Butterfly Moments Are All Around—Let’s Go Catch Some by Beth Ain
Every time my children sit down to write something, they freeze.
“I don’t know what to write.” It is a mantra they repeat as when I open the refrigerator and say “I don’t know what to make for dinner.”
“What did you do in school today?” I might ask, willing a dinner idea to come to me in the meantime.
“Played wall ball at recess,” my son might say, “but that’s not very interesting.”
“What did it smell like outside when you were playing?” I might ask,
“Nothing, like a cold day.”
“Do all your friends play or do some of them do something else?”
“Some of the boys play soccer.” One of his former best friends plays soccer and not wall ball and doesn’t ask for play dates anymore either.
“Do you ever notice them over there? Does their ball ever mix up with your ball?”
“I guess,” he might say.
“What does that back and forth of wall ball remind you of? Things coming at you from different directions, balls in the air, moving all around toward some friends, away from others?” These are leading questions, I know.
I see lettuce and ground turkey in the fridge, tomatoes and avocados on the counter.
Maybe I’ll make a taco salad.
“Maybe friendship,” he says.
“Yeah,” I might say. “Maybe friendship.”
This is the kind of writing exercise I did every time I sat down to write a new piece for Izzy Kline Has Butterflies. Every time I took on a new moment of her fourth grade school year, I closed my eyes and smelled the smells and felt the feelings of small moments like this wall ball moment. I have said before that this kind of exercise gives kids access to their memories. It gives them story starters, scene builders, and mood setters. It gives them access to writing without having to build worlds from scratch. I like to say that this kind of writing is like an open-book test, and especially if you ask the right questions.
When my kids’ school decided to put on “Free to Be You and Me” a few years ago, it brought back memories of my first grade classroom and that soundtrack playing in the background as we worked on our handwriting. Suddenly, I wanted desperately to figure out how “Glad to Have a Friend Like You” might play out over today’s landscape of Common Core and the overscheduled child.
I thought about a very contemporary girl going through some very timeless struggles—the loss of old friends, her parents’ divorce, her moody big brother, her new friend with a worrisome secret, and I thought about how she might experience these things in her daily life. I realized very quickly that it wouldn’t be linear, that it couldn’t be. Because kids’ lives happen with lots of interruption and in small little bursts, and boy do we ask a lot of them in those moments.
We ask them to leave the divorce at home while they spin around on the playground spinner at recess and work on doing their multiplication facts at warp speed. We ask them to ignore our bad moods, to cope with their changing friendships, their letdowns, their viruses, their fights with their siblings, all in the course of a week, or even one day. We ask them to walk into a new classroom every year, with a new teacher and new kids and so any new things to learn and take in, and it’s a lot of transition and a lot of change and a whole lot to process.
As I wrote about the spinning, the finger-slamming, the belly-laughing, the dancing, the hurt, the things that give kids BUTTERFLIES—the language inside of the day of a school-aged child started to feel like poetry to me, and I freed myself up to explore it in smaller bits and under a microscope. In doing so, I discovered the thoughtful voice of Izzy Kline who has butterflies the night before school starts and throughout the many moments she navigates over a school year, and soon “butterfly moments” became my new catch phrase. Butterfly moments are the small, but transformative moments of our lives that in many ways tell the story of who we are and how we got here.
Now that this book is out in the world, my hope is that teachers will connect with it, and use it not only as a writing and close reading exercise but as a mindfulness exercise, too. When we ask kids to look around, to take in the kids playing soccer on the field nearby, we are teaching them to be in the moment, to give it weight, to say, “this moment is good or bad or worth noting in some way. Let’s see what comes of it.”
There is a scene in Izzy Kline when she becomes so overwrought, so upset and worried and mad, that she throws a giant bag of brand new Jelly Bellys against the wall. I wrote it because Izzy is feeling a lot of feelings at this moment in the story and I searched back through my own past to figure out how to best illustrate her mood.
How to explain the fury that comes over a young person when a lot has gone on that is out of their control and they finally start to burst at the seams? It came to me in a flash. I had had a jellybeans-against-the-wall moment when I was a kid. It was under different circumstances but I was mad and tired and I can still picture the bag exploding against the wall in the kitchen because when something big like that comes over you, you can remember all of it—the sound of the candy hitting the floor, rolling to a stop, the silence of the other people in the room, the surprise in the air. It was a small moment in the scheme of things but a big moment right then and there and that’s what I want kids to be on the lookout for–I want them to find their jellybeans-against-the-wall moment and own it.
So many teachers are already tuned in to the interior lives of children and how to draw it out and I have learned so much from my own children’s amazing teachers and my incredible teacher friends, too. Butterfly moments are a new tool for that writing toolbox, a concept that might turn a kid on to the fun to be had in word play, that with one shift of word choice, that with one evocative sight or sound or smell, they have written something extra-special. They might just make poetry out of wall ball at recess the way I might make taco salad out of long hard look in the fridge.
Please print out the beautiful printable butterfly from my website and make a moment, make a whole wall of butterfly moments! I want to see them and read them and I really want to Skype with participating classrooms!
What’s your wall-ball moment, your belly-laugh moment, your jellybeans-against-the-wall moment? What does your butterfly moment look like?
Go on and catch one.
Beth Ain grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania where she and her best friend spent their afternoons finger painting in the basement and making plays, and getting in and out of fights and hysterical fits of laughter. She has been collecting small moments ever since. Izzy Kline Has Butterflies will be published by Random House in March 2017. Beth is the author of several books for children, including the Starring Jules chapter book series, Parents Magazine’s Best New Series of 2013. She blogs at tincanstilts.com and lives in Port Washington, NY with her husband and two children.
This is an extraordinary post, Beth. Remembering back, capturing the small moments that make scene real is so important in writing. I am going to check out your books. Congrats on Izzy!
Thank you so much! Means so much to me that you connected with it. Butterflies!
Yes, I shared this w/ the FB group Word by Word. We are studying Cheryl Klein’s THE MAGIC WORDS and this post hits right into her chpts. on character development and the interior lives of characters.
Love this post about the butterfly moments (and the big jelly bean moment, too!) and how to show kids the way to focus in on small moments to recreate scenes and emotions. Looking forward to reading your book!
Thank you so much! I hope you enjoy Izzy’s story!
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
Today’s re-blog is about children and writing; but, if an adult writer can’t take a technique away, something needs “doing”…