The Last Night in the Nursery by Nicole C. Kear
“How can you miss being a kid,” I asked him, “when you’re still a kid?”
“Because,” he said. “I know it’s about to end.”
At first this sentiment seemed unusual to me. I thought kids couldn’t wait to grow up. If the ten-year-olds wearing mascara while ordering lattes at Starbucks were any indication, kids were chomping at the bit to get older. I remember feeling that way, like puberty was a race I was losing. Everyone else would get there before me. I’d be the last kid left standing in a room full of teenagers. It’s the feeling Judy Blume explores so poignantly in her novels, novels I treasured as a tween, novels that should automatically be delivered in a big stack to every child world-wide on their 12th birthday.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this feeling – being in a rush to grow up — and the feeling my son was expressing – a nostalgia for childhood – are not mutually exclusive. It seems like they should be, because they’re instincts tugging in opposite directions. But we humans are complicated, and also contradictory. As my fellow Brooklynite Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Whitman was writing about a tween when he wrote that. The same twelve-year-old can seem like a full-blown teen one day, making astute insights about politics in Social Studies, and the next day, like a little kid, excitedly gushing about their favorite Disney princess in homeroom. Teachers, parents, anyone who deals with pre-teens know they can’t really “act their age” because on any given day, their emotional age might be anywhere from 8 or 18. Tweens are caught in contradiction.
Contradictory feelings about growing up have been chronicled in middle grade literature since before the genre of middle grade literature was invented. Exhibit A: Peter Pan, the boy who never wanted to grow up. I’ve always loved the story of Peter Pan, but until my son’s nostalgia, I’d never noticed the significance of one small detail: that Wendy leaves for Neverland on her last night in the nursery. Being twelve, I realized, is exactly that – your last night in the nursery. It’s a time when great adventures unfold.
A coming-of-age is also, always, a going. You don’t get to a new destination without leaving an old one behind. Crossing the gap between childhood and adolescence is like traversing a crumbling bridge; it’s terrifying and thrilling and there is no turning back.
What makes it so terrifying and so thrilling, I think, is the understanding that changes are a-coming. A lot of changes. On all fronts. Puberty can feel like an alien invasion – you don’t know what things will be like after, but you can bet that they’ll be different.
Everything’s definitely been changing for Margaret, the protagonist of my forthcoming middle grade novel, Foreverland — and she’s sick of it. Middle school has gone from bad to worse. Her best friend has become a stranger. And her family―well, it doesn’t even feel like a family anymore. All Margaret wants is for things to go back to the way they were. She doesn’t have a time-machine, but she does have enough money for a train ticket to one of her favorite childhood haunts, the place “where magic never ends”– a beloved amusement park called Foreverland.
Margaret, who is shy, anxious, and seemingly invisible, is an unlikely runaway, and far from an outlaw. Lucky for her, she meets another runaway hiding in the park. Jaime is a charismatic, thrill-seeking maverick who teaches Margaret how to stay one step ahead of the captain of security. The two kids help themselves to an all-access, after hours pass, an unlimited ticket to ride, complete with sleepovers in the Haunted House, DIY makeovers, and junk food overload. Along the way, Jaime teaches Margaret bigger lessons too, about riding the roller coaster of life — how to let go and maybe even enjoy the wild ride. And, as in any good friendship, she teaches him something, too: how to hold on and stay connected, even when it feels too hard to bear. What they’re teaching each other, really, is how to grow up. It’s hard. It’s different for everyone. But it’s also so much the same.
My son is now fifteen, with both feet firmly planted in adolescence. Taking his place on that precarious bridge of adolescence is my daughter, who’s a very different sort of twelve-year-old. She’s bounding towards teendom in flying leaps – and sometimes I feel like it’s a fulltime job to slow her down. But she, too, has moments of panic and misgivings, where she’ll about-face and sprint back towards childhood at a breakneck pace.
The forwards and backwards dance can be dizzying. But knowing that it’s normal, that impatience to grow up can exist at the same time as worry about growing up and maybe even sadness about it, helps prepare us as parents and teachers and tween-supporters. The tug-of-war can be exhausting but, for me as an author at least, it’s also exciting, the way contradictions always are.
Nicole C. Kear is the author of the forthcoming middle grade novel, Foreverland, out this April from Imprint. Her other books include The Fix-It Friends series and, co-written with Brian Weisfeld,The Startup Squad, as well as a memoir for adults, Now I See You.