Bittersweet by Elaine Vickers
Someday something you love will come to an end,
and it will be time to say goodbye.
When that happens, you will have an important job to do: Remember.
– How to Make a Memory
My sister sent me an Instagram post the other day about how disturbing so many of the movies we grew up with seem now. (My Girl, The Land Before Time, The NeverEnding Story, etc.—all stories where death and loss loomed large.) I laughed and “liked” and moved on with my day . . . but not entirely. Because I kept thinking about how much I actually loved those movies. About how, on any album, I was waiting for the quiet, slow songs that would break my heart a little. (The one from my childhood that sticks out is Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes”, which still makes me cry, 23 years into a very happy marriage.) About how those movies and that music made me feel so deeply, and feel so seen—even though I had relatively little experience with loss and change.
I have two books coming out in the next two months: a picture book (How to Make a Memory, Wiseman/S&S) in May and a middle grade novel (Half Moon Summer, Peachtree) in June. These books were written years apart, but as I looked at them side by side for the first time, I realized that the thing they share (besides absolutely gorgeous art from illustrator Ana Aranda and cover artist Chloe Zola, respectively) is that bittersweet feeling. It permeates almost every page of Half Moon Summer, a book I began when my son was in sixth grade and we decided to run a half marathon together. Years later, at the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote How to Make a Memory in hopes it could be a meaningful story to share during times of uncertainty and change, especially the last day of school and graduation.
And in a serendipitous twist, How to Make a Memory and Half Moon Summer (a book about the passage of time and the impossible impermanence of life) will both come out within days of my son graduating high school and leaving the nest. Lately, I’m having all sorts of emotions at any given moment—from pride to fear to nostalgia to overwhelming gratitude. But the current running through all of it is, of course, that bittersweet feeling of knowing that something I love is coming to an end. That it is almost time to say goodbye.
Soon, I’ll say goodbye to my own classrooms full of chemistry students at Southern Utah University. I don’t talk about my writing with my students, but maybe this semester I’ll read them How to Make a Memory. Whether I read it or not, though, I’ll tear up at the end of the last lecture; I always do. “Do you remember the first thing I wrote on the board?” I’ll ask them, these bright young people with whom I’ve spent the last fourteen weeks. Somebody always remembers, or at least comes close, but I’ll say it too. “Chemistry is the study of matter. That was the first thing. And the last thing I want to say to you is this: You matter. I hope you’ll work and study hard and knock it out of the park next week in finals. But please remember that no exam score or grade could ever change the fact that you matter, and I’m so grateful we got to spend this semester together.”
As I think of my younger self leaning into the bittersweet, maybe this is part of what I was longing for, and maybe this is the answer I’m working toward and wanting to share with young readers in writing bittersweet books like How to Make a Memory and Half Moon Summer: That while loss and change are part of life, somehow we go on. We matter. And we can remember too.
Elaine Vickers is an award-winning author of picture books and middle grade and young adult novels. She grew up reading, running, and exploring in a small town in Utah. Several years and one PhD later, she found her way back to her hometown, where she spends her time writing, teaching college chemistry, and exploring with her family. Visit her at elainevickers.com or at @ElaineBVickers on social media.
I’m seriously near tearing up myself just reading this (it didn’t help when you mentioned “And So It Goes” and I started hearing it in my head.) The world is lucky to have you and your books in it, Elaine!