Honest, Human Characters by Kara Bietz
My elementary school was built in 1922. A sprawling, two-story brick structure with massive, leaded glass casement windows, marble floors and cavernous classrooms. The one thing Charles S. Ashley School lacked in the early 1980’s was a proper library. Instead, it was housed in the enormous auditorium, an afterthought. One long row of metal bookshelves lined the oak-paneled far wall, with one card catalog and one desk for the volunteering Mom or Grandma to use to help check out books. Despite its shortcomings and even though I had a well-stocked and well-loved public library within walking distance of my house, I treasured every weekly trip to the school library.
In third grade, after a long lecture from our teacher Mrs. Frates, we were introduced to the holy grail of that library: the chapter books. I’m not going to lie. That first trip to the library in third grade as well as Mrs. Frates telling us that we were mature enough to explore the whole library, is a core memory. No longer relegated to the picture books, I remember walking allllllll the way to the back of the auditorium; my eight-year-old self barely able to contain my excitement. Surely, the biggest of the big kid books was housed way back here, right? And I was definitely ready for the biggest big kid book I could find.
I don’t remember how I found it. Maybe time was running out and I had browsed too long and just stuck my hand in the shelf and pulled out the first thing I touched and ran it to the desk to check out. Maybe it was sitting askew on the shelf, and I liked the feel of the well-worn, cloth-bound cover. Or maybe I pored through several books before finding the exact one I wanted to read. However it found its way to me, I discovered Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great by Judy Blume.
I read it cover to cover that day. And then opened it back up to page one and started again. I had seen myself in a book.
And it was spectacular.
The comfort that washed over me when I realized that there were other kids that were outwardly full of bravado and inwardly afraid of barking dogs and thunderstorms and the dark! My goodness! Indescribable. It was then, too, that I realized that I wanted to write. I could write books about kids like me, both full of anxiety and full of piss and vinegar. So that’s what I did. I filled so many spiral bound notebooks with stories of kids who were amazing at sports and were afraid to go into their basements. Who had big adventures with their friends and were scared to put the trash out at night. Who were kickball beasts but feared walking home from the park by that one lady’s house because what if she really was a witch like all the kids said?
When I started writing Sidelined, I knew I wanted to write a book about football in Texas. I had been living there for a few years, working in a high school guidance counselor’s office. Football was a pretty big deal where I grew up, but nothing like I experienced in Texas. It was a spectacle! And we were all caught up in the pageantry and tradition and excitement of Homecoming. I knew I had to write a story that captured all of that. As I started writing this happy book with fun traditions and high school awesomeness oozing from its pores, I thought about Sheila the Great. And I thought about Mrs. Frates. And I thought about what it was like to not only see myself in a story, but to see myself happy and thriving in a story. Everyone deserves that feeling. I understood, not only from the teenagers that lived under my roof but from the teenagers I now spent my days with, that for some it was hard to find themselves in a story with a happy ending. As I wrote more and got to know Julian and Elijah better, I knew that I was going to make Meridien a supportive community that respected and loved them exactly how they were. Their identities were a part of them, but not the only part, or even the most important part. They are not bullied. They are not questioned. They are not perfect.
They are honest, and they are human.
They are loved, as my grandmother used to say, warts and all. Exactly how they are.
Julian and Elijah are absolutely deserving of a happy, respectful and loving story. And so are the kids that identify with them.
Kara Bietz was born and raised in New England but now resides in north Georgia with her family. Sidelined is her second novel. She invites you to visit her online at karabietzauthor.com or on Twitter and Instagram @karamb75.