We began a virtual “conversation” over a month ago—a conversation that included books like Cool Water and artist Charlie Mackesy’s beautiful The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse; the idea being that we’re living in times that are so fraught and so anxiogenic that we really are seeking ways to find peace, to find each other and to manage this version of life in a pandemic in healthy ways.
Maybe it was in anticipation of days like these, or because my own, very personal trajectory brought me there ahead of the pandemic, but a couple of months ago after reading a review of it, I decided to get hold of the novel Here in the Real World (2020) by Sara Pennypacker. It’s a children’s novel, but after reading the review, it seemed to me that it had everything I most wanted in a book—particularly at this juncture. Its target reader is an 8 to 12 year-old, but I went with my instincts and am so pleased that I did.
Sara Pennypacker is a prolific writer of children’s books—her most celebrated is probably PAX, and Here in the Real World is her most recent title. Every night, for the few days it took me to read the novel, all warm under my comforter, I entered the space I was searching for. We DO find these spaces in literature of every type, but in books for younger readers, it’s as though writers allow themselves to go straight to the truth of things; not shying away from sprinklings of idealism; simplifying the world they’re creating by removing a lot of the noise and distraction of the adult world; and filling their stories with inventive expressions of love.
The feelings we had when we were children never left us, did they? And even in the simplest stories we read or that were read to us, we understood the injustice of a situation; the terror of being lost; the warm, enveloping feeling of being loved; the sadness of loss; the pain of our own inadequacies; the joy in silliness and whimsy; the cruelty of people; the randomness of fortune.
Stories for younger readers tend to go straight to the heart of the matter. Here in the Real World is the story of a boy named Ware, an only child on the cusp of adolescence. He is eleven-and-three-quarter-years-old by the novel’s end. Ware is a quiet and introverted boy who, despite being an excellent student, finds life at school challenging, especially outside of the classroom.
It’s the beginning of summer in Florida, Ware’s home state. His parents have a very specific plan: they will both work double shifts all summer, leaving themselves barely enough time to sleep, in an effort to pay off their mortgage and finally, finally own their own house and home. For this plan to work, Ware is to spend his summer vacation with his maternal grandmother, referred to only as Big Deal in the book. She lives nearby, in a comfortable retirement complex called Sunset Palms, which features a terrific outdoor pool and, even more precious to Ware, the possibility of long hours by himself—hours during which to escape into the world of Knights and heroism that he reads about, draws and dreams of. Ware has even written his own chivalric code of honour, kindness and courage, which is of course top secret.
Things go terribly awry. Right at the beginning of summer vacation, Big Deal suffers a fall and fractures both of her hips. She will need hip replacement surgery. Thus are all of Ware’s plans for a carefree summer by her side ruined. Concerned by their son’s “eccentricity” and his loner status, Ware’s parents’ Plan B is to enrol him in the Summer Rec Program at the local community center. As Ware understands it, they are attempting to provide him with “Meaningful Social Interaction”, which in fact, translates in his mind to a summer of torment, senseless group activities and baking in the heat.
After a couple of days of this, Ware seizes his chance and slips out of the community center grounds, winding up in an abandoned fenced lot next door. There, he finds the ruins of a former evangelical church with damaged, half-destroyed walls and bricks, old boxes and random objects strewn all over. But far more interesting is the girl he sees there, who is hovering over what looks like a tin can garden. Her name is Jolene. Hidden behind sunglasses most of the time, and skinny in a worrying way, she is, in fact, tending 114 papaya plants that are sprouting in ChipNutz cans.
For the rest of the summer, Ware will make his way to the door of the Community Center every weekday, then slip away to the lot next door, unknown to everyone except Jolene, and eventually, to a 14 year-old girl named Ashley.
In this enclosed, derelict space, Sara Pennypacker works her magic. What Ware sees in this space and its ruins are the makings of a medieval castle. What Jolene sees is a far more pragmatic opportunity to grow papayas that she will be able to sell.
Ware and Jolene are as different as breastplates and Chipnutz cans. He has a home, two loving parents, a beloved grandmother and the heart of a paladin. Abandoned by her mother, Jolene has been taken in by Mrs. Stavros, who runs a small grocery store. Jolene’s second guardian angel is Walter, who owns the Grotto Bar (it is he who supplies Jolene with her much-needed cans). She knows the cruelty of the world and the value of self-reliance.
One day, Ware finds an old box among the detritus of the broken-down chapel. In it is a folder with a question on its cover: ARE YOU LEADING A PURPOSE-FILLED LIFE? What a question, thinks Ware. He is shaken, transformed by this question. Yet, while he searches for an answer to it, HIS answer, he is constantly bumping up against Jolene’s world-weary realism. As Ware strives to live up to the code of chivalry, he is challenged almost daily in his negotiations with Jolene:
“ ‘There you go again [she said], Magic Fairness Land!’—and walked away from him.”
“Is this Magic Fairness Land??? […] Nope, darn. Still here in the real world.”
As Ware learns more and more about Jolene’s world while helping her with her papaya plants, the two undertake a project to transform the ruined church into a Knight’s castle, with repaired walls, inner chambers, a drawbridge and a moat. The days pass. Both of their projects continue to progress. They are visited one day by Ashley, who knows that the chapel grounds are under the migratory path of hundreds and hundreds of cranes every summer. She is concerned that these birds will confuse the shimmering asphalt surfaces (that are constantly spreading in man-made environments) with water, and injure themselves trying to land on them.
Mid-way into the story, Ware’s beloved uncle Cyrus, his mum’s brother—a documentary filmmaker with whom Ware has always felt an affinity—gives an old video camera to Ware after showing him how to use it. Ware proceeds to visually document everything going on at the chapel lot.
And then, of course, the “real”, adult world manifests its presence. Ashley learns, through her father who is a city councillor, that the chapel lot has been sold to developers who want to use the land to build a shopping mall. She is fearful for the fate of the cranes. Jolene is devastated. When it seems that all of her plans for her garden and her future are ruined, she spits these words at Ware:
“Nothing. […] Nothing. Good. Ever. That’s the way the real world is. You get that now?.”
It becomes clearer and clearer to Ware which of the requirements of knighthood on his list are the most important. In a passionate conversation with his mother, he explains:
. “I am a person leading a purpose-driven life.”
“A purpose-driven life?”
“A purpose-driven life. And the purpose driving it is unfairness. “ Thou shalt do battle against unfairness whenever faced with it—number nine. Thou shalt be always the champion of the Right and the Good, against Injustice—number seven. “Unfairness. Injustice. I want to fix it […].”
Of course, the forces of the adult world are unstoppable. And yet, all is not for nought.
Ware’s video recordings have produced enough footage for a documentary film which is 6 minutes and 3 seconds long. It is filled with papayas and cranes and other living creatures; with a castle and with chivalry. And it carries a message of transcendence.
* * *
Shortly after finishing Here in the Real World, I fell upon an essay by Ann Patchett titled “Ann Patchett on Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now (March 30, 2020), which I was drawn to instantly.
In her piece (following the passionate recommendation of a fellow author), Patchett explains how her discovery of the works of “children’s” author Kate Di Camillo changed her life. She is quite serious about this:
“I didn’t have Kate Di Camillo’s email address but I was pretty sure I could find her, except that I didn’t want to find her. I had never read any of her work. I don’t have children and frankly it never occurred to me to read middle-grade novels. I was a jerk. Instead of going to look for the author, I went to Parnassus to look for the book.
That night I read “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” and, well, it changed my life. I couldn’t remember when I had read such a perfect novel. I didn’t care what age it was written for. The book defied categorization. I felt as if I had just stepped through a magic portal, and all I had to do to pass through was believe that I wasn’t too big to fit. This beautiful world had been available to me all along but I had never bothered to pick up the keys to the kingdom.”
What praise! I was doubtful that ANY book could live up to it, but then again, I had just emerged from a lovely “middle-grade” novel and been spellbound, and I was still very much longing to return to a space of endless possibility and hopefulness. So I picked up a copy of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and just like Ann Patchett, I read it in an evening. And found that it IS a lovely book.
It is the story of a china rabbit and the child of wealth who loves him, whose named is Abilene. It’s about how they are separated during an ocean crossing, when Edward falls to the bottom of the sea. It’s about Edward’s rescue by an old sailor named Lawrence, and his new life with the latter’s wife, Nellie, who takes him into her heart like she would a small child. And about how Edward is renamed Susanna. And loved. And cared for. And then betrayed by a woman named Lolly. And thrown in a garbage heap. And found again by a hobo named Bull and his dog Lucy, who live rough. And renamed Malone. And lost to a boy named Bryce, who lives even rougher, and who suffers like an adult at the hands of his broken father, and cares for his dying younger sister, Sarah Ruth, who renames the rabbit Jangles.
And with every stop along the way, Edward—who was as hollow and unfeeling as the materials he was made of—learns something about kindness, attachment and the substance of life: love, pain, suffering, joy and redemption.
Each step along Edward’s journey felt like entering a tiny portrait, or a framed daguerreotype. Each containing a world and a lifetime. It was a haunting experience.
Later in her piece, Patchett writes:
“And so I started to read more of Kate’s books, until in the end I had read every single one of them. There are a lot, but most have pictures. It was one of the most satisfying literary adventures of my life. It was also incredibly calming, which is why I mention it now. There’s something about being able to read an entire book in one sitting that’s emotionally very satisfying. Not only are the books beautifully written, the stories have gorgeous arcs. They twist in ways you never see coming and do not shy away from despair or joy or strangeness. They are, each one, sui generis, each one extraordinary.
So maybe you don’t have children, or they’re not small or not in the house. It doesn’t matter. Read them anyway. Maybe you do have children and you can read these books together as a family. My point is this: Don’t miss out. Do not make the mistake I nearly made and fail to read them because you are under the misconception that they are not for you. They are for you.”
And so, I say to you: allow yourself to be calmed, and enchanted. Such books are for you.