jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

Read This: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy


Just now I was crying.

I finished reading a book. It was one of those books that makes you cry not just a chokey voice cry, but a real, honest to god, mouth open, runny nose, ugly cry. I was reading it hidden from my children in my bedroom, because they do not want me reading it. I was hiding because yesterday my nine-year-old son caught me reading in the driveway in the front seat of the car and he was so angry I think he actually considered hitting me.

We have been listening to this book on tape in the car as we drive. It is a children’s book, if you can believe that. When I got it out of the library, I also grabbed a hard copy just in case.

Just in case partway through the sixth and final disc I realized that this was going to be the most sad and moving book I will read (or listen to) for a long time.

The book is called Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt and it is one of the most exquisitely well-written books I have ever read, children’s or otherwise. I found it sort of snoring for about the first five minutes while it skipped along on the speakers in the back of the minivan, and now, six hours later, I binge-listen with my kids in the driveway and of course, hide in the bedroom alone to read ahead.

With the children we have discussed the fact that it is historical fiction. It is based on true facts, in a real place, Phippsburg, Maine. But the hatred, bigotry, and yes, love, is beautifully imagined.

It tells the story of an unlikely friendship between the questioning white son of the new minister in town and a truth-telling black daughter of Malaga Island, a real island that was a mixed-race community of former slaves and people who were seen as “feeble-minded” and standing in the way of progress by the mainlanders.

And the wonder of this book? No amount of beautiful friendship can change the ending, the burning of the homes, the people committed (wrongly) to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded, to the removal of bodies from the Malaga Island graveyard to be thrown into mass graves on the mainland. This ending is immutable, unchanging. Because it is what happened. The state of Maine apologized 100 years later, and the island still stands mostly deserted. It’s an invented friendship but a real tragedy. And my kids (ages 9, 7, 7 and 6) get it.

The book dabbles in deacons of the congregational church and Darwinism, deep-seated racism and in innocence. I have had to explain what a pulpit is and what an insane asylum is. We have discussed the metaphorical meaning of ash, snow, and the eyes of a whale (which I now know, having read ahead, but which they are eagerly awaiting.)

It is written in a voice that is very Mark Twain meets Prairie Home Companion, but with sweeping metaphors that could rival All the Light We Cannot See.

What does it mean to be an upstander? Does it matter if you stand up for good but still fail? Can people change? Can a child make a difference? Can love?

This book has made me want to be a much better writer and really, honestly, to never write again. It reminded me that something tragically sad can be made even more moving when told simply, lyrically, with a light and loving hand.

And also, that we are on this journey together (and in this age of horrible politics, them vs. us, and “ideological tests”, perhaps this is the most important lesson.)

I have no idea if my kids will remember this book. Or how I cried during Peter Pan, or Bridge to Terabithia or The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (actually they talk about that Edward Tulane all the time.) And I certainly hope they will remember the voices of people whose minds or bodies work differently from their own from the books Rain Reign, Wonder and Out of My Mind.

And I know they learned about social justice, hunger and homelessness while reading How to Steal a Dog and Crenshaw because this summer they made friends with kids who worry about their electricity going off and whether or not they’ll get to the food pantry in time to have food this week, and my kids were far calmer and more sensitive than many adults would have managed. Regular kids rely on the food pantry, need wheelchairs, make friends across class lines or gender or race and can be heros. We all can. Literature has told them this (as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Virgil’s Aeneid had told Turner Buckminster.)

People are people. We’re young and old, boys and girls, black and white, rich and poor. And yet we’re living beings, all interconnected, (spoiler alert) like the whale and his gazing eye if only we really see each other, and we can all be bigger, greater entities, we can strive to do right, we can stand up for one another, embrace the intricacy of this amazing world, get messy, live life fully.

Give yourself a treat, read something. Make it even treatier and read it to or with your children or someone else you love. And if you don’t know where to start, and if you’re willing to walk your kids through some difficult stuff (that they will deal with way better than you, trust me) begin with Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.

Even if you just hide in your bedroom or the bathroom or the front seat of your minivan in the driveway to read it to yourself. Let me give this gift to you from my seat here at my sloppy desk. My kids will tell you, I just can’t stop talking about it.

It reminded me yet again that we can be bigger and bolder than a handful of loud, pompous, ignorant men who will try to tell us who is worthy of being our neighbor, our friend. Or at least that it’s far nobler to have tried.


Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Share it with someone you love. I did.

The world turns and the world spins, the tide runs in and the tide runs out, and there is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

3 comments on “Read This: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

  1. Pingback: Labor Day Weekend, Where Did it Go? | jen groeber: mama art

  2. Dawn Quyle Landau
    September 18, 2016

    And now I’m on my way to the book store… Because I love to cry. xoxox

  3. lafriday
    September 22, 2016

    I clearly have been in a work fog and have missed your latest missives. I will order the book today as the last real bookstore in my small town has closed (how can this happen?). I still give my grown daughter (now 26!) a new picture book every Christmas that she insists I read to her as she nestles beside me, her nearly six-foot frame becoming small so she can properly entwine. Alas, her biannual visits aren’t long enough for a “chapter” book, but I love a good cry and the magic and eloquence of a well-written “children’s” book.

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