Nostalgia is a tricky word. A longing for the “good old days” can easily turn into sentimentality, to which I (and most tweeners) say yuck.
Yet it’s human to be wistful over the past, what we’ve left behind and will never have again. Waving goodbye is hard. Even kids, who dwell in the kingdom of now, experience nostalgia’s bittersweetness. I recently had a long discussion with my nieces, who are in fourth and seventh grades, about the film “Inside Out”. Though I loved it, I thought it might be something adults would appreciate more than kids. Duh! My nieces got its subleties and nuances, enjoying it both intellectually and emotionally (isn’t nine to thirteen a wonderful age?)
What moved them most is when Joy/Riley has to let go of her imaginary friend Bing Bong. Oh, they completely understood why. “She couldn’t go up the mountain with him. He had to stay behind.” But it was so sad. More than once, both girls said, But it was so sad! When he disappeared! I was crying. Poor, goofy, adorable Bing Bong represents all the fuzzy innocence and make-believe of their younger selves, all the toys, fantasies, and friends (real and imaginary) they’ve told goodbye.
Not that I’ve ever met a real life kid who said, Peter-Pan-style, “I won’t grow up.” Those same nices who wept over Bing Bong tell me they can’t wait to be allowed to watch PG-13 movies (all their friends already do, they claim). But that doesn’t make going forward easier or less complicated. I love Jerry Spinelli’s novel “Hokey Pokey”, a fantasy/allegory set in an autonomous childhood world: no grown-ups, no rules except those they make themselves, no tomorrow any different from today. Bikes rule! And yet one day Jack, their leader, wakes up feeling like something is wrong. That feeling grows stronger as something new and powerful tugs on him. Hokey Pokey’s games lose their luster, a girl who’s been his enemy begins to have appeal. What’s happening? His younger friends try to hold onto him, but there’s no stopping the inevitable. It’s a wonderful, poignant story about the excitement and confusion of growing up. As Jack leaves Hokey Pokey, knowing he can never go back, “He is thrilled. He is terrified. He wants to cheer. He wants to cry.”
In my “Moonpenny Island”, one of my favorite scenes is when Flor and her big sister are home by themselves during a black-out. Though Flor’s teenage sister never plays with her any more, tonight, in their shadowy, candlelit house, they play a make-believe game they invented years ago. It’s a bittersweet scene, and during it Flor startles herself by realizing that someday, she’ll be a teenager too. Will she still be the same Flor inside? Or will she become a stranger, the way her sister has? If only, she thinks, the electricity would never come back on. If only they could hover, suspended, in this in-between-time forever!
Even ten and eleven year olds know about Good Old Days. Poor Bing Bong! As he disappears in the distance, our hearts break, even as they beat a little faster for what’s to come. It’s confusing, it’s thrilling, and books can help kids sort it through.
Please share your own favorites!