Friday, March 9, 2012

Waiting for the Magic

A plot in a kid's novel often involves one or the other parent leaving. Like a salt solution in a chemistry lab into which more salt or a different molecule has been added, a new family equilibrium develops. At the end, no matter if the renegade parent returns or not, the family is changed just like that salt solution, and life continues on a different plane.

I thought about all the ways and reasons a parent can leave as I was writing my own young middle grade novel, about a boy whose dad left. How bad would I make the Dad? What is his problem? Will he return? How will my main character, a ten year-old boy, grieve and what role will humor play in the story? There were many questions.

When I came across Patricia Maclachlan's young middle grade novel Waiting for the Magic, I was  charmed by it. The humor involves four very funny and different dogs that the family acquires after Dad walks out. The observations of each dog are completely honest and are transmitted magically to the fictional family and the reader.

How does the author handle Dad's leaving? In a gentle way, appropriate for young readers. A college professor and frustrated writer, Dad left in order to find his voice, his magic, certain that he needed to be alone to create his art.

But Dad has a sense of duty and he returns when the protagonist, ten year-old William, calls and informs him that Mom is pregnant. We are shown through his actions, his cooking, his kindness to the kids and his wife, that he is not irrevocably flawed. The bottom line is that Dad is a good man who made a mistake. He will be forgiven.

But what I thought was useful for children in this story, was the idea that even as forgiveness is important, it takes some time. William's four year-old sister immediately jumps into Dad's arms when he shows up. William doesn't, and Maclachlan tells us his thoughts. "Papa looked at me, but didn't say anything. I could feel my face get hot. There was a big silence . . . " To punctuate this, a family dog growls. The dog's growls validate William's ambivalent feelings. It helps also that no one expects otherwise.  William has every right to be angry, after all, a ten year-old loves his family more than anything. A dad's leaving can have a profound impact. It is not a small thing.

A child reader will understand that William's anger at his father is OK. That Maclachlan validates kid's feelings, through story, makes this book not just entertaining, but important.


  1. Patricia MacLachlan portrays families and their unique struggles so well in stories. One of my favorites is SARAH, PLAIN, & TALL.

  2. What a great idea to explore medicine and health in children's and YA lit -- I've recently done some digging in this area and find little has been written about it. If I may make a suggestion, consider making your tags more specific. Tags for this post, for instance, could include the author's name, childbirth, pregnancy, forgiveness, parent separation, etc. This will make it easy for you to locate books with similar themes. Blogspot also has a widget called a tag cloud that will help you see the relative frequencies with which different topics are addressed in children's books.

    1. Yes! You are right. I have found the widget on Blogspot that you referred to. I would love to hear any other ideas that would make my blog more useful. Thanks.