Using Story to Begin Important Conversations: The New Middle Grade Fiction Book Reeni’s Turn
Editor’s Note: we love it when social workers write for our SSWN site, and when they write fiction, too. In this piece, we get both: retired social worker Carol Coven Grannick shares the background to how she created her new middle grade fiction book Reeni’s Turn. Do you have an idea for an article for SSWN? Send us your article ideas here: https://forms.gle/5Kaxtw6VMcP316Ws5
When I was young, there were no heroines that looked, felt, or acted like me. But it never occurred to me that anything was wrong with that. After all, I grew up believing my physical presence was not role-model material—fat, nerdy-looking, with then-unfashionable frizzy, curly hair, wing-tip glasses, and social anxiety. Why would I want ‘me’ as a role model? What seemed natural was to despair of my qualities and idealize the thinner, prettier, clearer-sighted heroines of my favorite books.
Luckily, I worked hard to get beyond that. And since my childhood, our culture has changed. But one area of diversity that has lagged behind in being considered an important issue in middle-grade literature, especially for fourth and fifth-grade readers, is body size diversity.
We know it’s essential for children in our professional and personal lives to experience diverse role models in life and in fiction, to see and experience themselves and others in all our rainbow differences, inside and out.
Given the high percentage of negative body talk, diet experimentation, and disordered eating in this population, it simply does not appear much in the literature.
I wanted to change that with REENI’S TURN, the story of a tween who takes a wrong turn as she urgently searches for courage, identity, and voice.
As a social worker, I spent decades working with women to find comfort with their bodies, food, and themselves as they gave up lifelong dieting and learned intuitive eating. And as a writer, I turned from clinical and scholarly writing to children’s literature in 1999.
My awareness of the dearth of body-positive middle-grade literature meshed with a pattern familiar to me from my practice. Many of my clients’ stories traced the beginning of negative body talk, dieting, and disordered eating to the onset of puberty. “Everyone seemed to be doing it,” described common memories. The negative talk/diet/binge cycle became foundational to thought and behavior, solidifying false perceptions of value, skill, and dreams for decades afterward.
Many of my clients’ stories traced the beginning of negative body talk, dieting, and disordered eating to the onset of puberty.
Over the first years I was learning, writing, revising, submitting, getting a few publications and plenty of rejections, a few middle-grade books appeared with positive models of chubby or fat characters or touched lightly on diets not solving problems. Several picture books and a good deal of young adult fiction began to provide positive fat characters and characters with eating disorders and address fat bias and bullying. In the last few years, several upper middle-grade stories addressed anorexia and the importance of body acceptance and the awareness that a diet does not solve the issues, part of the trend in middle-grade literature to address “big” issues.
Staying the Course
In my own writing work, I was often asked by editors and agents to make my character older. The book, they assured me, would “be an easier sell.” I resisted. It wasn’t easy to find a publisher. I received a lot of what I dubbed, ‘Beautiful But’ comments. “We love your writing, but we don’t think it will sell.” But I wasn’t about to give up. I passionately believed that younger children needed to see themselves in a book on this subject.
Over the years and through the many revisions, my character’s story became ever-clearer. Her story would:
· celebrate the quiet strengths and resilience of introverted and shy children;
· challenge the stereotypes surrounding fat characters; and
· explore the negative impact of the diet culture on young children.
In the context of life for 9-11 year olds, the story also includes other familiar tween issues such as changing family relationships, family faith issues, and some gentle #metoo attention.
But I wasn’t about to give up. I passionately believed that younger children needed to see themselves in a book on this subject.
A Story That Feels Real, Even When It’s Fiction
Reeni’s story and emotions are authentic even when the specifics of her life may not be. The story is filled with joy, passion for something bigger than herself, love, and longing, and those that pull in the opposite direction—fear, anxiety, anger, loss, and disappointment.
Easy-reading REENI’S TURN raises multiple areas for self-awareness, self-reflection, and problem-solving. With curriculum guides that will soon be available on my website, educators should feel comfortable using REENI’S TURN in the classroom curriculum, and reaching out to school social workers to complement work in the classroom and in individual or group sessions. Indeed, my first virtual school visit will include the school social worker at the event!
Heart of the Writer, Story & Reader
In my virtual visits and articles about REENI’S TURN, and the resilient writer’s journey that led to the publication, I speak about the heart of the story as the most significant challenge and joy of my journey. Just as I used memory to inform the depth of Reeni’s experience, my own journey as a writer, filled with twists, turns, and obstacles, informed the narrative arc of the story.
As a writer and social worker, I believe in the power of the story. I believe we are hard-wired to lean toward the story as a way to learn and heal.
And I believe stories enable us—children and adults alike—to more easily speak of those things that touch us deeply, move us to think and self-reflect, through the lives of the characters we meet in those stories.
Reeni’s emotions are familiar to tweens even though her story is not theirs.
Because of its ability to engage readers’ hearts, emotions, and experiences, REENI’S TURN enables meaningful conversations that extend beyond the specifics of the story and reach gently and safely into the lives and concerns of Reeni’s readers.
The story offers an opportunity for young middle-grade readers to feel seen, and to see themselves.
REENI’S TURN (Regal House Publishing/Fitzroy Books, September 2020) is the story of a tween who takes a wrong turn as she searches for courage, identity, and voice, and unfolds in the context of the impact of the diet culture on young children. Carol Coven Grannick is an author, poet, chronicler, and recently-retired social worker. Her children’s fiction and poetry appear in Highlights, Hello, Cricket, Ladybug, and Babybug, and her columns, articles, and guest blog posts regularly appear in a variety of print and online publications. Orders for REENI’S TURN, and requests for virtual school visits are handled through her website at: https://www.carolcovengrannick.com