Cold Feet, Warm Heart: A Content Reveal by Beth Ain
When I was 12, my father came out of the closet. Nowadays, that maybe doesn’t seem so shocking, but in 1980’s Pennsylvania, it was a bit of a thing. My parents were already long divorced, but this was new and worrisome and it became something I carried around with me and stashed in my locker along with my extra scrunchies and some Salon Selectives hairspray. (1980’s cough, cough.)
Many writers have delved into what it feels like to be a kid, an adolescent specifically, when your parents are going through something. Life is hard enough already in middle school—maybe you have to get up each day and face a lunchroom filled with people who seem like they are in better shape than you are, better equipped to deal with cafeteria turmoil and inner turmoil alike. Maybe you have to worry about learning differences or body differences or who is going to whose birthday party or whether or not to sit with that kid who needs sitting with at recess. Many of us had Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Paula Danziger for this. I, for one, was Marcy Lewis through and through and am forever grateful to have been handed a mirror by Danziger when I really needed one. It might as well have been an outstretched hand.
But, okay, what I didn’t have was a character whose dad was dating her kindergarten teacher, who happened not to be a woman. Of course I didn’t have a book for that. It has taken until very recently to get sexuality into middle grade fiction on any level. Thanks to the likes of Barbara Dee and Tim Federle, the door is finally open for kids to feel what they feel and to explore those feelings in healthy and funny and honest ways. But what if the one person who you think has it all figured out, doesn’t either? What then?
Enter The Cure For Cold Feet, a book closer to my heart than any other I have written so far. Years ago, I wrote this story another way. It was truer to my own experience—a little too true, and so I never got it quite right. It took looking at it through a new lens, as a mother of a pre-teen girl, to start to understand what this would feel like right now in 2018, what it might be like if you are a modern, open–hearted, thoughtful girl who—like other children of divorce—secretly wants her parents to work things out in the end. But no, Dad is marrying someone else and Mom’s got a new girlfriend who happens to be the mom of your old nemesis-turned ballroom dance partner, and your big brother has some serious problems of his own and your old best friend is well on her way to some new best friends you can can’t tell apart, and, and, and…you’re welcome, middle-schoolers everywhere, this is the stuff of a poetry slam, and I think you all are going to dig it!
It is, yes, a novel in verse—because making the messy rhythm and mixed emotions of middle school life into poetry, felt very right to me—and it uses Izzy’s cold feet about leaving the safety of elementary school for the wilds of middle school even as it explores the idea that the only way through—as Izzy’s dad tells her—is through. Izzy must face demons she didn’t know she had when she is matched up in a ballroom dance social studies project that was inspired by the real-life Dancing Classrooms project I have witnessed the successes of first-hand. Over and over again, Izzy must use empathy and courage at home and also out in the world, if she is going to figure out who she is and where she fits in. She will know for the first time what a crush feels like what it feels like to be crushed in return. She will also learn what it feels like when what was once familiar is no longer comforting and what happens when you allow yourself to look elsewhere for your people, people who maybe sound different or look different but who have something unique inside that makes you feel like you’ve been found. Like others before her, Izzy will be found in the brightly lit hallways of a place so daunting, we writers spend lifetimes trying to capture its essence in the hopes of dispensing a magical you-can-do-this serum to our readers.
When I teach butterfly moments writing to kids, I talk a lot about memory. I encourage them to close their eyes and see and smell and feel the memory so they can find the right words to capture it. I encourage them to think about caterpillar moments and jellybeans-against-the-wall moments and getting to the other side. Writing as transformation. I use this very exercise every time I write, but especially in The Cure for Cold Feet. There is a scene in the book when Izzy recollects her grandfathers’ wedding, and I lifted it straight out of one of my own personal butterfly moments—not the one of my dad coming out amidst the faux-calm of 80’s suburbia, but the memory of my dad’s marriage just a few years ago, when the state of Pennsylvania finally made it legal for him to marry his longtime life partner. In the scene, Izzy gets to reflect on the beautiful image of two men in embrace, a tallis wrapped around them under a chuppah, as if it were nothing terribly new or shocking.
Such is contemporary fiction. A place for truth and fantasy and history at once. This book is for the educators who have told me time and again that they wish they had a book where same sex families are portrayed in the context of regular life. And it is for my readers, who connected with Izzy’s complicated interior life and her butterflies and her optimism. And it is for my 12-year-old self, too.
One of my favorite lines in the book is when Izzy is coping with her dad’s disdain for her mom’s “weird” new relationship. “One person’s weird is another person’s wonderful,” her mom says. Here’s to discovering more and more of our weird and wonderful lives told with love and empathy and in every which way on the pages of books for kids. This book, like others before it, is for all of us. Onward.
Beth Ain grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she got cold feet trying to figure out how to work her locker, walking into cheerleading tryouts, backstage at the talent show, and on thousands of other earth-shattering occasions throughout middle school, which used to be called Junior High, but was exactly as stressful no matter the name. She was lucky to share all the small moments with some special friends and with a not-so-run-of-the-mill family, whose support and sense of humor absolutely always warmed her up through life’s cold feet moments. Beth is the author of several books for children, including Izzy Kline Has Butterflies and the Starring Jules series. She lives in Port Washington, New York, with her husband and two children. Visit her online at bethain.com.