“When we look at the young people around us, what do we really see?”
I was invisible when I was 12.
Only no one knew.
How could they? I sat at a desk in class and I took up space in study hall and I could catch a lacrosse ball during gym.
But I was invisible, just the same.
In middle school (or at any other age, really) it’s often difficult to tell if the person in front of you — the one you see clear as day — is, in fact, invisible.
In my new middle grade novel, The Way to Bea, Beatrix Lee enters seventh grade facing the loss of her friend group, including her best friend since kindergarten (referred to as S through most of the novel.) Up until this year, Bea had easily and effortlessly spent her days living the only way she knew how – with joyful exuberance and expression. She never hesitated to paint free verse poems across her bedroom walls or draw them in the air from her fingertip. She danced to music no one else could hear. And dove into water imagining what it would be like to fly with rainbow wings.
Then all these things that made Bea— Bea become the very things that her best friend now found “just too much” for 7th grade. And she is unceremoniously dumped. She covers the bright colors across her bedroom walls with thick, white paint. She hides behind big headphones that no longer play music. She doesn’t speak in class.
Her poems only allow themselves into the world as haiku, written in invisible ink and hidden away where no one will ever find them. Invisible ink is only revealed when someone lights a match beneath the page. And Bea is pretty sure there is no one out there with a light for her.
When we look at the young people around us, what do we really see? Maybe someone who is quiet and gets work done. Someone rambunctious and smiling. Or someone perfectly polite and careful. No matter what they may present on the outside, their inside turmoil can remain invisible. So, how do we help them feel seen?
Where can they find the light they need?
(I know you already know and it’s why we’re all here, but I’m going to say it, anyway.)
Stories are the light.
Because when you read things in a story you thought no one else understood, when you feel your own emotions expressed through someone else’s narrative, when you recognize your thoughts and your fears and your loves on the pages of a book—an undeniable light is cast upon your existence and you can’t be invisible, anymore. And right there, at that moment — that magical moment when you forget you’re even reading printed words on a page and they simply become images that stream directly into the movie theater of your mind, bringing into full color, all those hidden parts of yourself—that moment, right there— you feel — and you are — seen.
Give books out. Recommend them. Leave them somewhere obvious. Hide them somewhere surprising. Share widely and diversely. Give more and more kids more and more options and more and more ways to begin to figure out how they want to be in the world. And something amazing will start to happen. Not only will they feel seen, they will start absorbing the ability to see others.
The stories and books that make their way to Bea through the kind and capable hands of her favorite librarian, Mrs. Rodriguez give her new things to consider and the possibility of new friendships, new music, and new ways that open up in front of her. She begins to realize that not only does she have a light of her own. She can be someone who shines it for others.
These days, I’m easily seen. Online or at conferences, on panels or signing books. Often in a way too sparkly skirt and bright lipstick. You’d never know that I’m still mostly invisible. I just never had the stories I needed, growing up. But I’m working on it. One light at a time.