The summer before I entered seventh grade, my first year in middle school, I picked out an outfit for the first day of school. It was a dress. It was plaid. I planned to wear it with jelly sandals. I had bought it at a children’s clothing store called Denny’s, where I had stacked dozens of outfits in the crook of my elbow, plastic hangers clacking together, and tried on each one, alone, in the dressing room, while my mother waited on a rainbow bench outside. I hadn’t wanted her approval. When we got home, the dress hung with its fresh tags in the hallway closet, as if it had to be stored separate from the rest of my wardrobe so as not to be tainted.
My friends and I spent a lot of that sticky-hot summer in the coolness of my basement. We taught my pet hamster, Fribbles, how to hang by his feet from a #2 pencil. And we choreographed a dance to The Countours Do You Love Me? which we only knew because David Hasselhoff sang it on an episode of Baywatch.
One of my friends was my once-best-friend, a rising eighth grader who had brought over her now-best-friend, a freckled redhead who could really shake ’em down in ways I couldn’t. She liked me, which I couldn’t stand, because, even then, I knew it meant I wasn’t a threat to their friendship.
Somehow she and I ended up at the hallway closet together, where I fanned out the skirt of the dress, watching the dangling tag twirl around. “Something your mother bought you, right?” She rolled her eyes, sharing how mothers didn’t get these things, didn’t understand the way middle school worked, didn’t know that a first day of school outfit is something you buy in kindergarten, and how a dress, a dress!, was something you wore to a birthday party in the first grade.
“You’ll have to break it to her,” she told me. “It won’t be easy.”
I nodded along, letting the soft fabric fall from my fingers, and I shut the closet door, while she hummed Do you love me? in endless refrain.
When people ask me why I write middle grade novels, memories like this one land like a catch in my throat. They’re moments when everyone else seemed to understand something I couldn’t yet grasp. A change in the rules. A shift in direction that I had to be yanked towards. It won’t be easy, she had said. And it wasn’t.
My first novel, Just Under the Clouds, deals with a girl in the midst of big change, as her family seeks a permanent home. My newest novel for middle graders, A Swirl of Ocean, is about a more subtle shift. It’s about a girl named Summer who swallows ocean water and starts having dreams about a mysterious girl named Tink. A recluse neighbor whose pet turtles get loose around Summer’s beach town. And Summer’s search to understand them both, in the hopes that it will help her learn more about herself.
But, it’s also a book about change. Summer is watching as the woman who raised her falls in love with a new boyfriend. And Tink is in the middle of a once-carefree friendship that’s now falling apart. Both girls see the other people in their lives moving on and, both, try to understand how to fit into the new dynamic. They’re caught in between a childhood they want to hold on to and young adulthood they’re not yet sure how to navigate.
I think we all have jarring moments when we are unprepared for the shift. When we don’t understand the rules. I hope this book allows us all to circle around in the space between “what was” and “what’s next.”
Melissa Sarno is a regular contributor to The B&N Kids’ Blog. A Swirl of Ocean is on B&N bookshelves now.