Thirteen Proves Lucky for this YA Writer
Meet Budge Wilson, winner of the CLA Young Adult Book Award for The Leaving, and a few of her "characters " in this thoughtful look at writing for teenagers.
A scorpion, said Katie, "is a small poisonous creature that sits around looking innocent and then springs at you when you're not expecting it." "Does it sting or bite?" asked Daniel, gnawing his nails. "It can kill you, " said Katie.
Katie Collicut is but one of the strong adolescent characters created by Maritime author Budge Wilson. In addition to her popular "Blue Harbour" series, enjoyed by elementary school children across the country, Wilson has ventured most successfully into writing for a young adult audience, proving that "thirteen" doesn't always herald unfortunate circumstances.
Breakdown explores the experience of thirteen-year-old Katie Collicut as she and her brothers face a challenge to family unity and a routine life-style when Mr. Collicut suffers a nervous breakdown. In Thirteen Never Changes we find Lorinda of the "Blue Harbour" series reaching adolescence and sharing through the reading of her grandmother's diaries the trials, joys and secrets of a thirteen-year-old in wartime Halifax.
Most recently, Wilson has been awarded the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award for The Leaving. Wilson says she was surprised to receive this particular honour, as she had originally intended this collection of short stories for an adult audience. This award offered a timely opportunity for Wilson, who usually reads her work only once after publication, to "take another look" and recognize that there is much in The Leaving to appeal to the romantic, rebellious nature of the adolescent.
When giving a reading for junior and senior high school audiences, Wilson frequently uses material from The Leaving, which never fails to generate an enthusiastic response. However, do not be tempted to dismiss this work as saccharine manna to a tortured adolescent soul. The Leaving offers continual evidence of Wilson's uncanny insight into the varied relationships, private triumphs and hidden insecurities that constitute the human condition.
Certainly Wilson's background--an undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy coupled with her experience teaching school and working at the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto--has made her sensitive to the essence of the adolescent. When school audiences ask Wilson where her ideas for stories originate, she confesses to being an unashamed "people watcher" and eavesdropper. So intent is Wilson in her people watching that on a least one occasion she has had to be admonished by her husband Allan to "stop staring."
Wilson maintains that adolescents are among the most interesting audiences to write for and about, and has never been tempted to bury the family responsibilities of her characters beneath a social splatter of slumber parties and some milder forms of peer pressure. Lorinda's life in Blue Harbour, while secure and basically happy, is far from utopian. Seasonal unemployment, illness and financial restraint are simply facts of life for Lorinda. In Thirteen Never Changes Lorinda learns about compassion, both in her own life and in the past, as the Dauphinees cope with the death of a grandmother.
In Breakdown, Wilson introduces her readers to the obstacles a family must overcome when confronted with emotional illness: blame, helplessness, anger and social stigma. Breakdown nicely clarifies what exactly a "nervous breakdown" is and is not. Such clarification is necessary to reassure the reader who may be wondering, "Is my father or mother having a nervous breakdown?" "Am l?"
Do our children worry about such issues as emotional and mental health? An unspoken answer to this question is the undeniable popularity of Breakdown.
At school readings where her books are available for purchase, Wilson reports Breakdown to be the number one seller. The March 1991 issue of Emergency Librarian lists Breakdown among the best sellers for junior/senior high school readers three years after its publication.
To ensure that Breakdown be as accurate as possible, Wilson consulted both a clinical psychologist and an acquaintance whose husband had suffered a nervous breakdown. While one of Wilson's predominant concerns was that Breakdown contain nothing to alarm a reader, she does not believe that young people should be sheltered from the reality of emotional disturbance.
In "My Cousin Clarette" in The Leaving, a narrative which finds Victoria, a naive small-town girl receiving a visit from her worldly cousin Clarette, Victoria might have been spared much unhappiness and insecurity had she been advised of Clarette's unstable emotional condition. However difficult her experience, Victoria undoubtedly matured as a result of Clarette's sojourn.
When questioned if today's generation of adolescents devoted to the "New Kids" and designer sportswear may experience difficulty relating to such resilient teens as Katie, Lorinda and Victoria, Wilson says "certainly not." The writer contends that young people all have the capacity to function with incredible conviction under adverse circumstances. The demands made on Katie during her father's illness are actually the well from which she draws her strength. In much the same way, strong-willed, outspoken Lorinda relies on young James' calm, steady manner as her backfall in a crisis.
Wilson's insight into family dynamics is reflected not only in incidents between siblings but also in parent/ child interaction. The Leaving has a host of such stories of relationships in various stages of conflict. Wilson confides that the stories in The Leaving are actually arranged in a sequence that prevents the reader from encountering two "bad mothers" or "bad fathers" in succession.
Mothers receive particular attention in Wilson's work, being alternately loved, hated, trusted, resented--an accurate representation of the ambivalence of adolescents towards parents. Wilson's relationship with her own mother was a fairly good one, although Wilson remembers being encouraged by her mother to repress emotion and expression--a practice considered by the author to be most unhealthy. "Rebellion should be expected and often accepted during adolescence by one's family and peers," says Wilson.
Wilson has an interesting theory regarding the expression of emotional response. In our youth we yearn to respond to situations in what Wilson terms "primary colours" of emotion-- intense surges of rage at injustice, anger and jealousy. An element of the maturing process--if one is to be admitted to adult society--is learning to diffuse these primary colours into less concentrated shades.
Diverse circumstances lead Wilson's characters, including Katie and Lorinda, through this muting process to a more tempered perspective of understanding, self-realization and acceptance. (It must be admitted that Wilson says she must still stifle the urge to respond in primary colours! This is one of the things that makes her feel connected to children.)
Where can adolescents turn to express these primary colours? Privacy is extremely important to young people, and making a diary is an ideal outlet for their feelings. Many of Wilson's characters keep a diary, and several works are penned almost entirely in diary form. Wilson explains that using this form allows her to write in the first person, a voice she prefers.
Does Budge Wilson keep a diary? The answer is--not surprisingly-- yes. While currently Wilson keeps only a calendar type diary (appointments, deadlines etc.), in her youth she kept numerous diaries, not unlike the "Jimmy books" of Emily of New Moon.
Wilson made a pact with herself not to open the diaries until her fortieth birthday, but at the sophisticated age of nineteen she reread the entries with such embarrassment that she burned the offending volumes--a hasty action soon regretted. This is an anecdote Wilson makes a point to share with her school audiences, in the hope that they will avoid her own folly and above all "keep on writing."
As librarians, teachers, parents and other consumers of Canadian children's literature we can only hope Budge Wilson will do the same and keep on writing. We look forward to the further adventures of Lorinda in Lorinda's Diary (Stoddart) and an upcoming story woven around the Persian Gulf crisis entitled Oliver's Wars.
In "The Metaphor," the first story in The Leaving, we meet Miss Hancock, a flamboyant English teacher who introduces her reluctant students to a "whole new world of composition" in the art of the metaphor: "My little brother George is a whirling top," "my dad is a warm wood stove," "my mother is a flawless modern building."
In keeping with Miss Hancock's teaching: Budge Wilson is a library that offers a wealth of emotion and life experience in book form. Wilson's library is one of which we can all be members. All we need do is open one of her books.
Mary Jane Parsons is now completing her Masters of Library and Information Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Books by Budge Wilson
Going Bananas. Scholastic-TAB, 1989. Illustrations by Graham Pilsworth. Available in French translation as ça suffit, les singeries! Scholastic-TAB, 1989.
A House Far from Home. Scholastic-TAB, 1986.
The Leaving: Stories. Anansi, 1990. Distributed by General Publishing.
Lorinda's Diary. General Paperback, 1991.
Madame Belzile and Ramsay Hitherton-Hobbs. Illustrations by Etta Moffatt. Nimbus, 1990.
Mr. John Bertrand Nijinsby and Charlie. Illustrations by Terry Roscoe Boucher. Nimbus, 1986.
Mystery Lights at Blue Harbour. Scholastic-TAB, 1987.
Thirteen Never Changes. Scholastic-TAB, 1989.
The Worst Christmas Present Ever. Scholastic-TAB, 1984.
1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995
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