I saw Inside Out with my 11-year-old daughter last week because I love Amy Poehler and I doubly love pixar films. That was my purpose for going, but what I ended up seeing was something entirely unexpected – a nuanced film with an emotionally fragile character that experienced real distress. I wept, and not just because my 14-year-old (who saw the movie with a friend) recently experienced the transition that the main character in the movie, Riley, experienced (only instead of becoming uprooted from her home and friends, my daughter was diagnosed with cancer at age 11).
So, yes, it pushed a lot of buttons for me in that respect, but I also wept because the newest 11-year-old in my life still has LOTS of Goofball Island left inside her head, and I’m really going to miss it when it goes away.
Not that it will ENTIRELY go away, but it won’t ever be the same. She was (of course) extremely embarrassed at my tears, but once I was able to pull myself together, I realized that it was a great opportunity to talk about some of the issues that the movie brought up: the biggest one being that it’s okay to let sad in. In fact, it’s disastrous not to. We’re still getting around to having that conversation…
As far as characters go, Riley was secondary to the movie’s true characters – the emotions in her head. But even so, the movie made me think about the kinds of books I was drawn to as a child (and the kinds of characters I aspire to create in my own books).
Many of the characters that I love in children’s literature are 11 or 12 years old. Charlie Bucket was 12. Harry Potter turns 11 in the first book, right before he’s whisked away to Hogwarts. Meg Murry is 13 at the start of A Wrinkle In Time, but her trauma happened when she was 11 (the disappearance of her father). Meg’s ultimate discovery in the book? Parents can’t fix everything.
The main characters in these books are sad. Their heartache is often extreme (Charlie Bucket is desperately poor). There is a chapter in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory titled, “The Family Begins to Starve.”
I have an early edition of Charlie and the Chocolate factory, carried with me through the years since I was a child, and one of the defining illustrations is the drawing of a very gaunt Charlie looking absolutely blissful as he smells the scent of chocolate coming from the factory.
This is one of my FAVORITE childhood books of all time, and it’s rife with sadness. It was hugely influential in my decision to create an 11-year-old protagonist. Everything changes when you turn 11. That’s no joke. But my first book also included a different character – a girl who was terribly, painfully lonely (my own experience of being 11.)
Loneliness, isolation, fear, pain — as parents, we try to shield our children from these emotions and experiences. When they are little, it’s somewhat easy to do. But eventually, our kids learn the truth. Sometimes it comes crashing down on them all at once – the tornado that rips their world apart (Dorothy’s age is never specified in The Wizard of Oz, but a reference in one of Baum’s sequels indicates she is about 11). And sometimes it starts as just a glimpse, some sort of deep disappointment, the pain a friend is experiencing, the hurt of a lost pet…and they begin to seek out stories that embrace the very things we’ve been trying to protect them from since BIRTH.
They do this….we do this…through books and movies. The stories of Charlie Bucket, Meg Murry, Harry Potter, Grace Woodward (my character in DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO) and my newest character, Zachary Daryl Lyon not only learn that parents can’t fix everything, they learn that it’s okay to let the sadness in. They learn that endings aren’t always happy. They learn forgiveness. They learn how to begin the healing process.
These are painful lessons and stories about characters who are in the midst of hardship are comforting. We go through so many of these traumas alone, living them inside our own minds and pretending we’re okay when we’re not. It’s just such an incredible RELIEF to connect with a character who is experiencing real pain. That’s the brilliance of Inside Out – to see for ourselves that hey, it’s not just me.