Bluebirds, Deadheads, & Side-Growth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
I was five, and starting first-grade in a new school.
That first week, my teacher divided us into reading groups. Our class became flocks of Bluebirds, Redbirds, and Yellowbirds that gathered in a circle around her, taking turns reading out loud from our Sally, Dick, and Jane readers.
The Bluebirds were the best readers. I was a Redbird, and that bugged me. I knew I could read as well as any Bluebird. I’d been reading for as long as I could remember. I told the teacher, and lo and behold, I became a Bluebird.
At recess a fellow Bluebird informed us that a speech teacher was coming to our class to pick students. Speech class! It sounded so fun! So interesting! How could I get picked?
Simple, the Bluebird told me. Just pronounce the words the way a certain boy in our class did.
I knew the boy. He was a Yellowbird.
That afternoon, the speech teacher came to our room. She worked her way up and down the rows, asking each student to repeat words after her.
Soon she perched beside my desk. “Say ‘scissors’,” she told me.
“Thi-thorth,” I said.
“Hmm,” she said, glancing at her student list. “What’s your name?”
“Susie,” I said.
I didn’t get picked for speech class.
In many ways, I’m still that five-year-old. My desire to learn new things is something gardeners call “side-growth.”
Side-growth happens when you “deadhead”, or pinch off wilted blooms. It tricks the plant into thinking it’s younger. Deadheading encourages richer, lusher blooms to sprout.
We know side-growth is important for children. We don’t want our kids to simply grow up. We want them to grow sideways, which is why we enrich their lives with books and music and art and dance and more.
Grownups need side-growth, too. If we keep too narrow a focus, if we plunge forward, never looking left nor right, never veering from a goal, we can prevent the side-growth so necessary for a rich and full creative life.
Over the span of my grownup life, I’ve returned to piano lessons. I’ve taken ghost-hunting and beekeeping classes.
I’ve immersed myself in poetry – the very workshops that I purposely avoided in grad school. I’ve learned to love the hunt for the subject, the feeling of stretching and growing, the poetic turn, the cutting close to the bone.
While working on They Called Themselves the KKK, I needed something, an antidote, to such difficult research. On a whim, I found my way to Improv comedy. For nearly two years I studied and performed.
Improv Comedy taught me the importance of saying “yes, and,” of making my teammates look good, of wearing the target on my own back, of moving through sweat and fear, of pushing boundaries, and that I’ll survive failure.
Yes, I bombed on stage and lived.
And now I’m taking art classes again. I’m back to drawing after packing up my pencils and paints so many years ago.
Side-growth is evident on my bookshelf – both in my reading choices and my published books. My first agent advised me to “become known in one genre.” I didn’t listen. I love the challenge of moving from genre to genre, of working with different voices, of writing for different audiences, of tackling different subjects.
And now I’ve enjoyed the side-growth experience of co-editing the nonfiction anthology 1968: Today’s Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change. Marc Aronson and I have different writing styles and different editing styles. I admire his ability to see the big picture, to say “yes, and,” and his commitment to making teammates look good. Our styles and approaches to editing complement one another.
The anthology itself is a model of side-growth. The contributions show off the many sub-genres of nonfiction, including memoir, process essay, personal narrative, persuasive essay, narrative history, and more. In so doing, the anthology becomes more than a retelling of political and military history.
The contributions also show our authors’ willingness to side-grow. For example, David Lubar publishes hilarious middle-grade novels. Right away, David said “yes, and” and wrote “Running With Sharp Schticks: Humor as a Force for Social Change.” In “Nightly News,” Elizabeth Partridge experiments with a new voice and new style – and makes the political personal. In “The Red Guard,” Lenore Look, known for her novels, pushes her boundary – and the boundaries of others – as she examines the silence around the Cultural Revolution in China and its implications in her own life.
Side growth doesn’t happen without deadheading, and so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go pinch off some wilted blooms.
Susan Campbell Bartoletti is the author of picture books such as Naamah and the Ark at Night, novels such as The Boy Who Dared, and nonfiction books such as Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, and Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. She is a recipient of a Newbery Honor, a Robert f. Sibert Medal and Honor, an Orbis Pictus Award and Honor, a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor for picture book text. She lives in Pennsylvania.
So our new slogan: just say yes!
“Yes, and” works for me when I’m writing, but I try not to say yes when I answer the phone…
Bravo! I’ve enjoyed being a nerd and letting kids know nerdy is okay.
This essay reminds me of the reasons I so admire Susan as a thinker and writer: she is perennially sharp, surprising, and brave. I have a shelf full of Bartletti books. Looks as if I’ll have to make room for another one!
Thank you, Patsii! I grinned at your use of the word “perennially.” Being a perennial is much better than being an annual.
I love that you would fake a lisp to get into Speech class. Great article, Susan, and I can’t wait to get a copy of the book. Yay for art classes.
I just saw this, Emma. Thanks for reading and commenting, and yes, yay! for art class and all of the fun we have at Highlights.