The alphabet and anxiety

Today’s myth: elementary school kids don’t worry. More accurately stated: they have no real problems to worry about. They just slog across the snowy playground in boots thinking about how to escape carrots at dinner and negotiate extra TV time.

In my books, kids worry. They worry about grades, about their parents’ problems, about their friends’ problems, about their electricity being cut off, about whether their moms might start drinking again.

In my life, my child worries. My eight-year-old wants to know what will happen to Nana when she dies. She wants to know who started the divorce. Mom? Dad? She wonders if kids in war zones can drink milk. She’s scared her friends in Mankato will forget about her. She wonders if her older, pregnant sister will stop playing with her once the baby is born. She’s sad she doesn’t see her stepbrother, who lives in Seattle. She wants to know why that guy shot Martin Luther King and will someone shoot President Obama?

Her friend worries about her brother, who’s a cancer survivor with lingering health problems.

Another friend, a first grader, wonders if Mom will marry the nutty guy, the one who makes Mom cry.

Another friend wonders whether she’ll live with Mom next year, or will it be Dad?

A child in my family wonders if she’ll have to sleep on the couch when she visits Dad, because the couch smells like cat pee and she found mouse turds under the cushion.

We know a kid who no longer wants to visit Dad and his new wife because there are too many whisky bottles on the table.

Last year, my daughter’s classmate died during heart surgery a few days before school ended. The first-graders wanted to know if they needed heart surgery, too, and would they die? Why do kids die?

We know a child who’s afraid to eat grapes because a girl in the neighborhood choked to death on a grape.

I don’t want my books to be filled with despair. Despite these terrible things, kids still laugh and eat cookies and build snow forts and tie ribbons on their bikes and love silly hair day at school.

I want my books to be real. And funny. Because life is the strangest mix of joy and heartbreak, a mix of anxiety and silliness.

Kids know that. They know so much.

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