A room full of risk takers
"What are you thinking?!?"
"Have you lost your mind?"
"I'm going to get hurt."
"What if you get it wrong?"
"What if I don't deserve it?"
"What would people think?"
"Why did you do that?"
"You're not good enough."
I asked an assembly of girls to bravely share the negative thoughts they have that hold them back. If I had given these fifth-through-eighth graders more time, I am pretty sure they would have kept going. But it was uncomfortable, and the point I was making was pretty clear rather quickly.
The battle for our kids begins in their minds. Like the thoughts I have that vie for my headspace to hold authority over me, for our girls especially, these thought processes bombard the pubescent, growing mind. In 2018, Time Magazine published an article called "How to Help Young Girls Keep Their Confidence During Puberty." In it, journalists Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley explore the confidence gap between boys and girls that takes place between ages 8 and 14.
"Rumination is something psychologists have long identified as a predominantly female habit–research shows it starts at a young age. At the critical moment of adolescence when girls are establishing who they are, a series of toxic thinking patterns can take hold. Some assume they know what everyone else is thinking, especially when it’s about them. Anything bad happening is automatically their fault, or at least that’s what they think other people think. For others, a set-in-stone attitude grabs ahold, so that anything that happens is immutable, fixed, permanent. A bad grade means they’re stupid. An unanswered text means their friends hate them."
While chatting with the room full of girls, I asked if they could relate to that passage from the article. Nearly every girl raised her hand. Hearing these precious girls share these private thoughts out loud, and boldly admit to their struggles in front of their peers was powerful. It fortified my resolve that I am right where I am supposed to be. What I attempted to do with my book, The Beautiful List, is create a very realistic but nonetheless fictional character to whom today's tween girls could relate. In the process, as protagonist Serah Reynolds tries to define beauty so she can understand if she's beautiful, readers also experience so many of the trials typical of this period in life. When adults reference middle school, we so often use the words "hard," "awful," and "awkward" when reflecting on it. And while puberty means some of that is inevitable, I also believe that it can be beautiful.
Today's kids—both boys and girls—need to hear that they can do hard things with hard work, and that while trying, they will fail. Parents are grappling to figure out how to walk them through painful experiences instead of coddle them. The book also has plenty of struggle about appearance, body changes, friendship drama, and family dynamics, often with humor wrapped in. It is a great conversation starter for moms and their daughters.
Serah asks herself a lot of questions like the ones the room full of tweens admitted to thinking. One she asks after experiencing a major struggle is: how will I ever be beautiful now? What I would tell her if she were real is "You are, were, and have always been beautiful and worthy." And that's the message I am sharing not only in the novel, but also in classrooms and book clubs. It's a universal message that we all need to both hear and ruminate on again and again.