Just in time for summer, Lexie, Audrey Couloumbis’ latest novel (Jake, 2010, etc.) takes preteen readers to the beach as 10-year-old Lexie heads down the Jersey shore with her father for a week at their family’s beach house. Unbeknownst to Lexie, who’s traveling without her mother for the first time since her parents’ divorce, her father has invited his new “friend” Vicky and her sons, Harris, 3, and Ben, 14, to join them.
Read more books about kids dealing with divorce.
Lexie soon finds she must adapt to a vacation completely unlike what she’d imagined, negotiating the uncharted waters of a new, somewhat threatening family dynamic. Couloumbis excels in exploring familial stress in a manner that children can comprehend, and we were eager to speak with this Newbery Honor winner to learn why.
In the opening pages, Lexie’s mom says, “A big part of growing up is dealing with things we don’t like.” Many of your books tackle unsavory topics such as divorce head on. Why are you so drawn to them?
Oh, I love the sound of that—unsavory topics! I think probably because children often are being asked to step up to stuff that they haven’t been given any background for, but they certainly are being given lessons for life as they come along. It’s true that we have these experiences as adults as well, but we have reference points or resources that we can lean on sometimes, and we can go to the library and get books on the subject or second opinions medically. We have those things; kids don’t have that. And I do remember that experience as a kid, and I recall watching it in my kids, and I would see sometimes that kids were being criticized for something that you would look at them and go, How would you expect them to know that? Truly, there’s just that: how can we expect them to know much of what we expect them to deal with in far too adult a manner?
I guess that’s what intrigues me. Plunge a kid into one of those difficult situations and watch him work his way through it in a way we can all be proud of. And, ultimately, give a kid one of those reference points and just a sense of, you know, things may seem to be going terribly wrong right now, but probably it will work out. It’s certainly something I would have liked people to have done for me when I was a kid, and I’m trying to do it for my kids, but you can only be successful in that to such a point. Books make it way easier. [laughs] Writing a story, you can pretty much work it out before you get to the end.
…and they smiled at each other and said “Good night.”
Exactly. And tomorrow we’ll be having pancakes for breakfast, so buck up! Yeah, it really does help.
You portray conflicting emotions particularly well. Do you think that’s the trickiest uncontrollable reaction for kids to deal with?
Conflicting emotions are where you begin to find characters like Ben—where there will be real ambivalence about what they’re dealing with. I hope that I deal with conflicting emotions well in whatever I write because it seems to me that any experience of emotional value is going to have some of that; it’s going to have places where other people looking are probably going to make judgments. It’s going to have places where we have deep feelings, but we haven’t had the chance to really process them, so we react out of whatever immediate feeling comes out of it, or we’re reacting from whatever resource we’re drawing from, and it may still not be true to us.
What do you think children’s biggest fears are in relation to divorce?
I don’t know about children’s fears. Having been a child in that situation more than once, what you concern yourself with is you always feel pain for the parents—you feel pain for both of them. You feel torn. I think a lot of children are fearful that it’s their fault somehow. But I don’t know that I really thought that at the points I was dealing with it.
When my parents divorced, I was two, and I distinctly remember—you don’t think you have memories from then, but my first memories are parents arguing, and I have such a visual memory of standing in the storm door and watching my father walk away. I can see him with a line of the storm-door metal right below my eyes. You don’t think of kids remembering stuff like that, but it’s such a strong influence in so much that follows. I think a lot of kids blame themselves, or a lot internalize that in some way, and it becomes a very strong motivator for how you might behave in a situation later on.
I’m not against divorce necessarily; there are a lot of situations in which that’s really the best answer, but I still think that it’s hard on kids. Sometimes we have no idea how those early impressions will work out for us unless we do an awful lot of therapy.