Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The New Kid in Town

Not that this is a News Flash or anything, but one large subgenre of middle grade and young adult fiction is the New Kid story. A few classics are Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright and Skellig by David Almond. Both of these focus on moving into a new home, taking very different approaches.

New Kid stories from the last few years seem more concerned with the emotional toll of moving and trying to fit in. Some great examples include Zen and the Art of Faking It by Jordan Sonneblick, The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman, and Bluefish by Pat Schmatz.

 As a writer, I immediately see the appeal of the New Kid subgenre, particularly when writing in the first person. All of that pesky scene setting and explanation that needs to come at the beginning of a story has a reason for being, since the narrator is seeing the new school, new home, new neighborhood for the first time.

Jordan Sonnenblick nails it in the opening lines of Zen:

“Have you ever switched schools? I have, and let me tell you—a school is a school is a school. Every middle school on God’s green earth smells exactly the same, because damp lockers, industrial cleaning fluids, and puke are universal.”

Right away we know the setting. Right away we know that our narrator is smart and  funny. And right away, we can smell the school. Not bad for three sentences.

Not having moved during childhood, I’ve never had much insight into the emotional side of moving. But now, as my kids adjust to being New Kids in their home, neighborhood, and soon-to-be middle school, I’m reading these stories more closely.

Again, Sonnenblick uses a few strokes to nail the feeling of being new—and hoping to remain under the radar—describing San Lee’s first day, first class at Harrisonville Middle School in Pennsylvania:

“I…hovered by the door until I could see which seats would be empty, and then eased my way along the wall and into a chair just as the teacher started clearing his throat to get the class quiet.”

When done well, as in Zen and the Art of Faking It, New Kid stories get at the heart of what it’s like to walk alone, to sit in the lunchroom at “the leper table,” and to have the other, more settled kids look through you, as if to say, “This new person does not matter in my little Pennsylvania world.

Writers like Sonnenblick reveal the harsh and the tender sides of moving. They draw us all into the New Kid experience by reminding us of what’s universal: the urge to fit in and the particular odor of “damp lockers, industrial cleaning fluids, and puke.”

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