Why Characters Who “Lose Their Way” Win My Heart by Michele Weber Hurwitz
My best friend in eighth grade announced one day that she had planned out her life. After college, she said, she’d have a successful career in marketing, marry either a doctor, lawyer, or dentist, have three kids, two dogs, lots of shoes, and a really nice house. I remember she turned to me and asked, “What about you?” I mumbled something along the lines of hoping to pass the algebra test that week, then went home and asked my mom what marketing was.
My friend was—and still is—a determined, strong-minded person. Resolute, dogged, doesn’t let any of life’s setbacks get in her way. While she was traveling along her planned path, ticking things off her list, I was, to put it mildly, stumbling. At times, careening. Not exactly sure where I was going or what I wanted, it took me a while to figure things out. (Sometimes, I still am.)
Although there were moments I looked at my friend’s smooth road and cursed my bumpy one, I realized something recently, and it has to do with a favorite quote taped above my writing desk:
“Sometimes losing our way is the best and most beautiful route home.”
A bumpy road can be viewed one of two ways: full of aggravating twists and turns, or filled with life lessons. And, if you voted for #2, there’s a bonus: the joy of the unexpected. With all due respect to my friend — who got everything, including a dentist — there’s something to be said for plans that don’t work out. In fact, I’ve learned that when you ‘lose your way’ and go down an entirely different path, although it may be frustrating at first, it often turns out to be a more gratifying journey, and perhaps, the one that was meant to be.
I read a lot of middle grade novels because that’s what I write. Hands down, the characters who win my heart—and stay with me long after I finish the last page—are those who lose their way. The ones who are beset with obstacles they never saw coming. The ones who struggle and fret and feel like they’re never going to be okay, then brush themselves off, get back up, and learn how to navigate the storm.
Characters like Auggie in The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, by Holly Schindler, who crumbles when she learns her dilapidated home might be condemned, then figures out a creative way to repair not only her house, but change her entire town’s idea of what is beautiful.
Or Delphine in Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven, who struggles to make sense of different adults’ conflicting perspectives of what it means to not grow up too fast.
And Zoe in Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, who dreams of playing a baby grand piano at Carnegie Hall but instead is given an organ. Her quirky family presents even more complications, but resilient Zoe is able to find perfection in the most imperfect situations.
The main characters in my two middle grade novels stumble and lose their way big time.
Calli, in Calli Be Gold, not only loses her way, she feels completely out of place as the untalented member of a super achieving family. But when she befriends a second grade boy with some issues and discovers what she’s good at (helping someone in need), she prompts her family to rethink what it means to achieve.
Nina, the protagonist in The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, is unsure of herself, confused, and somewhat adrift during the summer after middle school. Taking some advice from her eighth-grade history teacher, she decides to do 65 anonymous good things for her family and neighbors each day of the summer to find out if doing good does any good. Can her efforts change things? Maybe…except people react in ways Nina didn’t envision and life in her quiet cul-de-sac gets a little messed-up.
One of my favorite scenes is when a suspicious neighbor with an overactive imagination calls the police after a few of the good deeds, and Nina questions why she even started her project in the first place. Her journey over the summer definitely brings some unexpected twists and turns that she’s forced to navigate.
When I think about why I love books like this, I realize that it’s not only the satisfaction of seeing how these characters eventually work things out, it’s also that Calli and Nina, as well as Auggie, Delphine, and Zoe bring readers like me, and countless others, an important gift: the knowledge that we’re not alone. A connection. That others lose their way too.
When we witness how the characters adapt, overcome obstacles, change, and grow, this gives us the inspiration and hope that we can handle our own problems. If they’re okay in the end, then we will be too.
It’s probably no surprise that I love to walk. I find that it helps my writing immensely. Something about moving around outside loosens up my brain and allows me to think more clearly. For years, I’ve followed the same route in my neighborhood, but lately, I’ve started to turn on different streets. I never fail to see something new and interesting—a strange house, a mysterious garden, a unique-looking person. More often than not, this changes my day.
And always, the route back home is more beautiful.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books/Penguin Random House, April 2014), and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House 2011). She lives in a suburb of Chicago with her husband and three children. If she’s not writing or walking, she’s mostly likely eating chocolate. Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com and on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz
Be sure to check out Michele’s books: