Here in the Real World; “Lucky” to be Raising an Artist

by | Dec 4, 2023

I confess that I often get choked up when reading novels for young readers. But reading Sara Pennypacker’s latest novel, “Here in the Real World,” was the first time I remember actually bursting into tears. 

Ware is an introvert. He knows that his parents wish he were “normal” and not so anti-social. But he just prefers being on the edges, observing, and he likes spending time alone. His mom believes he needs more “meaningful social interaction.”

Consequently, Ware is supposed to be spending his days at the local rec center. While trying to get away from the other kids, Ware discovers an empty lot next door. Not exactly empty; it has a partially demolished church. Ware did a research paper on medieval castles and their defenses, so the building looks to him like a castle.  While exploring, he meets Jolene, a fierce and determined neighborhood girl, who is growing papayas in the church’s backyard on the sly. Jolene is a magnificently developed character that readers will love.

It takes a while, but Jolene and Ware make a phenomenal team.

Then Uncle Cy comes to visit.

“[My mom] called me antisocial, like I have a disease,” [Ware confesses to his uncle Cy.] “Maybe she’s right. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.” 

Who can’t relate to this worry? 

When Ware says this to his Uncle Cy, Uncle Cy gives him the greatest gift ever. He listens. And then he reflects. And he tells Ware that 1) it sounds like Ware is describing the whole tribe of fellow artists, musicians, and writers that Cy, a filmmaker, hangs with. And 2) that Uncle Cy thought Ware was an artist even as a toddler, based on his reaction upon seeing the waves at the beach for the first time.

“It’s like this [Cy tells him]: artists see something that moves us, we need to take it in, make it part of ourselves. And then give it back to the world, translated, in a way the world can see it, too … Artists need solitude to do that. And quiet. By the way, you’ll have to fight for that — the world loves noise.”

A common image of an artist is someone with a demonstrable talent; perfect pitch or the ability to draw realistically, but Cy’s description of an artist is so much more inclusive. That could be powerful for a young reader. I know it was for me. 

Most importantly, Uncle Cy makes it clear he sees and understands Ware; that they are similar. The idea that an adult could do that, especially for a child who needed that so much, just broke me … in a good way! Hence the sobs.

When Ware’s mom comes home, his uncle Cy says to her, “turns out you’re raising an artist …. Know what that makes you?”

“What’s that make me Cyrus?” [she asks.]

Uncle Cy beamed. “Lucky.”

Although Uncle Cy is not in the story very much, he plays a pivotal role by reflecting back to Ware something beautiful and validating that Ware can’t see about himself. 

The reader sees Ware grow and change. He begins to insist his parents stop shielding him from everything worrisome. For example, in the beginning of the book Ware has been sent to stay with his grandmother, Big Deal (great nickname!), but his mom doesn’t tell Ware that Big Deal has diabetes. Ware’s mom doesn’t want Ware to worry about Big Deal, but it means Ware doesn’t realize that his grandmother might need a little help. So when Big Deal has a dizzy spell, falls and breaks both hips, and THEN he finds out about her diabetes, he is a hurt and mad.

If his mom had at least mentioned Big Deal’s condition to him, perhaps Ware could have been looking out a little bit for his grandmother. It’s partly understandable: his mom works at a crisis center and sees lots of sad, scary things. But Ware understands that his mom is good at fixing things when bad stuff happens. And he wants to do that too. 

“So stop trying to keep bad stuff from me and start teaching me how to fix it,” he tells her. 

I loved that Ware could figure this out and then ask his mom for the kind of parenting he needed. 

This is one of those books I checked out from the library and then loved it so much that I went and bought my own copy. I wonder if that will happen to you, as well?

Alexandra the Great book cover

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