Tween

Ruth Behar on Being Broken and Finding Strength

by the Brightly Editors

Photo credit: Gabriel Frye-Behar

Ruth Behar is the author of Lucky Broken Girl, a new middle grade novel about finding the inner and outer strength to move through life’s obstacles. At the center of Ruth’s semi-autobiographical novel is Ruthie, a tween girl from Cuba whose worries about learning a new language and settling into her family’s new home in New York City quickly become the least of her problems. When a car accident leaves her in a body cast, Ruthie must face being bedridden for months on end. As she works to heal, she learns invaluable lessons about self-awareness, forgiveness, and uncovering one’s resilience in the face of hardship. We were thrilled to chat with Ruth about writing her first book for kids, the ways in which her own life story informed the novel, and how being bilingual has shaped her journey.

Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind Ruthie and her accident? Were any characters based on real-life people?

Like Ruthie, I was in a car accident soon after we came from Cuba to New York and had to endure being in a body cast when I was ten, an experience that changed my life. All the raw emotions from that time — fear, despair, rage — found their way into the story. But Ruthie is also a fictional character. She is wise and sassy, deeply compassionate, and aware of her own suffering and that of others. The characters in Ruthie’s family, including Mami and Papi, brother Izzie, grandparents Baba and Zeide, Aunt Sylvia, Uncle Bill, and cousins Lily and Dennis, are also based on real-life people, but again they’ve been molded into fictional characters. Ruthie’s best friend, Danielle, is based on a real-life person too — she was named Dinah and was truly a wonderful friend from Belgium who showed great kindness when I was recovering, and her mother did really make delicious cream puffs. At the end of the story, I enjoyed giving Danielle special magical powers.

What was your favorite part of the writing process for Lucky Broken Girl, your first book for children?

This was a book I enjoyed writing from start to finish. It was especially fun to come up with the chapter titles. Most were lines from Ruthie’s thoughts and they’re a mix of sad and funny. One of my favorite titles is “they come to see the little piggy in the barn,” which evokes how horribly smelly Ruthie felt in the cast and how she was seen as a spectacle by those who came to visit her and offer their pity.

Although it may sound strange, I also have to say that the writing came alive for me when I wrote some of the most tragic stories in the book and found myself crying at my desk. That’s when I knew I was writing not simply with my head but with a heart that was finally healing.

Throughout her recovery, Ruthie finds herself saying “I can’t” whenever she’s expected to take the next step. What does Ruthie ultimately learn about inner and outer strength?

Each new step seems impossible to Ruthie because she’s lost control of her body. She has been immobile for a year; she has suffered the humiliation of needing her mother to bring her the bedpan. But she has survived thanks to a tutor who teaches her to find solace in books and a neighbor who shows her how to paint pictures in bed like Frida Kahlo. Ruthie becomes used to her immobility and solitude; she isn’t sure she wants to return to the world again and be subject to its many dangers. So she says “I can’t.” But as she confronts each obstacle on the path to rejoining the big wide world, she learns to have faith in herself and accept the help of people who want her to enjoy the beauty of dandelions and snow. Ruthie comes to trust her inner strength to overcome the worst of her fears and regain trust in her body.

Language — specifically, the comfort of Spanish — plays a big role in the story as Ruthie and her family begin to learn English and settle into their new home. What does language mean to you? How does it tie people together?

Language represents different senses of home for me. When I was growing up, Spanish was the language of my lost home in Cuba while English was the language of my adopted home in the United States. Spanish was the language of sweet lullabies and my mother’s sugar-crusted flan. English was the language of school, working hard to get good grades, and moving ahead.

As an adult woman, I’ve visited Cuba and I feel I’ve almost regained that lost home. In turn, English no longer feels adopted. I adore the cadences of English and feel I am fortunate to know a language that allows me to read Emily Dickinson’s poems. It is also a language that has become a lingua franca. I realize it is thanks to my parents’ decision to leave Cuba that I speak a language that opens doors to so many places in the world.

In the book, Ruthie is a Spanish speaker who struggles with English and is made to feel ashamed. But when she learns English well enough to become her mother’s translator at the grocery store, she comes to feel proud of being bilingual. I want children to feel that bilingual pride. I am hugely grateful to know Spanish and English, to always be flowing in and out of the rivers of those two marvelous languages and their intertwined history.

Ruthie becomes a voracious reader while bedridden and loves the Nancy Drew series. What books did you devour when you were her age?

I was very drawn to mysteries. Just as in Lucky Broken Girl, I read lots of Nancy Drew books. I loved Nancy Drew’s self-confidence and how smart she was. I read Sherlock Holmes stories and later discovered the tales of Edgar Allen Poe, which scared me but which I still enjoyed. The Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans was also a favorite of mine, possibly because the stories took place in Paris, which was intriguing to me because my friend Dinah (Danielle in the book) was from Brussels and adored French culture.

Other books I remember reading and enjoying from that time are Charlotte’s Web and Treasure Island. I also remember that a girl in our neighborhood got her hands on a copy of the 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl, by Helen Gurley Brown. I begged her to lend it to me. The book was covered in brown paper and I read it when no one was looking. My mother had told me about menstruation, showing me what a Kotex napkin looked like, but I was confused about what was supposed to happen one day in my own body. I was sure Helen Gurley Brown’s book would reveal the secrets of a woman’s body, but instead it confused me even more.

What do you hope readers will take away from following Ruthie’s journey?

I’d love for readers of all ages to take away the message of hope that is at the heart of Ruthie’s journey. All of us have wounds or losses we have suffered, but it is possible to heal and find beauty in life again after a period of sorrow and hibernation. For children who read Lucky Broken Girl, I’d love for them to come away with an understanding that we all have turning points in our lives when one door closes and another opens. We have to find the courage to step out and not be afraid to go on that journey of self-discovery.

Ruth Behar (www.ruthbehar.com) is an acclaimed author of adult fiction and nonfiction, and Lucky Broken Girl is her first book for young readers. She was born in Havana, Cuba, grew up in New York City, and has also lived and worked in Spain and Mexico. An anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, she is the author of An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba and Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys, among other travel books. Her honors include a MacArthur “Genius” Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Senior Fellowship, and a Distinguished Alumna Award from Wesleyan University. Much in demand as a public speaker, Ruth’s speaking engagements have taken her to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Finland, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Poland, England, the Netherlands, Japan, and New Zealand. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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