step out their front door as themselves, and “finally show the world how fabulous it is to be a Quirk.”
I wrote this series for myself, for my kids, and for any other kids who have ever felt like they were a little unusual or have had a hard time fitting in—at home, at school, at the bus stop or cafeteria or after-school program. I wish we were all a little better at embracing our Quirks and flaunting them without fear. I sincerely hope that my kids will grow up believing that being called quirky or weird or strange can be interpreted as a kind of compliment. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a bit of an odd duck, it’s this: when you exist outside the “normal” box, life is never boring.
The last book in Erin Soderberg’s THE QUIRKS series hit stores yesterday. Erin has written more than fifty books for kids, tweens, and teens (some as Erin Downing), including four QUIRKS books and six PUPPY PIRATES adventures. She is currently finishing up her next middle-grade novel, MOON SHADOW, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2017. Erin loves writing the kinds of books that turned her into a reading addict; stories that will make kids reach for a book instead of the remote. She steals almost everything in her novels from real life—including her kids’ invisible little brother—and isn’t ashamed to admit it. Real life makes the best source material!