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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Out of the Box Birthday: Turning Tween

"It's my golden birthday, but I don't say much about that. Because I'm turning twelve on April 12 and it's supposed to be super-extra lucky. If I mention it now, I'll jinx it for sure."
--Ruby Tabeata, The Beat on Ruby's Street

My favorite birthday party for my son happened when he was five years old. I hired a friend-of-a-friend who was also an actor to dress up as Dracula and tell ghost stories in the basement. None of my son’s friends cried or got scared, but I think everyone had fun pretending to be. We sang songs, played a few games, and wrapped things up with a Bride of Frankenstein cake.

Tween birthdays, on the other hand, don’t feel nearly as easy. When I first started writing The Beat on Ruby’s Street, my friend Susan (the book’s first editor) suggested writing for middle school kids. “Ten and eleven year olds are starting to be young adults, but they’re not into sexual situations or romance and in a way, that makes them a lot more interesting to write for,” she said. I agree.

Maybe it’s because they’re starting to understand the world and be interested in the depth and breadth of it—unlike what happens a lot in adolescence when kids start focusing (almost solely sometimes) on themselves. Because when it comes down to it, I prefer focusing outward instead of getting fixated on my own obsessions. And trust me--I have a lot of them.

But what does that mean for birthdays? Bar and BatMitzvah and Confirmation ceremonies for Jews and Catholics mark rite of passage times for teens; but other sorts of passages happen much earlier. What does that mean for a ten or eleven year old's birthday?

The fallback idea is going out to a restaurant with a few friends or opening up your home for a pizza party.  My lead character Ruby’s birthday started out badly and changed only when she managed to get herself to a poetry reading with all her Beat-hero poets. Her story makes me think about what the perfect birthday for a tween might be, and I still don’t know the answer. 

While celebrating with friends in some way or other is great, what if friends are in short supply? Kids that move to new communities or struggle with social skills might not have a lot of friendly faces around them. If that’s the case, a family day at the theater or an art show or concert would work. I also think a service project involving the family might be an interesting idea. At least, it doesn’t depend on outside sources to make it happen.

The more I think about this, the more I like it, because it allows for a little more latitude than most “in the box” birthday celebrations provide. If there’s a way to help someone (like an older adult in your neighborhood or a food shelf) during some part of the day, I think it’s worth exploring. Not so much because you need to help others, but because people in vulnerable situations can teach us a lot about ourselves, often in gentle and witty ways.

So if you’re starting to think about what to do for your tween’s birthday, I’d love to hear what you decide? If you’re a tween—even better! Any ideas you have would be welcome.

Face photo: Dustin Moore
Young girl: Christina Welsh